192: The Living Surround

Late Blooming Roses, Geneva, New York, early September, 2020


Today is Labor Day in the US, the day during which we traditionally celebrate all that working people have done to make us who we are today. Today, also as specified by tradition, we don’t work. We relax and enjoy ourselves. Tomorrow we work. There are innumerable ways of doing this relaxing and enjoying this, of course, but one which should be fairly high on our agenda, Mr. Ruskin would surely say, is to take a walk in the woods; adding that you’ll be pleasantly surprised, delighted, and elevated by what you find there.

So, just in case you are inclined to follow his advice (almost always this is a good idea), here are a few Ruskin bits you can put in your back pocket and bring with you. As always, such bits will be helpful for seeing but, in one case in particular, much deeper issues are raised. They were written at different times and arrive from a number of different sources because, as you know if you’ve been with us for any significant amount of time, there were many such tributariesb, but, whatever Ruskin’s own changes may have been along his evolving way, the central themes, such as the importance of loving and deriving inspiration (literally, to “in-spirit,” to “breathe life into”) from Nature, never changed. 

The first is from a late collection of letters, Arrows of the Chase, reproductions of missive which he had sent, over the years, to newspapers and journals:

It is not sufficient that the facts or the features of Nature be around us while they are not within us. We may walk, day by day, through grove and meadow, and scarcely know more concerning them than is known by bird and beast: that the one has shade for the head, and the other, softness for the foot. It is not true that “the eye, it cannot choose but see” unless we obey the following condition, and go forth “in a wise passiveness,” free from that plague of our own hearts which brings the shadow of ourselves and the tumult of our petty interests and impatient passion across the light and calm of Nature… You may rest assured that those who do not care for Nature, cannot see her. A few of her phenomena lie on the surface, [but] the nobler number lie deep, and are the reward of watching and careful thought. 

Here’s a second, from the first volume of Modern Painters, the book that made Ruskin a “household name”–at least among Britain’s reading classes:

The truths of Nature are one eternal change, one infinite variety. There is no bush on the face of the earth exactly like another bush. There are no two trees in the forest whose boughs bend into the same network, nor two leaves on the same tree which could not be told one from the other, nor two waves in the sea exactly alike.

And here’s the last (for today, at least). You can find it in the third volume of Modern Painters, and is the one of the three that, should you decide to allot it, asks for the deepest reflection.

With us, observe, the idea of the Divinity is apt to get separated from the life of Nature. And, imagining our God upon a cloudy throne far above the earth, and not in the flowers and waters, we approach those visible things with a theory that they are dead, governed by physical laws, and so forth.

But, coming to them, we find the theory fails–that they are not dead; that, say what we choose about them, the instinctive sense of their being alive is too strong for us, and in scorn of all physical law, the willful fountain sings, and the kindly flowers rejoice!

And then, puzzled and yet happy, pleased and yet ashamed of being so, accepting sympathy from Nature–which we do not believe it gives!–and giving sympathy to Nature–which we do not believe it receives!…we fall necessarily into the curious web of hesitating sentiment, pathetic fallacy, and wandering fancy, which form a great part of our modern view of Nature.

Perhaps these will be enough for a holiday stroll.

Sunrise over Seneca Lake, New York, 4 September 2020.

Until next time.

Continue well out there!


This entry was posted in Life, Nature, Religion, Truths and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to 192: The Living Surround

  1. James G. Hanink says:

    Good advice, but not just now in LA, aka “La Ciudad de los Angeles casi Perdidos.” It was 121 degrees here yesterday, plus the fires. Gives one pause…

  2. Harris, Jack says:

    Thanks Jim. A fitting reminder to get outdoors and be astounded by the loveliness and complexity of that which we take for granted.


    Jack D. Harris Professor of Sociology Hobart and William Smith Colleges Mobile: 315-521-1387

  3. Jonathan Chiswell Jones says:

    How I envy those who got together in 2019 to visit all those sites with Ruskinian connections!
    But to newer matters- ‘Arrow of the chase’. Ruskin raises the point that we can walk in the countryside and see nothing. In just the same way we can hear a speaker and learn nothing, visit a gallery and remember nothing.
    It was Blake who said:
    “If we could only cleanse the windows of perception, we should see everything as it is- infinite”. The ‘windows of perception’ I take to be mind, heart and eye. The eye alone is the means by which light enters; the mind, that store of experiences and memories we carry with us and which clouds our vision; the heart, that part of us which cares and loves and thus directs our attention.
    One fact made clear in these days when we spend so long on the internet, is that attention is forever being seduced. It was perhaps easier in Ruskin’s day to focus. I wonder what he would have thought about the power of the internet, both for good and ill?
    Thank you for “Why Ruskin’ – it is always good to return to wise writing.
    Sincere good wishes-
    Jonathan Chiswell Jones.

  4. Chris Wertman says:

    It was a pleasure to read “The Living Surround” this afternoon. Much to my delight the beautiful image of sunrise was photographed on my 73rd birthday — coincidental! This time of year is filled with most inspiring and breath-taking sights if we take time to focus on nature.
    Thanks JR and Jim!
    Chris Wertman

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s