From the immense (last post: #64) to the minuscule (this one), Ruskin’s love of the marvels of nature never waned. Among all the messages he tried to communicate over the decades which contained his career he was constantly reminding us of our intimate, enduring, and essential connection with the marvelous world in which we draw breath. Nature was always there–had been put there purposely he believed–to delight us. If we would but devote the small amount of time needed to cultivate the relationship, we would quickly discover that, all along, nature had been patiently waiting for our notice and, once that had been gained, would give and give and give us pleasure. Like it or not, deny it or not, ignore it or not, we were not just merely in nature, we were of nature, were nature.
The sole thought in the mind of nature, he argued in Modern Painters II (1846), was to provide all the creatures that were part of it, whatever their level of sentience might be, with the means necessary for reaching their own highest potential, and, once they had attained that elevated state, with the capacity to exult not only in their own realization, but appreciate the perfection that had been realized in all the other wonderful creatures and things surrounding them. To live in such a state of delight was what it meant to be alive. Because of this innate tendency, left to follow their own deepest impulses, all things living would strive perpetually to attain their highest level, would attempt to become a perfect instance of that thing which they were. Every tree, Ruskin said, strove to become a perfect tree, every Alpine adenostyle strove with all its might to become a perfect adenostyle. Here those littler ones are!
Winds and storms might come; damage might be done; injury might be affected. But, as soon as such onslaughts passed—even, indeed, while the buffeting continued—these assailed trees and adenostyles would begin to right themselves, to heal themselves, to become as close to perfect as they might whatever conditions their new circumstances might impose. Life, healthy, happy, life, was all that mattered, all that nature wished for them, for us. And when they attained these best states, even when they were somewhat shy of them, all living things, he said, became beautiful and we, unique beings capable of seeing them, discovered that, naturally, our hearts lept in joy at the lovelinesses, and, as that effortless leaping occurred, walked a step or two closer to our own perfection as well.
In an earlier post offering instance of Ruskin’s love of nature, “Spring Inspiration” (#16), in a passage detailing the glories which the Alps happily bestowed on looking eyes, he wrote of the flowers as “coming forth in clusters crowded for very love,” and, a bit further on, reported “a blue gush of violets” (pretty sexy images these! these carefully chosen words not unlike those of a lover cherishing her or his adored; but then, when it came to nature, that is what Ruskin was: an ardent lover). And, near the end of that same passage, he gave pointed notice to “the golden softness of deep, warm, amber-colored moss.”
Moss? Who, other than dedicated botanists, looks at moss!? When in its presence (do we ever note that we are in its presence?) don’t we almost always pass it by stonily? Not disdaining it exactly, but simply not noticing it–deeming it an “incidental,” a trifle, at most “a little green something…”?
But what might happen if we paused in that neglectful stroll for a few moments and peered at this non-entity of nature’s a little more closely? Here is Ruskin’s report of what such a peering revealed to him of this often overlooked minuscule during one dawn morning as he stood by his favorite rock high above the town of Chamouni in the French Alps, the spot that afforded him the best view of his revered Mont Blanc. The passage comes from the last chapter, the tenth, of the first part of the fifth volume of Modern Painters (1860), that entirety of that first part having been given the title, “Of Leaf Beauty.” In typical Ruskin fashion, by the passage’s end we have moved on from the littlest of the leaves that are motionless to nothing less than a celebration of all the beauties of our earth.
The morning is very quiet. There is no wind. Ruskin’s glance falls first on the trees flourishing in the nearby meadow:
Leaves motionless! The strong pines wave above them and the weak grasses tremble beside them. But the blue stars rest upon the earth with a peace as of heaven as, far along the ridges of iron rock, moveless as they, the rubied crests of Alpine peaks rise flush in the low rays of morning. Nor are these… the stillest leaves. Others there are, subdued to a deeper quietness–the mute slaves of the earth to whom we owe, perhaps, thanks, and tenderness, the most profound of all we have to render for the leaf ministries.
It is strange to think of the gradually diminished power and withdrawn freedom among the orders of leaves. From the sweep of the chestnut and gadding of the vine, down to the close shrinking trefoil and contented daisy pressed on earth, [before] coming at last to the leaves that are not merely close to earth, but themselves a part of it–fastened down to it by their sides, here and there only a wrinkled edge rising from the granite crystals. [In earlier chapters, we] found beauty in the tree yielding fruit and in the herb yielding seed. How now of the herb yielding no seed, the fruitless, flowerless lichen of the rock?…
Meek creatures! The first mercy of the earth, veiling with hushed softness its dintless rocks. Creatures full of pity, covering with strange and tender honor the scarred disgrace of ruin, laying quiet finger on the trembling stones, to teach them rest. No words that I know of will say what these mosses are! None are delicate enough, none perfect enough, none rich enough. How is one to tell of the rounded bosses of furred and beaming green, the starred divisions of rubied bloom, fine-filmed, as if the Rock Spirits could spin porphyry as we do glass, the traceries of intricate silver, and fringes of amber, lustrous, arborescent, burnished through every fiber into fitful brightness and glossy traverses of silken change–yet all subdued and pensive, and framed for the simplest, sweetest, offices of grace? They will not be gathered, like the flowers, for chaplet or love-token! But of these the wild bird will make its nest, and the wearied child his pillow…
Yet, [while] in one sense the humblest, in another they are the most honored of the earth-children. Unfading, as motionless, the worm frets them not, and the autumn wastes them not. Strong in lowliness, they neither blanch in heat nor pine in frost. To them, slow-fingered, constant-hearted, is entrusted the weaving of the dark, eternal tapestries of the hills; to them, slow-penciled, iris-dyed, the tender framing of their endless imagery. Sharing the stillness of the unimpassioned rock, they share also its endurance. And while the winds of departing spring scatter the white hawthorn blossom like drifted snow, and summer dims on the parched meadow the dropping of its cowslip gold, far above, among the mountains, the silver lichen spots rest, star-like, on the stone, and the gathering orange stain upon the edge of yonder western peak reflects the sunsets of a thousand years.
Such is the minuscule we so often miss! But no worries. The minuscule is still there. Still waiting for us to notice it and bring us unexpected delight!
Moss on Ruskin’s Rock, Chamouni, French Alps
Mountains! And mosses! And we have not yet visited the fields…or the pines…or …!
Enjoy this penultimate penultimate day of Spring, as, wherever you are, you bask in the delectable thought that, in brief moments, it will be resplendent Summer!
As always: Be well out there!
Until next time.