Ruskin was aware of the group of mid-nineteenth century writers known as the Transcendentalists. He read and liked Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson, particularly approving of their unabashed love of Nature. With Whitman, a limited correspondence evolved. In one letter to the American, he mentioned that so much in Nature seemed miraculous–to which Whitman replied that “every inch of Nature is a miracle!!”. All one had to do was pick any square inch that intrigued and study it. As one did so, its miracles would be revealed, we, the students of it, would be awed at the wonders emerging and slightly chagrined about all that we had missed previously. (Try it, good reader; it’s TRUE!)
Another trait that made his pages so enticing was his regular insertion of what might be called, “travel notes.” Whenever he was traveling, Ruskin’s eyes, ears, and brain were at full alert. When he stopped, if he thought it important, he would make notes or drawings recording what had impressed him. Later, when writing about this or that, the memory of one of these travel scenes would return and, to illustrate a point, he would write a version of his observations to be placed in his text Suddenly, and usually delightfully, the reader would find himself in a different country, on a different continent, or in a bygone historical era, reading about something he either had or had not experienced. Today’s quotes exhibit a brace of such “travel notes”; the first appears, abruptly, about halfway through the first volume of The Stones of Venice, the second–also a surprise (a seeming digression that is anything but)– can be found in the third volume of Modern Painters. Here they are:
The glacier of the col [pass] de Cervin [the Matterhorn] rises level as a lake. This spur is one of the points from which the mass of Mont Cervin is approachable; it is a continuation of the masonry of the mountain itself, and affords us the means of examining the character of its materials.
Few architects would like to build with them. The shape of the rocks to the northwest is covered two feet deep with their ruins, a mass of loose and’s slaty shale, of brick red color… The rock is indeed hard beneath, but still disposed in thin courses of cloven shapes so finally laid that they look in places like a heap of crushed autumn leaves rather than a rock; and the first sensation is one of unmitigated surprise, as if the mountain were upheld by miracle; but surprise [soon] becomes more intelligent reverence for the Great Builder, when we find in the middle of the mass of these dead leaves, a course of living rock, of quartz as white as the snow that encircles it, harder than a bed of steel.
It is only one of over thousand iron bands that knit the strength of the mighty mountain. Through the buttresses and the wall alike, the courses of the varied masonry mate are displayed in their success of order– smooth and true as if held by line and plummet, but of a thickness and strength created by the sunshine; they continually very and with silver cornices that glitter along the edge of each, structures laid by the snowy winds and the eternal sunshine; stainless ornaments of the eternal Temple by which “neither the hammer, nor the acts, nor any tools were heard while it was building.” (Kings VI, 7.)
From Modern Painters III:
In general, active men of strong sense and stern principle, do not care to see anything in a leaf but vegetable tissue, and are so well convinced of useful moral truth that it does not strike them as a new or notable thing when they find it [moral truth] in any way symbolized by material nature. Hence there is a strong initial [and negative] presumption when first we perceive a tendency in anyone to regard trees as living, and enunciate moral aphorisms over every pebble we stumble against that such tendency proceeds from a morbid temperament like Shelley’s, or an inconsistent one like Jacques’s. But when the active life is nobly fulfilled and the mind is then raised beyond it into clear and calm beholding of the world around us ,and the same tendency manifests itself again in the most sacred way, the simplest forms of nature appear strangely animated by a sense of the Divine presence. The trees and flowers seem all, in a sort, children of God; and we ourselves, their fellows, made of the same dust of the Divine power exerted on our frame– and all the common uses and palpably visible forms of things become subordinate in our minds to their inner glory, to the mysterious forces in which they talk to us about God, and the changeable and typical aspects they witness to us of holy truth, and fill us with obedient, joyful, and thankful emotion.
A few square inches of miracle (Petunia plants on our porch 2021)
Until next time!!
Please do continue well out there.