Is the Taste for Nature Acquired?

— In his story of A Boy’s Town, after a very discerning paragraph as to the root of the mischievous activity of boys, Mr. Howells says: “ I have often read in stories of boys who were fond of Nature, and loved her sublimity and beauty, but I do not believe boys are ever naturally fond of Nature. . . . The taste for Nature is as purely acquired as the taste for poetry or the taste for tomatoes. I have often seen boys wondering at the rainbow, but it was wonder, not admiration, that moved them ; and I have seen them excited by a storm, but because the storm was tremendous, not because it was beautiful.”

Now I do not find this discerning. I am sure it is mistaken. It is perhaps the result of an antagonism to sentimental traditions, with which I can sympathize ; or it may be that Mr. Howells feels these views obscurely but logically imposed upon him by fidelity to some of those fixed theories of his to which he is continually making sacrifice. Hard-and-fast theories are more dangerous to truth than simple emotional reactions, and facts are the final test, — when we can get at them.

Though I never was a boy, as a member of the human race I lift up my voice, Carlyle fashion, “ as one solitary individual,” to assert that my love neither for poetry, nor for nature, nor for tomatoes was acquired. From a good deal of reminiscent conversation with non-sentimental grown people on these very points (barring the matter of the tomatoes), and some similarly directed observations of children, — not as an attorney since reading A Boy’s Town, but for years past, — I am convinced that my infantine tastes were not highly exceptional. Taking the human race at large, a taste for nature and for poetry is always rather exceptional, is it not, at least among the AngloSaxon race ?

I doubt not it is more exceptional with adults than with children. The tomatoes are an illustration, though the analogy is not complete. The grown people, who had established ideas of what they liked and what they did not when tomatoes were first introduced among them, resented the novelty of their flavor, and the noise they made in reconciling themselves to it echoes still in Mr. Howells’s mind. Now, a little direct observation would have shown him that in these days children, most things being alike strange to them, generally accept tomatoes as readily as they do turnips, or onions, or parsnips. So I believe children often possess a susceptibility to the charms of nature and of poetry that disappears when they grow up in a prosaic society. Then, if they come to have a volitional desire to enjoy these things, I dare say they must — if you like the word — “ acquire ” a taste for them.

But let me descend from these glittering generalities, and tell a few little significant facts for which I can vouch. I have often said that, in looking back, I felt my love of nature to be the strongest thread of identity connecting my early childhood with my mature self. I can see absolutely no differenee in my joy in moving, whispering green branches, in sunshine, in sky and water, now and when I was three years old, and had, so far as I know, never heard a word about their beauty. No difference ? Yes, alas ! I too have suffered somewhat from contact with interests hard and gross, and now there is never quite the keenness of exaltation, the transcendent absorption, in my joy that I used to feel when scarcely more than a baby. I dare say many persons whose memories do not reach quite so far back did, nevertheless, have lovely experiences with nature when they were three years old.

My recollection of literary delights is equally ancient. I was less than three when I had my first great literary sensation, and it was a genuinely poetical one. I had before taken great pleasure in the little stories read to me, but when I heard William Allingham’s poem, beginning,

“ Up the airy mountain,
Down the rocky glen,
We dare n’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men,”

I had a “ good joy,” never, in kind, surpassed since. Nay, I am again constrained to go further, and say that it is more years than I care to count since it was equaled. That little poem had then for me a bewildering music and enchanting magic that I fear I never shall find again in any poetry. A greater number of such experiences must atone now for a certain inevitable decline in the quality.

After all, is not Mr. Howells inconsistent in his own statement of his skepticism ? If the boys were joyfully excited by the storm because it was tremendous, what is that statement hut another (and better) way of saying they loved nature’s sublimity ? And if they wondered at the rainbow, how superior in feeling for nature they were to those numerous grown people who do not wonder at it !