The Forgotten Visionary Richard Jefferies on Nature as a Portal to Self-Transcendence
“The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live, so that the longer we can stay among these things so much the more is snatched from inevitable Time.”
By Maria Popova
“We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle,” the great philosopher of science and natural history writer Loren Eiseley observed in his 1960 masterpiece on what a woodland creature taught him about the meaning of life.
Eiseley belongs to that rare class of enchanter — a lineage of exceptional nonfiction writers stretching from lyrically consummate scientists like Rachel Carson, Oliver Sacks, and Janna Levin to poet laureates of nature like Henry Beston and Annie Dillard — writers whose lyrical sensibility can be traced to one forgotten, immensely influential progenitor: the British nature writer Richard Jefferies (November 6, 1848–August 14, 1887).
Having dropped out of school at the age of fifteen, Jefferies educated himself by reading voraciously and wandering the wilderness of the English countryside, convinced that he was destined to become a writer — a career he pursued unrelentingly, first as a newspaper journalist, then as a novelist, and finally as a nature writer of tremendous poetic potency. Deeply inspired by Charles Darwin, Jefferies lauded him as a “great genius, who had not only untiring patience to observe and verify, but also possessed imagination, and could therefore see the motive idea at work behind the facts” — imaginative insight Darwin translated into “astonishing works of singular patience and careful observation.”
Jefferies bridged the sensibility of the great Romantic and Transcendentalist poets with the intellectual curiosity of the “natural philosophers” — as the professional observers of nature were known before the word “scientist” was coined for the mathematician Mary Somerville. He developed his own singular style of translating the inherent poetry of nature into uncommonly poetic prose, nowhere more enchantingly than in his 1884 book The Life of the Fields (public library | free ebook) — an exquisite eulogy for the way attentiveness to nature’s beauty dissolves the boundary between ourselves and the world.
In a section titled “The Pageant of Summer,” Jefferies writes:
Every blade of grass, each leaf, each separate floret and petal, is an inscription speaking of hope… My heart is fixed firm and stable in the belief that ultimately the sunshine and the summer, the flowers and the azure sky, shall become, as it were, interwoven into man’s existence. He shall take from all their beauty and enjoy their glory. Hence it is that a flower is to me so much more than stalk and petals.
Learning to attend to and savor these transcendent fragments of nature, Jefferies argues, is learning to inhabit our own wholeness:
I cannot leave it; I must stay under the old tree in the midst of the long grass, the luxury of the leaves, and the song in the very air. I seem as if I could feel all the glowing life the sunshine gives and the south wind calls to being. The endless grass, the endless leaves, the immense strength of the oak expanding, the unalloyed joy of finch and blackbird; from all of them I receive a little. Each gives me something of the pure joy they gather for themselves. In the blackbird’s melody one note is mine; in the dance of the leaf shadows the formed maze is for me, though the motion is theirs; the flowers with a thousand faces have collected the kisses of the morning. Feeling with them, I receive some, at least, of their fulness of life.
When Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement with her powerful and poetic exposé of the industrial assault on nature, reflected on becoming a writer, she pointed to this passage from Jefferies’s book as the perfect articulation of the credo by which she herself lived and wrote:
The exceeding beauty of the earth, in her splendour of life, yields a new thought with every petal. The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live, so that the longer we can stay among these things so much the more is snatched from inevitable Time.
These are the only hours that are not wasted—these hours that absorb the soul and fill it with beauty. This is real life, and all else is illusion, or mere endurance. Does this reverie of flowers and waterfall and song form an ideal, a human ideal, in the mind? It does; much the same ideal that Phidias sculptured of man and woman filled with a godlike sense of the violet fields of Greece, beautiful beyond thought, calm as my turtle-dove before the lurid lightning of the unknown. To be beautiful and to be calm, without mental fear, is the ideal of nature.
Complement this particular portion of the wholly resplendent The Life of the Fields with nineteen-year-old Sylvia Plath on how the beauty of nature transforms us and Rachel Carson’s lyrical and revolutionary 1937 masterpiece that ushered in a new aesthetic of science writing, then revisit Loren Eiseley on the relationship between nature and human nature.
Published September 6, 2017