A Chaos of Delight: Darwin on the Sublimity and Transcendence of Nature
By Maria Popova
Something about time with ancient trees and shimmering waters, time under star-salted skies and by sunlit horizons, takes us as far beyond ourselves as we can go in this world and at the same time returns us to ourselves clarified, magnified, more awake to the native poetry of reality between the bookends of life and death — perhaps because time in nature resets the brain’s Default Mode Network that ordinarily trammels our thinking, or perhaps simply because we are nature and it is amid the rest of the natural world that we most openly commune with ourselves, with the “cosmic consciousness” of which ours is but a fractal and contact with which is our readiest portal to transcendence. Rachel Carson knew this when she beheld the meaning of life in the rising tide and Emily Dickinson knew this when she saw the web of life in a single flower.
A century before Carson, when Dickinson was at the peak of her powers, Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) captured his universal awareness in some uncommonly poetic passages from his memoir A Naturalist’s Voyage Round the World (public library | free ebook), published a year after On the Origin of Species radicalized the human understanding of and belonging with the rest of nature.
Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and Decay prevail. Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature: — no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.
With the natural humility that haloes the true scientist, he refuses to take the stance of a prophet, as many great minds are apt to do when facing these immense questions, and instead takes that of the poet, who shares with the scientist the art of observation as the raw material of wonder:
I can scarcely analyse these feelings: but it must be partly owing to the free scope given to the imagination. The plains of Patagonia are boundless, for they are scarcely passable, and hence unknown: they bear the stamp of having lasted, as they are now, for ages, and there appears no limit to their duration through future time. If, as the ancients supposed, the flat earth was surrounded by an impassable breadth of water, or by deserts heated to an intolerable excess, who would not look at these last boundaries to man’s knowledge with deep but ill-defined sensations?
Half a lifetime earlier, in the middle of the very voyage his recollection revived, the young Darwin had reached for the fundamental answer to the open question and captured the essence of this altered state of consciousness in his journal. Two weeks after his thirty-third birthday, while reading Humboldt — who had invented nature as we now understand it a generation earlier and whose “rare union of poetry with science” Darwin thought “will for ever be unparalleled,” even as he himself came to surpass it: the mark of genuine humility — he writes:
The delight one experiences in such times bewilders the mind; if the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butter-fly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect one forgets it in the stranger flower it is crawling over; if turning to admire the splendor of the scenery, the individual character of the foreground fixes the attention. The mind is a chaos of delight.
Couple with Darwin’s deathbed reflection on what makes life worth living, then revisit his contemporaries Florence Nightingale on the healing power of nature and beauty, Mary Shelley on the transcendence of mountains, and Nathaniel Hawthorne on how to look at nature and truly see.
Published August 25, 2022