63: Infinite Orchards

Fine Folks,

Ruskin was convinced that the Paradise most of us imagine or long for was neither elsewhere (the Italian riviera?) or located in some vaguely conceived future. It was all around us. If we didn’t see it, it was because things we or others had done or were doing still hindered it from making its omnipresence visible. No god worthy of the name, he said, would withhold the sweetnesses and beauty of creation from those whom he had made capable of seeing them. We are surrounded by “infinite orchards”–always.

But, like all orchards, the ones waiting at our elbows to be appreciated require tending if we and others care to see and enjoy them in their fullness. Our last two Posts–61: The List and 62: “And if on Due and Honest Thought Over These Things”–summarized some of our Great Victorian’s thoughts about many of the most important things which needed doing if those lovely views were to be brought out from the shadows, shadows which we, not they, made. Doing is the significant thing. Knowing that no one is capable of doing all, the key to better days, he argued, was for each of us to choose one or two of the orchards in our vicinity and then commit our powers to bringing them to full fruit. Others, dedicated to the tending of other orchards, would help fill in the interstices until all blossoms blossomed. If these others chose not to tend the orchards within their reach, at least we will have tended ours, and that bit of paradise will have been regained. Nothing to be sneered at, that result!

Here’s how, in 1860, he introduced this beneficent orchardian idea to readers of the fifth volume of his magisterial Modern Painters series. (If you’d like a truly elegant and inspiring read after you come in from this day’s gardening, you could hardly do better than peruse a few pages of this incredible work of genius, you can find them here: Modern Painters V. You could download the whole, of course, and have hundreds of elegant paragraphs on the essential things of life available for many days’ moments of post-gardening!)

“Paradise,” he said, beginning, was reputedly “full of pleasant shades and fruitful avenues.  Well! What hinders us from covering as much of the world as we like with pleasant shade and pure blossom and goodly fruit?  Who forbids its valleys to be covered over with corn till they laugh and sing?  Who prevents its dark forests, dark and uninhabitable, from being changed into infinite orchards…flushing the face of all the autumnal earth with glow of clustered food?  But Paradise was a place of peace, we say, and all the animals were gentle servants to us.  Well! the world would yet be a place of peace if we were all peacemakers, and gentle service should we have of its creatures if we gave them gentle mastery.  But so long as we make sport of slaying bird and beast, so long as we choose to contend rather with our fellows than with our faults, and make battlefield of our meadows instead of pasture–so long, truly, the Flaming Sword will still turn every way, and the gates of Eden remain barred close enough, till we have sheathed the sharper flame of own passions, and broken down the closer gates of our own hearts. 

Below are two examples of those who used their powers to tend orchards they had noticed nearby, making, in the first instance (Monet’s “Apple Blossoms”), those gentle blooms available to us throughout the coldest winters and, in the second (Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Morning Glories”), reminding us that all our mornings are glorious.

Until next time!

Be planting, caring, and curing out there!



apple-trees-in-bloom--MonetOKeeffe--Morning Glories

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3 Responses to 63: Infinite Orchards

  1. david.waterhouse@utoronto.ca says:

    Dear Jim,

    I wonder what Ruskin would have said about Buddhist paradises: especially the Pure Land of the celestial Buddha Amitābha, as described in detail in the shorter and longer Sukhāvati-vyūha. Of course the word “paradise”, in its Greek form, was first used by Xenophon of an enclosed park, orchard or hunting preserve in Persia; and derives from ancient Persian.

    Yours ever,


  2. Mark Frost says:

    In one of those delightful instances of ‘Fors’, I was planning to get in touch to suggest that as Spring had sprung you might include as a forthcoming extract the four paragraphs that follow the one that you have so delightfully given us here – four paragraphs in which Ruskin celebrates trees as a

    ‘veil of strange intermediate being which breathes, but has no voice; moves, but cannot leave its appointed place; passes through life without consciousness, to death without bitterness; wears the beauty of youth, without its passion; and declines to the weakness of age, without its regret’. These represent some of the finest Ruskinian prose in celebrating the wonder and utility of vegetation (Keats, natural theology, and modern science combine as he records the bounty of its ‘cold juice, or glowing spice, or balm, or incense, softening oil, preserving resin, medicine of styptic, febrifuge, or lulling charm: and all these presented in forms of endless change’) but he also urges us to recognise that vegetation (and trees in particular) are a test of our own selves: ‘Being thus prepared for us in all ways, and made beautiful, and good for food, and for building, and for instruments of our hands, this race of plants, deserving boundless affection and admiration from us, becomes, in proportion to their obtaining it, a nearly perfect test of our being in right temper of mind and way of life; so that no one can be far wrong in either who loves the trees enough, and every one is assuredly wrong in both who does not love them, if his [sic] life has brought them in his way’.

    So many many thanks for giving us a little slice of what is, for me, Ruskin at his best and most moving, captured at that glorious period around 1860 after he has begun to cast off some of the shackles of Evangelicalism and started to embrace the wonders of physical existence, but before the woes, miseries, and pain that gathered around him more and more as the 1860s progressed and the sad late decades of his life began.

  3. jimspates says:

    David–For your remarks, many thanks. It has always irked me a little that Ruskin had so little to say about the art and thought of the East–much of which, as you know, as do I from my numerous experiences in Asia over a quarter century, is wonderful and profound. I suspect–but that is all!–that he would be much intrigued by the deeper thoughts of the Buddhists and Hindus as these come very close to his belief (this “Infinite Orchards” quote evidence of that belief) in the omnipresence of the deity in creation. Thanks too for the etymology on “Paradise,” of which I was completely unaware. I suspect Mr. Ruskin, given his intense desire to know the origins of words, would have known what you have shared with us.

    Mark–For your “adding on” to the passage I chose for this Post, many thanks and sustained applause! These are, as you say, some of the most beautiful sentences in Ruskin, sentences which remind us in resplendent words that the world is lovely if we but choose to tend it and train ourselves to see that loveliness. I revel in these passages–they abound in his works–and you have inspired me to post another….


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