Nature Through English Eyes

Llewelyn Powys’s Earth Memories (Norton, $2.75) extend far beyond his personal recollections of his native Dorset and range freely through the historic and legendary past. The product of a mind at home in all lands and in all ages, the book is filled with a strong sense of the flow of time and of the puniness of man beside the sunlight and the sea and the masterless winds that have held tryst together for thousands upon thousands of years.
The will that enabled Mr. Powys to fight for three decades against incurable consumption accounts for the extraordinary zest for life which radiates from his essays. His struggle accounts, too, for the shadow of pessimism that creeps over almost every page, insisting that death must sooner or later overtake ‘even the strongest heart deep mortised in life.’
The prose has an undeniable quality of power; at times it approaches sublimity. Llewelyn Powys’s ancestors included the poets John Donne and William Cowper; his literary style comes straight from the England that produced the King James version of the Bible. There is the flavor of a Shakespearean sonnet in such phrases as ‘that hour when the cattle cease from grazing, and the swallow sleeps, and the owl wakes.’ In the rhythms of the Psalmist he says of the wind: ‘The nettles grouped by the farmyard wall sway to it, and in wide-open spaces its music is not lost.’ And again the sombre and majestic cadences of Thomas Browne echo through such passages as ‘All is forgotten, all cancelled by death in the strong drift of advancing time, which draws all happenings back into oblivion.’
Mr. Powys is not in any sense a naturalist. Intermingled with his observations of the natural world are fairies, pagan deities, creatures of myth and legend. He perceives nature rather as artist and philosopher, with an appreciative eye for the beauty of a gull in swift flight from horizon to horizon, with an ear sharpened to catch the sound of a hare drinking from a pond, and with sensitive awareness of the constancy and spiritual subjection of the hen partridge, faithful to her nest even through the night of horror when a rat creeps down the ditch near the lettuce bed. There is set before us a picture of nature retouched by the author’s interpretative pen and colored with a brush dipped deep in his own philosophy of life.
Where Mr. Powys retouches freely, Henry Williamson uses himself as a camera to record the wild life of the English countryside. In Goodbye West Country (Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, $3.00), the journal of his last year in Devon, he bids farewell to the country of the rivers Taw and Torridge where he acquired the incomparable fund of knowledge that went into the writing of his two best-known books, Tarka the Otter and Salar the Salmon.
The same qualities that placed those earlier works in the front rank of nature literature are met in the journal entries describing Mr. Williamson’s observations of the life of sky and field and river. The sight of a spent May fly drifting down river at sunset, wings dispread; the grand stoop of a peregrine falcon, wind whistling through her talons; the gentle browsing of earthworms on the spring feast of apple blossoms through an April night —each recalls to him the whole life of the wild creature brought for the moment within his vision. Each has its beginning, its interlude of struggle for existence, its inevitable end. As any sensitive person must be, Mr. Williamson is saddened by the relentless cycle of nature which demands the death of one creature that another may live, but in the fulfillment of each separate existence he sees ‘the ceaseless play of the fountain.’
It is hard to imagine the reader who can lay aside a Williamson book unmoved by the wonder of a world known to so few, though it lies about us every day.