George Wald

George Wald

      When I was at UMass Amherst in 1979, I worked with George Wald's daughter Debbie, doing anti-racist organizing; that fall she brought some of us to her house off Brattle Street in Cambridge, when the New England Women's Studies Association conference was in town. I ended up living there on and off between the end of college and when I moved to New York in 1984; it's difficult for me to imagine now what the shape of my life might have been if I had not had the great good fortune of walking through that door when I was eighteen years old.

     I met Debbie's mother Ruth Hubbard (more on her soon) that first evening; but I think it was in Woods Hole that I first met her father George, sunning in the back yard. Dressed, he wore a pendant with the face of the sun on it, and I always thought it looked like him. I remember how he wore sarongs in Woods Hole and walked to his study after breakfast, after lunch, after dinner; I remember him yelling at the newspapers, in Woods Hole and in Cambridge, and talking about consciousness, and secular Ruth would roll her eyes. I remember their big rambly house full of books and political posters, travelers and music and images of gods, scatterings of shells and stones, George furious yelling to his baffled deaf refugee mother-in-law The Israelis are the neue Nazis when the 1982 newspapers telling about Sabra and Shatila arrived—or sitting at the kitchen table with his morning toast saying Gee, we're almost out of butter, or Gee, what a beautiful day.  The last time I saw him was in November, two years before he died, walking with Ruth toward the river, as they used to every morning; he was very frail, grinning and squinting into the sun, leaning on Ruth's arm.

     They were going to hold the memorial by the rhinoceroses outside the Harvard Bio labs, but the weather was too raw and wet, so it was inside; on the way, I saw one of George's friends from the Leverett peace pagoda getting out of his car on Kirkland Street, in his saffron monk's robes, putting the keys in his pocket, a white bandage on one hand. At the memorial Susie Steinbach said that George was always thinking and it made you think—and Dave Van Ronk said he asked, "George, what the hell did they give you that prize for anyway?", and George said, "Dave, they gave me that prize for fitting lobsters with contact lenses"—and Howard Zinn described sitting on a floor somewhere waiting to be arrested and George suggested they read some poetry, and passed a book around. Brother Blue said that George crossing Harvard Yard used to ask him, "Any signs of the Lord?"  Ruth and Elijah wrote about his activism, "He considered these activities part of being a biologist, someone concerned with life."

     Years later I was reading architect Christopher Alexander's The Nature of Order, the last volume of four, The Luminous Ground, the chapter called "Consciousness as a Physical Feature of the Universe," and there was George: 

A second line of thought that has begun to emerge in the physics of recent decades is even more tentative in its acceptance. Towards the end of the 20th century, once a new picture of matter began to come under consideration in which all matter was somehow to be understood as arising from a single unbroken wholeness, for the first time clues began to form that somehow the matter, the space-time continuum, might after all be made of animate material, not just inert stuff, but a mysterious substance, consistent in profundity and grandeur with the universe of the Upanishads.
A hint of this kind is present in the words of George Wald, one of the 20th century’s great biologists, Professor of Biology at Harvard for many years, and winner of the Nobel prize for his lifelong work on the evolution and functioning of the mammalian eye, who wrote in 1984:
‘It takes no great imagination to conceive of other possible universes, each stable and workable in itself, yet lifeless. How is it that, with so many other apparent options, we are in a universe that possesses just that peculiar nexus of properties that breeds life. It has occurred to me lately—I must confess with some shock at first to my scientific sensibilities—that both questions might be brought into some degree of congruence. This is with the assumption that mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always as the matrix, the source and condition of physical reality—that the stuff of which physical reality is composed is mind-stuff.’
— Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order: The Luminous Ground

     The night of the day I heard he had died, I dreamed of being a soldier who had deserted, to Paris, every light and smell and sound and taste intensely beautiful; I was trying to ask for two pains au chocolat but I couldn't say it right, because I couldn't get 'pain' said the English way out of my mouth. They would answer Eight, Eight francs, in English, my sign that I was failing in my attempts at French communication—and behind the counter was a big cluster of green grapes, tight and cold, almost hidden by a damp white towel wrapped around them, twisted at the corners the way they twist the pastry bags, vivid white and vivid green, beyond all hunger and all thirst. George was like that somehow, or pointed toward that, nourishment to me and to many, then and still.  

     Below are some links to Elijah Wald's website.

 

  Elijah Wald on his father >>> 

Elijah Wald on his father >>> 

  George Wald, A Generation In Search of a Future

George Wald, A Generation In Search of a Future

  George Wald, The Origin of Death

George Wald, The Origin of Death