The Unphotographable: Henry Williamson on the Transcendence of the Winter Sky After a Blizzard
By Maria Popova
Sometimes, a painting in words is worth a thousand pictures. I think about this more and more, in our compulsively visual culture, which increasingly reduces what we think and feel and see — who and what we are — to what can be photographed. I think of Susan Sontag, who called it “aesthetic consumerism” half a century before Instagram. In a small act of resistance, I offer The Unphotographable — a lovely image in words drawn from centuries of literature: passages transcendent and transportive, depicting landscapes and experiences radiant with beauty and feeling beyond what a visual image could convey.
Wounded as a young man in the Great War, Henry Williamson (December 1, 1895–August 13, 1977) found refuge in the English countryside. Slowly healed by its “wildlings,” he emerged a decade later with the uncommonly beautiful 1928 book Tarka the Otter (public library), every word of which he felt was “chipped from the breastbone.”
Beloved by generations of readers, Tarka the Otter changed the way we write — and think, and feel — about nature. It was a monumental influence on Rachel Carson, emboldening her to do something never before done in nonfiction — tell the story of the sea, its science and its splendor, through the biological realities of three animal protagonists.
In one particularly breathtaking passage, Williamson paints a tempest of wintry transcendence:
Beyond the shaped and ever-shifting heaps of sand, beyond the ragged horizon of the purple-grey sea, the sun sunk as though it were sent in space, a dwarfed star quenching in its own steam of decay. The snow fled in the wind, over the empty shells of snails and rabbit skeletons lying bare and scattered, past the white, sand-stripped branches of dead elderberry trees, and the dust of them aided an older dust to wear away the living tissue of the Burrows. Night was like day, for neither moon nor sun nor star was seen. Then the blizzard passed, and the snow lay in its still pallor under the sky.
* * *
And the sky was to the stars again — by day six black stars and one great whitish star, hanging aloft the Burrows, flickering at their pitches; six peregrines and one Greenland falcon. A dark speck falling, the whish of the grand stoop from two thousand feet heard half a mile away; red drops on a drift of snow. By night the great stars flickered as with falcon wings, the watchful and glittering hosts of creation. The moon arose in its orbit, white and cold, awaiting through the ages the swoop of a new sun, the shock of starry talons to shatter the Icicle Spirit in a rain of fire. In the south strode Orion the Hunter, with Sirius the Dogstar baying green fire at his heels. At midnight Hunter and Hound were rushing bright in a glacial wind, hunting the false star-dwarfs of burnt-out suns, who had turned back into Darkness again.
Complement with Dallas Lore Sharp on how to savor winter, then revisit other enchanting Unphotographables: Jack Kerouac on the self-revelation of the windblown world, Richard Powers on the majestic migration of sandhill cranes; Georgia O’Keeffe on the grandeur of Machu Picchu; Iris Murdoch on the sea and the stars; an Alpine transcendence with Mary Shelley; an Alaskan paradise with Rockwell Kent.
Published December 17, 2022