Maria Popova Answers the Orion Questionnaire

In which we get to know our favorite writers better by exploring the sacred and mundane.

Author Maria Popova is the questing mind behind The Marginalian, a public record of her avid reading and reckoning with our search for meaning, and a place you should visit immediately if you don’t already. Whether in poetry, science, philosophy, history, or children’s books, Maria peers through the lens of wonder and asks, again and again, “What is all this?”


What is a species you feel is frequently misunderstood?
What species isn’t? We hardly understand ourselves, and then we collide with the whole What Is It Like to Be a Bat? paradox of imagining the qualia of other creatures from within the limitations of our own. I would love to know what it is like to be a snail, a tardigrade, a bowerbird.


In what environment do you feel most at home?
The emerald enchantment of a mossy old-growth forest.


My favorite tree in the world is _____.
In the forest where I spend much of my time, there is an old red cedar curved into an astonishing U-shape – some great harm must have befallen it when it was young, bending it to the ground, until by the force of life it turned toward the light, slowly beginning to grow in the opposite direction of its trauma. Each time I pass it, I stop to run my hand over its time-smoothed bark, its curvature of resilience and possibility. 


Nature would be better without _____.
…our chronic delusion that nature excludes anything. It is like asking what minute time would be better without. 


If you could, regardless of the local climate, reach out of your kitchen window and pluck a fruit from a tree, bush, or plant, what would it be?
A ripe quince. 


What are some of your favorite words?
Liminal (to remember that much of life happens between the boundaries, beyond the categories), tonic (for its promise of vigor and harmony, its Latin root “to stretch,” a root it shares with “tenderness”), ossify (don’t).


Who are some of your heroes or heroines, real or fictional?
Rachel Carson, Maria Mitchell, James Baldwin, Mary Shelley, Pythagoras, Ruth Benedict, The Little Prince, Walt Whitman. 


Who is a character from literature or film with whom you intensely identify?


What is something new you’ve done recently?
I have taken up flying trapeze – an aria of joy with existential undertones. Up there, you can’t be a Cartesian divide, a mind commanding a body – you are thrust into total integration, working with the most fundamental elements: gravity, consciousness, and time. You learn to balance strength and trust, focus and flow, discipline and freedom. You, earthbound ape, fly! 


What’s the wildest thing you’ve witnessed or experienced in nature?
Birds during a total solar eclipse. 


Are you optimistic about the future?
I am optimistic about my willingness to show up for it with the best I’ve got.


What is a smell that makes you stop in your tracks?
An apple tree in bloom.


Do you have a writing routine?
I meditate first thing in the morning, then work out. I do much of my reading at the gym – something about the kinetic energy being discharged leaves my mind more single of focus. And then I write, standing, for as long as the writing feels alive. By mid-afternoon, my mind begins to slip out of the poetic dimension, out of that cathedral of association and cross-pollination we call creativity, and into a mode of mere production. I remain vigilant over that moment, or else the writing becomes perhaps informative, perhaps even interesting, but never inspired. It is then that I leave for a long walk among as many trees as there are on hand. It is often in motion that I anneal my thoughts, see connections I hadn’t seen before, feel feelings I had been unwilling to feel – because, after all, I write primarily to make sense of my thoughts and feelings, to find some semblance of coherence and clarity amid the mystery we live in, the mystery we are. 


Which of your book subjects or characters haunts you the most?
Emily Dickinson. 


Where did you grow up?


Are you the same person you were as a child?
In the Russian nesting doll of personhood, the child is always there, deep inside the incremental persons who grew out of her, informing and influencing them, but not identical to them. The key, I think, is to hold all the selves we used to be with tenderness, but to also let them go with courage. 


If you could live anywhere, where would it be?
In my heart.


You’re in a deserted island situation for an unknown period of time. You get three items and one book. What do you bring?
A water filter, a lighter, a knife, and Leaves of Grass. Pragmatism and poetry will get you through most challenges in life. 


What flower would you want pinned to your breast after you die?
The plan is to become a flower, to return those borrowed atoms without pomp, composted into a cubic yard of soil for new growth.


If you could come back as any organism, who or what would you be?
A great blue heron, poised and prehistoric, carrying the sky on her back.