As we leaf through the pages of the rich harvest of work on Nature, we notice that however much the writings may have branched out into different styles of poetry, prose or periods, there is a consistent pining in authors to connect with creation as a means of self discovery. The elaborate description of seas, mountains, trees, birds, brooks and stars are refreshing and point to the quintessential unity in all that we see around us.
In a direct or an indirect manner, the oeuvre compels us to introspect about the environment and our relationship with it; more so in this day and age when human ambition and an unquenchable desire for comfort and wealth are wreaking havoc in the balance of elements on our planet.
As an attempt to extol the vitality, indispensability and her fond caring for us, let us revisit the sweet scented stanzas scripted by some famous pens.
Well known English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who also co-authored several works with William Wordsworth, lived in 1772-1834. In the poem ‘To Nature’ he writes:
“It may indeed be fantasy when I
Essay to draw from all created things
Deep, heartfelt, inward joy that closely clings;
And trace in leaves and flowers that round me lie
Lessons of love and earnest piety.”
The sheer beauty and grandeur of Nature is enough to sway our inner feelings and evoke great sympathies. The tall jade pines, soft floating clouds, colossal granite rocks, the proud and giant mountains, and voluminous roars of the unquiet sea….Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894) writes in ‘By the Sea’:
“Why does the sea moan evermore?
Shut out from heaven it makes its moan,
It frets against the boundary shore;
All earth’s full rivers cannot fill
The sea, that drinking thirsteth still.
Sheer miracles of loveliness
Lie hid in its unlooked-on bed:
Anemones, salt, passionless,
Blow flower-like; just enough alive
To blow and multiply and thrive.”
One of the most ardent worshippers of Nature is undoubtedly Henry David Thoreau (1817-62). An American and a son of a farmer, who studied at Harvard, he once built himself a cottage in a wooded land next to the Walden Pond in Massachusetts and spent two years there, living like a hermit. He authored many books on natural history like ‘The Maine Woods’, ‘Summer’, ‘Winter’ and ‘Autumn’, besides of course ‘Walden’.
In one portion of ‘Walden’ he uses a figurative expression to describe a winter time scene: “Like the wasps, before I finally went into winter quarters in November, I used to resort to the northeast side of Walden, which the sun, reflected from the pitch pine woods and the stony shore, made the fireside of the pond; it is so much pleasanter and wholesomer to be warmed by the sun while you can be, than by an artificial fire. I thus warmed myself by the still glowing embers which the summer, like a departed hunter, had left.”
In another part of the book he goes deeper and talks of a lake and equates it with gravitas of our own soul. “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”
Nature can teach us many lessons; the humility of a blade of grass, selfless generosity of a tree, and the forbearance of Mother Earth. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) says in her poem ‘Patience Taught by Nature’:
“‘O dreary life,’ we cry, ‘ O dreary life!’
And still the generations of the birds
Sing through our sighing, and the flocks and herds
Serenely live while we are keeping strife…”
Whether it was artists like Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) who said that “sometimes I have a terrible need of, shall I say the word, religion. Then I go out at night and paint the stars” or poets like William Wordsworth (1770-1850), who heralded the Romantic movement in English literature, all have turned to Nature to seek solace from her tender caresses. In ‘Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” he says:
“In darkness, and amid the many shapes
Of joyless day-light; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart,
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee
O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the wood
How often has my spirit turned to thee!”
To Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), ‘Nature’ seems a mother, a nurturer with gentleness beyond measure. It is she who brings us into this world and then prepares us to leave all and become one with her again:
“As a fond mother, when the day is o’er,
Leads by the hand her little child to bed,
Half willing, half reluctant to be led,
And leave his broken playthings on the floor,
Still gazing at them through the open door,
Nor wholly reassured and comforted
By promises of others in their stead,
Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
Being too full of sleep to understand
How far the unknown transcends the what we know.”
The subject of natural history is a very fertile soil to furrow. Through the years, centuries, changing times and varying methods of sustenance, humans have had to return to Nature again and again for food, medicine, herbs, drinking water and peace. In intense moments of clamour when we seek solitude and turn introspective, the dewy greens have been faithful companions. The dense woods and sparkling rivulets have unfailingly calmed our fatigue and inspired in many a breast a sense of hope and spiritualism.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) feels passionately in ‘Essays’….:
“How willingly we would escape the barriers which render them comparatively impotent, escape the sophistication and second thought, and suffer nature to intrance us. The tempered light of the woods is like a perpetual morning, and is stimulating and heroic. The anciently reported spells of these places creep on us. The stems of pines, hemlocks, and oaks, almost gleam like iron on the excited eye. The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles. Here no history, or church, or state, is interpolated on the divine sky and the immortal year. How easily we might walk onward into the opening landscape, absorbed by new pictures, and by thoughts fast succeeding each other, until by degrees the recollection of home was crowded out of the mind, all memory obliterated by the tyranny of the present, and we were led in triumph by nature.”
This sense of quietude which Nature presents us is often violated by means with which we measure human progress. The Industrial Revolution saw the birth and growth of cities that first served as centres for rich manufactures and later as hubs of education, employment and opportunity. They took us away from the verdant lap of Nature, both physically and psychologically. In the ‘Song’, Amy Lowell (1874-1925) bemoaned how the new nuclei of development felt like torturous trappings for some.
“Some men there are who find in nature all
Their inspiration, hers the sympathy
Which spurs them on to any great endeavor,
To them the fields and woods are closest friends,
And they hold dear communion with the hills;
The voice of waters soothes them with its fall,
And the great winds bring healing in their sound.
To them a city is a prison house
Where pent up human forces labour and strive,
Where beauty dwells not, driven forth by man….”
The struggle between the natural and concrete is a purely man made war. No other creature on Earth has faced the complexity or the challenge of being pulled in two different directions led by the desire of contraries. This tug of war is appropriately summed ‘In Literature and the Crime against Nature’, where contemporary author and critic Keith Sagar, has done a study from Homer to Hughes.
He writes “My central argument is that most of the world’s ills through history, but especially the long, now critical, ecological disaster, are the result of what the Greeks called hubris - a kind of pride which drives men, both as a race and as individuals, to regard themselves, in consequence of intelligence and technology, as outside of and superior to the natural world…..We are all criminals against Nature. Western civilization has set itself to complete its subjugation of Nature. Dualism is so deeply rooted in our language and culture that we can barely think in non-dualistic, that is holistic, terms. The difference between the imaginative artist and the rest of us is that, hauled into the dock by his own imagination, he must acknowledge his own guilt and submit himself to the correction and, if he is lucky, the healing power, of that imaginative atonement.”
The root of much of writing on the ecological world is at the end our own desire for self expression. Nature and humans are more intensely intertwined than our material milieu lets us accept.
To sing an ode to Nature is to lend voice to harmony in the universe where none is superior, but all are connected and a part of an integral whole. This is a thought that has the stamp of approval of William Blake (1757-1827), who had once famously asserted his attempt, “To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.”
(June 05 is World Environment Day)