The American Out of Doors
WE are too prone to look at modern life as cut off from the past by a great gulf: it is so much more important to us. A Greek, a mediæval Italian, seems spectral, impossible. We cannot realize that Athenians and Florentines loved and hated, bought and sold, jested, wept, talked scandal, suffered and died, quite as men do nowadays. The world is so old, and yet so new. These same commonplaces I am writing have been written so many times before and seemed just as commonplace. Yet we forget them.
Notwithstanding, certain differences, marked differences, do separate the nineteenth century from the past. Great forces have worked to mould our civilization, some of them external and material, yet even these reacting on the internal and spiritual, as the external, to a greater or less degree, always must. To go some way back, there is printing, a force that made itself felt long ago ; but the development of printing in the daily press is something absolutely modern, and who can estimate its importance ? Then there is democracy, closely connected with the preceding ; the belief that the numerical majority of mankind is not only entitled to equal consideration by government, but competent to control that government, almost, if not quite directly. Again, we have the great mechanical discoveries, which fall within the last hundred years : steam, the breaker-down of barriers, the annihilator of nationality, the agent that has tripled man’s control of nature and drawn tighter the girdle of the world ; electricity, which already regards telegraph and telephone as trifles, and looks forward to producing in another century a locomotive power that will make us cast steam into a corner, forgotten.
There are spiritual influences, too, subtler and harder to investigate, which may be considered either as cause or as effect. For instance, there is the extraordinary development of music, which in the modern sense can scarcely be said to be three hundred years old : music, so different from all the other arts in its combination of sensuous appeal with supersensual suggestion ; so quick to profit by mechanics, yet so far above them ; so capable of expressing all moods and all passions ; so various in its methods and styles ; in a word, so preëminently modern, Another influence, quite as modern and even more powerful, is the love of nature. Perhaps I should say, the seientific study and comprehension of nature. Neither expression by itself is sufficient.
All literature and history prove that the character of a people is largely modified by the topography of the region it inhabits ; and the extremes to which a theory based on this is carried by M. Taine and critics of his school are well known. Most nations have been conscious of the part thus taken by their surroundings in their moral development, and have recognized it in one way or another. This is, however, quite different from scientific study. Observation, the patient search after facts, seems to be a late fruit of civilization, a fruit that was very long in ripening. Socrates, at least in Xenophon’s report of him, anticipated Pope in proclaiming that “the proper study of mankind is man.” Aristotle, with his immense curiosity, discovered and recorded many things ; but the natural history of the ancients is largely fabulous and a priori, as in the elaborate work of Pliny ; and the mass of deduction and hearsay transmitted by that industrious personage influenced the science of the Middle Ages to an astonishing degree. Those who are familiar with Elizabethan writers are well aware of this. The extravagant zoölogy and botany which formed an important element in the style of Lyly and the Eupliuists have been frequently ridiculed. Even Shakespeare is by no means free, as in his
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous.
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.”
But patient scientific study had not been wanting in the Renaissance, amid all the riot of the imagination. The great voyagers and explorers, although they brought home new fictions of their own, yet destroyed many of the old. Copernicus had revolutionized astronomy, and even among the Elizabethans his discoveries were beginning to have their effect on the literary world. Bacon laid the foundation of modern scientific methods, and the temper developed rapidly, as we see in Browne’s book on Vulgar Errors, which admits some extraordinary conclusions, but shows a true spirit of curiosity, of critical research, and of respect, at least, for thorough experiment.
In the eighteenth century such a spirit spread everywhere, as reason began to supplant imagination, and poetry to give way to prose. The eighteenth century was, however, too busy with political and social problems to concern itself seriously with great scientific movements. Philosophy and political economy, the study of man, took precedence of the study of nature. With the nineteenth century the latter pursuit finally asserted itself. The great mechanical inventions and practical applications of science increased the facilities for theoretical investigation, and made it more attractive. The theories elaborated by Darwin were, as is well known, in the air some time before he formulated them. He is but the representative of his age, at least in that direction ; nor would it be possible to find a better example of the ideal scientist than he. Patient, spending years in the accumulation of facts, never hastening, never fretting, putting results as far as possible out of sight that they may not tempt him from severe and unprejudiced investigation, working for no end of practical utility, and for fame only carelessly and as a secondary object, such a man personifies the best that nature has to teach us. We learn from him respect for details that seem insignificant; we learn not to jump at conclusions ; we learn once more the lesson — alas, so often forgotten — of Newton “ picking up a shell here and there on the beach, while the vast ocean of truth lay open before him.” Darwin is perhaps too favorable an example of the naturalist’s modesty and simplicity, but familiarity with nature appears to breed these qualities more than some studies peculiarly associated with man.
What could be more important than the change produced in our view of the external world by the theories which are generally connected with Darwin’s name ? A French critic writes : “ Is it preposterous to say that posterity will draw a line, a deep line, in the history of human thought, between the men who lived before and those who lived after Darwin ? It is somewhat as the change that was formerly brought about by the discovery of America and of Copernican cosmology.” Whether this feeling be true or false, it would be foolish to deny the immense hold it has taken on men’s minds. We may not formally accept the principle of evolution, but we are all of us inclined to put man in a very different position in nature from the one he occupied a hundred years ago. He is no longer a little god, with the rest of the universe prostrate at his feet, but takes his place among other beings, an essential element, — the most essential, possibly, but still only an element in the vast play of the organic and inorganic world. Nor is this view contrary to philosophy as distinguished from science, though the conclusion may be reached along a different line. To the Hegelian, as to the Darwinian, man has ceased to be cut off and dissociated from nature ; she has no reality but in him, yet neither has he reality but in her. It is evident that to a man who has accepted these doctrines the external world assumes a new aspect: it is no longer something indifferent, or an enemy to be kept under and controlled ; it is an inexhaustible store of facts, each bound up with others and bearing upon them, each pregnant with its own teaching, and perhaps with a lesson that no man can afford to overlook or neglect.
I believe this new growth of interest in nature is nowhere so widespread as among the people of the United States. The Teutonic and Celtic races seem to take to it more readily than the Latin, and even than the Greek. Greek poetry is full of allusions to natural objects, but these are almost always referred to in illustration of human passions. The gift of painting in clear lines and with imaginative feeling, as we see it, for instance, in Theocritus, which is characteristic of the divine Greek genius in everything, must not be confused with the love of description which has become conspicuous in modern literature. Occasional touches of outdoor life with an exquisite charm are to be found in Lucretius, in Catullus, in Vergil; but here, too, everything is subordinated to man. It has been observed that to the Romans Switzerland was merely desolate and repulsive, which is enough to show that they had not the modern sense of the picturesque. A somewhat careful study of the Italian poet Leopardi has convinced me that he had nothing of the peculiar sentiment of nature-worship so striking in his contemporaries, English, French, and German. Nor do we find it in the great poets of Spain, if a conclusion on the subject he permitted to one who has only entered the skirts of the great forest of seventeenth-century drama. The plays of Calderon are full of roses and waves and winds and nightingales. It would be hard to surpass the melancholy and Vergilian grace of his flowers, —
but one does not find in him that subtle observation combined with imaginative color which abounds in Shakespeare : —
I’ the bottom of a cowslip.”
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty.”
The love of the Celts for nature, and their method of interpreting her as compared with the methods of other races, are admirably analyzed in Matthew Arnold’s Lectures on Celtic Literature, one of his most charming books. Whether it be indeed owing to a difference of race instinct, or to the close contact with the material world induced by the necessity of combat with it, the northern nations of Europe are certainly more familiar with that world than those of the south.
Familiarity with nature takes two forms, one exoteric, the other esoteric : either nature is viewed in detail, as an object of endless interest and amusement, or she is deified with a passionate and religions adoration. The first of these forms is probably more general in the United States than it has ever before been anywhere. No other people read as we do the current literature of the day, newspapers, magazines. But that literature is kept full of scientific speculation in every form. It is in the air all about us. We imbibe the chief fact of evolution from our infancy, and look upon monkeys with a weird interest and a superstitious eye for ancestral traits. The discussion of these matters is not confined to scholars and professors; one hears it every day among men of business, even among mechanics.
We are a nation of travelers. We are not rooted and moss-grown, like Europeans. Moving house and home is the excitement of life, and a man who dies where he was born is a curiosity. Men and women work hard all their lives, and at sixty set out to see the world. They go to California or Mexico or Alaska for six weeks, like it, and make a journey to India. In one sense, this perpetual locomotion cuts us off from nature. It interferes with the forming of associations. It abolishes the peculiar kinship that knits up some fact of the past with every tree and stone, making old houses seem like old faces well beloved. I do not think any of our people have the attachment which, it is said, in some European countries binds the peasant to the soil; nor indeed have we a peasantry, in the European sense, anywhere within our borders.
Yet if our acquaintance with nature is not intimate, it is extensive. In almost every company you will find people who are familiar with the swamps of Florida and the prairies of Kansas, the Rocky Mountains and the Yosemite Valley. It is important to note that in our American journeying, at any rate, we look especially at such natural objects because nothing else is new. From Boston to San Francisco man is substantially the same. Variety must be sought in nature. Curiosity can spend itself no longer on manners and customs. If we look from the car windows, we have no eyes for the eternal John Smith ; he stands for insignificance in the foreground of the picture. The feeling thus fostered is, indeed, often shallow and idle. These universal sight-seers have no reverence, not even a spirit of thoughtful and sober inquiry. The scenery they are whirled through becomes a panorama, a theatrical spectacle, and their only impulse is a longing for some higher mountain, or broader river, or wilder valley, to rouse dull eyes once more into a languid enthusiasm. They have a catalogue, a collection of objects of interest, and compare notes: “Have you been there?” “Oh, you ought to see that! ” Yet an effect remains. Petty prejudices and provincial notions are partially obliterated. You cannot come in contact with nature even in this superficial way without gaining something of her largeness and her calm. There is a gain of sympathy, also. Perhaps we are not naturally a sporting people, like our English cousins. If we are so, we have lost the taste to a great degree, and acquired a dislike for shooting, even for fishing. We prefer to live and let live, with beast as well as man. A simple walk is enough for us ; the sight of birds and animals pleases us more than the destruction of them. We love the open air for itself, and are contented with it. How many of us revel in that joyous cry of Emerson, “ Give me health and a day, and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous ” !
This sweet, fresh renewal that comes from contact with nature is felt even by people who have little imagination or sensibility, who abhor solitude, and certainly would not choose the country as an abiding-place. In summer the whole population flock to the mountains and salt water, and they are not quite the same there as at home. Mr. Bradford Torrey, in his charming A Rambler’s Lease, says: " I hope I am not lacking in a wholesome disrespect for sentimentality and affectation; for artificial ecstasies over sunsets and landscapes, birds and flowers ; the fashionable cant of natureworship, which is enough almost to seal a true worshiper’s lips under a vow of everlasting silence.” Certainly there is a great deal of such cant, and the canter is only too apt to go away and forget what manner of man he was. Yet even the lightest, the most frivolous, the most hardened, get something from these things. The very existence of the fashion shows a tendency.
A large class of people do, however, take the matter more seriously. The scientific views I have referred to above give the study of nature an interest which strikes deeper than a mere desultory curiosity. There are many men and women who have picked up a smattering of botany or ornithology in childhood. and find it afterwards a never-failing occupation, opening new vistas and revealing deep secrets, always within reach and always fascinating. Careful study of this kind sometimes breeds a contempt for large effects, keeps the eyes near earth on microscopic beauty; but how close it brings one to the intricate mystery of life !
Science, too, has the great advantage of being accessible in fragments, and not requiring lifelong familiarity for the appreciation of its pleasures. It is different from literature, which demands a patient apprenticeship, and is not open to the first coiner. A busy man can see a great deal out of doors to interest him at odd moments ; but he is not likely to make close friends of Homer and Dante.
I have not, I think, exaggerated the importance of what external nature has done and is doing for Americans ; but it may be exaggerated by confusing the two forms of familiarity with natural objects that I have noted above. One hears a good deal of talk about the religion of nature, about a worship which will put aside churches and go into the woods, about a reverence which will associate itself more deeply and truly with trees and flowers and stars than with buildings fashioned by the hand of man, about a devotion bred by quiet in the fields rather than by liturgies or outgrown creeds or dim cathedrals. We must distinguish here. At the opening of this century, in the passionate reaction against the social and religious conventions of the last, poets and men of letters were strongly moved to substitute for certain traditional theories of religion a deeper, ampler, and vaguer sentiment. Beginning with Rousseau, this tendency spread to many men of a quite different stamp. The poets of England, France, and Germany poured forth upon natural objects all the ecstasies of lovers. The beauty of color, sound, motion, filled them, mastered them. They lost themselves in the sway of great winds, in the slow majesty of midday clouds, in the undulation of grass floating in the summer light. English poetry will show us this better than any other. Let us take Cowper, still timid, still Christian in the sense that made Sainte-Beuve say, “ The great Pan has naught to do with the great Crucified One,” yet striking again and again notes passionate as this : —
Peeps through the moss that clothes the hawthorn root,
Deceive no student; ”
or Keats crying to the Nightingale : —
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy ; ”
or Wordsworth : —
Haunted me like a passion ; ”
or Byron : —
Portion of that around me ; and to me
High mountains are a feeling ; ”
or, above all, Shelley, who drank more deeply than any at the spring of
Which, through the web of being blindly wove
By man and beast and earth and air and sea,
Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of
The fire for which all thirst.”
These poets, each in his own way, threw themselves into nature. They were ready to say with Keats’s Uranus,—
This feeling was to them, indeed, a religion. Yet in one form or another they all looked " through nature up to nature’s God.” They felt everywhere the presence of some divine mystery which was open to them in the sweet language of the natural world. Some kind of union with this they sought passionately; and the imperfection of what they were able to attain filled them with sadness, with the delicate melancholy which is an important feature of their work. The religion they cherished was a high and mystical pantheism ; only it is essential to bear in mind the profound saying of Goethe, which should never be forgotten when pantheism is in question: " Everything Spinozistic in poetry becomes in philosophy Machiavelism.” That is to say, the contumely which universally attaches to pantheism soberly maintained as an intellectual theory is quite out of place in judging poetry, where the same thing is present as a desire, not as a creed.
Now, this element of passion, of intense religious emotion, does not, I think, belong to our American love of nature. Even in England there has been a change in the last half-century, a change not enough insisted on. The difference between the poetry of Shakespeare and that of Dryden is not greater than the diiferenee between the poetry of Byron and Shelley and that of Tennyson and Browning. With the former, intense, absorbing personal feeling is everything. With the latter, there is a complete effacement of personality. Different as are Tennyson and Browning in other respects, in this they are alike ; and though it would be a mistake to say that passion is never found without the intrusion of the poet’s own personality, the lack of passion is unquestionably the most marked defect of both these great poets. Certainly it is the defect in their rendering of nature. With Tennyson, external nature becomes a mere means of elaborate ornamentation ; with Browning, it is generally subordinated to the analysis of humanity : in neither poet have we the peculiar charm of the generation before.
In America, have we ever had passion in any branch of literature or art ? It must not be forgotten that most of our great writers have come from Puritan stock ; that is, from just that portion of the English race which had the least imagination, the least sensibility; which was the most profoundly penetrated with the moral view of things ; which mistrusted most profoundly any self-abandonment, any compromise with the devil. A hundred years hence, the mixture of German, French, Irish blood will have changed all this. The change is going on ; hut up to this time Puritan rationalism has predominated in the view of nature as in most other things. Take, for instance, Thureau. No one could be a more devoted observer of nature; no one could record more carefully her subtlest changes, her moods serene or stormy, her infinite variety. His knowledge of natural history was, I suppose, ten times wider and more accurate than that of Shelley or Keats. But where in Thoreau do you find touch or trace of the passion we have seen in them, the enthralling, absorbing worship — call it pantheism, or what you will — that pants and burns in Keats’s Nightingale or Shelley’s West Wind ? Without any assumption of pessimism, it may be said, as I have hinted above, that one of the greatest charms of nature in these poets is the subtle and inexplicable melancholy that attends her ; the vast and fleeting storm of intangible suggestions and associations that wait on a single simple sound or odor, and vanish before we can half imagine what they mean, as when Obermann writes, " The jonquil or the jessamine would be enough to make me say that such as we are we might sojourn in a better world.” Penetrated with feelings like these, one comes to Thoreau and finds him proclaiming, “ The voice of nature is always encouraging.”
The truth is, that for Thoreau, as for his master, Emerson, Puritanical stoicism has set up a barrier that cuts him off from half of life. His creed is not a conceited or presumptuous one, — it is too dignified ; but it sets the man on a pinnacle of self-satisfaction, which inclines him rather to identify nature with himself than himself with nature. One hears Thoreau constantly saying, “ Nature is delightful, delightful to me, Henry Thoreau.” Pie patronizes her. Now, this is inconsistent with passion of any kind. To a man of that temperament the study of nature may be an amusement, even an interesting and absorbing occupation ; a religion — never ! This is precisely the state of the case not only with Thoreau, but with most of our American poets, and with the greater number of the men and women who are to-day engaged in ransacking the fields and woods for facts of natural history.
With the love of nature as with so many other things, the saying is profoundly true, “ Unto every one that hath shall be given.” We get back only what we give. As a humanizing influence, as teaching patience, tolerance, sympathy, the scientific appreciation of the natural world, the intimate and daily contact with it, cannot be overestimated. But to think that these things will ever replace religion or poetry ; to believe that the senses of the average man, though backed with all the botanies and ornithologies ever written, will perceive as do those of the poet, will create for themselves the energy and intensity of feeling, the glow of imaginative color, the throng of associations, which he can call forth in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, is to be profoundly mistaken.
Gamaliel Bradford, Jr.