Analyses of Nature
WHEN Wordsworth said “ the world is too much with us,” his narrow use of the word “world” added force to his lament. The world of those who coined the word was the cosmos of the Greeks; the world of Wordsworth’s poem was the madding crowd of men, with its dust and smoke of fashion, greed, and crime. It is to the credit of this generation that Wordsworth’s world is willing to forget itself in odd hours, and to go out into the wider and cleaner world, not only to gaze upon its beauties and marvels, but to try to find below and behind them the law of their being. Essayists and poets without number have analyzed man — in other words, talked about themselves — since the world began : but the analyst of to-day finds as many readers when he writes of birds, butterflies, and flowers as when he discusses marriage or poor relations.
The man who analyzes man, whether in verse or prose, must, in order to hold his audience, not only know his subject through and through to its very core and be in sympathy with its motive, but he must have a command of language sufficient to convey his ideas directly and pleasingly. The same ought to be true of men who analyze nature.
It cannot be said that the four writers whose nature-studies are offered to readers this autumn are at all equally matched, either in their knowledge of the world of birds and flowers and their sympathy with its motive, or in their ability to write intelligible and agreeable English. The author of Field-Farings1 is one who “ loves to dock the minor parts o’ speech.” She tells of the “ winds o’ March ” and the “ moon o’ May.” She revels in quaint, stilted, and incomprehensible language. Her cloudy skies are all “ apall with dun mist;” her swales are “ all atangle with long briers ; and her birds are “ aperch ” upon “ Sir Walnut,” “ Master Hickory,” or “ Mistress Tulip-tree,” the “ Madonna of the forest.” If one can harden himself to constant intercourse with fairies, “ tragedy queens,” “ woodland senators,” “ belated dryads,” ice-queens shedding “ silvern tears,” and with “ sylvan Cinderellas,” and at the same time train his senses to endure unexpected contact with “ grieving graveyard cedars’ ghostly cones,” “ dead summer’s winding sheet,” and a “ sun-bright, gray-green ghost, " he may enjoy many hours of wandering in the oak woods and beside the cool creeks of Kentucky. The land of the gum-tree and the coon is one well worth appreciative treatment. Something in Field-Farings makes the reader believe that its author is appreciative, and that she knows more of nature than her hysterical hobnobbing with spooks suggests at first sight.
If Miss Williams gushes too much, Dr. Abbott, in his Recent Rambles,2 moans too much. A true interpreter of nature should not be dyspeptic, lazy, superstitious, or aimless. Dr. Abbott says, “ Whether ignoble or not, I always yield to the temptations of aimlessness ; ” and this book, the least attractive of his writings, bears the imprint of this sentiment in most of its chapters. Because a baybreasted warbler flew in at his window one evening, he thinks there is a bond between him and its species. He says: “Of its import I know nothing. None the less does it bind me, and I have an inkling now of the mystery of superstition.” A number of bats, driven from their shelter in a hollow tree to hover by day outside their home, oppress him so that he writes : “ It was a thoroughly weird, unearthly, and disturbing sight that gave a sombre tint to the remaining hours of the day; . . . and unto this day I never see a bat but I recall that host of fluttering imps that, by their mysterious antics, closed in sadness a merry May-day out of town.” He not only pleads guilty to laziness, but seems to glory in it, while apparently expecting his readers to enjoy his sitting by the hour on an uncomfortable stone and musing about almost nothing in a moody and disconnected way. His theories that idleness is what the human race pines for, and that by sitting still and allowing one’s brains to sizzle by the hour together in what he calls unconscious cerebration one can grow wiser and happier, are sufficiently disproved in his own books, and even by this one. Chapters in which he tells of going somewhere and seeing something are entertaining, and occasionally really worth reading; but those in which his boat merely drifts, or his legs refuse to perform their proper duties, are dull and indigestible. The half-tone reproductions of photographs with which the book is well dotted are much more pleasing than the text. The frontispiece shows Dr. Abbott himself “ in touch with Nature,” seated upon a log by a charming reach of water which is framed in soft foliage and dappled with lily-pads.
Mr. Bradford Torrey neither gushes nor moans. When he treads the FootPath Way,3 he is a frank, sensible man who sees what is around him, loves that which is beautiful whether in man or nature, and knows how to chat both cheerily and wisely of the ways of the wood and of the world. It would surprise his friends as much to find him communing with “ gray-green ghosts " as to have him record coarse sayings, or confess to brusque treatment of a fellowman. Moreover, no one can read his chapters on humming-birds, the Melrose robin-roost, and the Passing of the Birds without feeling confident of his scientific accuracy and keenness. Idleness and aimlessness are qualities which have no part in a mountain-climber’s makeup, yet no one can understand Nature or hope to be “ in touch ” with her who has less of the spirit of the mountaineer than has Mr. Torrey. His Five Days on Mount Mansfield carry one into pure air and prompt pure thought. As he truly says “ it does a man good to look afar off.” A long brisk walk on a mountain side is far more likely to make new thoughts surge through the brain than moping in the woods is to encourage unconscious cerebration which is worth anything. Dyer’s Hollow, as Mr. Torrey names his chapter on Long Nook in the Truro sand-hills, is one of his pleasantest papers, as our readers already know. It has about it a flavor of rosemary and thyme, and the charm of a pressed rose which keeps its fragrance through the years. Something of the same quality of pressed sweetness pervades much of his writings, and makes the reader feel that another year they will be just as cosy companions as they are now.
While Bradford Torrey has the knack of gathering into his pages song, sunshine, and the sweet air of sea or mountain, he does it grip-sack in hand and with Boston time ticking in his pocket. The woods are his friends, but he is not wholly theirs. Again, while he has a keen and quick insight into Nature, and writes many a pleasant line about her secrets, the reader always feels that it is Mr. Torrey who is talking, and not Nature herself. With Thoreau it is different. The more one reads his pages, the more fixed becomes the impression that the Thoreau who speaks is not a Harvard Bachelor of Arts, a classmate of jurist and surgeon, preacher and teacher, but a being of the forest; made of finer stuff than common men; seeing things material and spiritual, not through a glass darkly, but through clear air; moved by higher and nobler impulses than others ; and doing only enough of this world’s labor to keep his account with mankind honestly balanced.
Autumn,4 the latest of Thoreau’s journals, and the best of Mr. Blake’s selections, contains these words: “ I seem to be more constantly merged in Nature, my intellectual life is more obedient to Nature than formerly, but perchance less obedient to spirit; ” and on another day : “It chanced that I heard just then the tolling of a distant funeral bell. Its serious sound was more in harmony with that scenery than any ordinary bustle would have been. It suggested that man must die to his present life before he can appreciate his opportunities and the beauty of the abode that is appointed him.”
Most of our naturalist poets and essayists go to Nature on their holidays only, feeling a kind of premeditated thrill through their weariness of limb and brain. Thoreau says : “ You would fain perceive something, you must approach the object totally unprejudiced.”
“ To conceive of it with a total apprehension, I must for the thousandth time approach it as something totally strange.” Merging himself in Nature, and going to her day after day, always with his eyes and heart wide open, Thoreau accumulated an immense fund of fact. He might have jotted these things down dryly, he might have gushed, he might have written pages where lines were enough, he might have been merely a pleasant essayist. As a matter of fact, he thought as a philosopher about things which he saw as a scientist, and of which he wrote as a poet. While the journal form is angular and interrupted, though suggestive of the man who writes, the journal substance, well sifted as this is, comes freer from dross than almost any other product of an author. It is only one step removed from the living thought as the man met it in his mind. Thoreau’s journal is made up of two elements, his records of facts and his speculations. Mr. Blake says frankly in his preface that he cares more to make clear the character and genius of his friend than to reprint his scientific observations. Both elements are, however, so richly represented here that those who read Thoreau mainly for his nature-sketching will find enough to meet their expectations in this book. Those who seek fresh expressions of Thoreau’s philosophy will also be satisfied.
He says : “ If you are intemperate, if you toil to raise an unnecessary amount, even the large crop of wheat becomes as a small crop of chaff,” " I see that they (my neighbors) look with compassion on me ; that they think it is a mean and unfortunate destiny which makes me walk in these fields and woods so much, and sail on this river alone. But so long as I find here the only real Elysium, I cannot hesitate in my choice. My work is writing, and I do not hesitate, though no subject is too trivial for me, tried by the ordinary standards.” “ It is a bright, clear, warm November day. I feel blessed. I love my life. I warm towards all Nature.” ‘‘ Mortal, human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year. Their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards to where the weary shall be at rest. But not so with the skunk cabbage. Its withered leaves fall, and are transfixed by a rising bud. Winter and death are ignored. The circle of life is complete. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud pushing it upwards and lifting the dead leaves with it ? ”
These extracts, taken from days wide apart, show clearly enough what guided Thoreau. He did what not one Christian in a million does, — took no thought for the morrow, but labored from day to day to meet his simplest needs. All the strength which was not needed to raise his crops, gather his firewood from the river’s drift, cook his food, and make his clothes was given to his patient, loving study of the beautiful world which is not too much, but too little with us. His verdict upon his own life was that he loved it, and that too in spite of his neighbors’ contemptuous pity, the public’s inability to read his books, and his own uncertainty as to anything ever coming of his intellectual labor.
- Field-Farings. A Vagrant Chronicle of Earth and Sky. By MARTHA MCCULLOCH WILLIAMS. New York : Harper & Brothers. 1892.↩
- Recent Rambles : or, In Touch with Nature. By CHARLES C. ABBOTT, M. D. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company. 1892.↩
- The Foot-Path Way. By BRADFORD TORREY. Boston and New York ; Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1892.↩
- Autumn. From the Journal of HENRY D. THOREAU. Edited by H. G. O. BLAKE. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1892,↩