222: Water

Fine Friends,

At last, spring is with us here in  the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York! The crocuses have come and gone and the daffodils are out in full force and the weather, thinking this is its chance to moderate has become sweetly warm. This may not continue. In fact, in my experience, it frequently does not (I have seen snow here as late as May!!), but, for the warmer present, we are delighted to have what we have.

It being spring, my thoughts Ruskin always return to his wondrous passages on Nature. Every now and then, I think that I have shared the bulk of these with you in previous posts. ( See, for instance, the following: 16. Spring Inspiration, 19: The Living Inhabitation of the World, 31: Living Sunshine, 134: On the Old Road (II): The Rhone at Geneva ) Occasionally, I  entertain a thought that there are no more great nature passages to share. But such a supposition, I learned, as I was doing some rereading over the weekend just past, was silly, because, as I’ve often said before, Ruskin is all but inexhaustible. So there I was, rereading along in that transcendent volume, the first of the Modern Painters series, when I came across a passage on the significance and beauty that is water.  I had read the passage before, of course, perhaps numerous times, but, for some reason, had never singled it out. But this time, as it slowly reabsorbed into my consciousness, it emerged as one of those glorious passages that so mesmerized readers of the Modern Painters volumes almost two centuries ago. For, in three relatively short paragraphs (short for him, that is!), Ruskin gives us an appreciation of water that, previously, most of us have never experienced.  As with all his magnificent passages portraying the natural world, he is trying to get us to see that, in all its aspects, if we but take time to look with care, we will uncover glories beyond description, will come to see that, in the great gift we have been given– the chance to live in this marvelous material world– vibrate delights inexhaustible, and that, when seeing these, we are always uplifted and take another, no matter how small it may be, step toward being whole.

Water, then:

Of all inorganic substances acting in their own proper nature and without assistance or combination, water is the most wonderful. If we think of it as the source of all changefulness and beauty which we have seen in clouds (2: The Wondrous Sky), and then as the instrument by which the earth has been modelled into its symmetry, as the aspect which has chiseled its crags into grace; and then as–in the form of snow—the element which robes the earth with transcendent light– a light  which we could not have conceived if we had not seen it– and,  then, as it exists in the form of the torrent – in the Iris which spans that and the morning mist that rises from that– in the crystalline pools which mirror its hanging shore in the broad lake and glancing river; and, finally, in that which is to all human minds the best emblem of unwearied, unconquerable power–the  various, fantastic, timeless unity of the sea! –to what shall we compare this eternal, changefulness of feeling, this universal element of glory and beauty?  It is like trying to paint a soul…

To paint the actual hue of the reflective surface [of water] or capture the forms and fury of it when it begins to show itself, to give the flashing and rocket-like velocity of a noble cataract, or the precision and grace of the sea wave so exquisitely modeled, though so mockingly transient – so mountainous in its form, yet so cloudlike in its motion – with its variety and delicacy of color when every ripple and wreath has some peculiar reflection of itself alone, when the radiating and scintillating sunbeams are mixed with the dim hues of transparent depth and dark rock below – to do this perfectly is beyond the power of man; the talent to do it even partially has been granted to few and, of those few, few have dared attempt it…

The fact is that there is hardly a roadside pond or pool which has not as much landscape in it as above it. That “ugly” pool is not the brown, muddy, dull thing we suppose it to be. It has a heart like ourselves, and, at its bottom, are harbored the boughs of the tall trees and blades of the shaking grass, and, above, all manner of pleasant variable light from the sky, Nay, even the ugly gutter that stagnates over the drain bars in the heart of the foul city is not altogether base; for in that, if you will look deep enough, you may see the dark, serious blue of the far-off sky and the passing of the pure clouds. It is at your own will that you see, in that lower extreme, either the refuse of the street or the image of the sky– and so it  is with almost all  the things  we so unkindly despise.

And, if such wonderful words are not sufficient to entice you a desire to look with great care during your next encounter with any body of water, there is always my absolute favorite of Ruskin’s water passages (“The Laughing Hurries”! 38: The Laughing Hurries), that preferred status attained, perhaps, because, some years ago, when I was rambling about in Mr, Ruskin’s favorite Alpine locations, I made it a point to go out and find said hurries! (Nice pictures!)

Until next time!

Do revel in the ever-progressing spring and DO please continue well out there!

And, as always, my exuberant thanks to Jenn Webb of HWS for her technical wizardry1



P.S. It is perhaps a good idea to end this Post with an especially lovely image of water. Below is a recently taken photograph of a very large mural painted by Kenneth  Millington,  son of Tom Millington, one of our long- serving professors in the Political Science Department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges here in Geneva. Some years ago, the City, thinking it would, and indeed should, be beautified by the creation of some new instances of public art, commissioned Ken to do this painting. As you will quickly see, it takes up the entire west side of a city building. In my view, the painting is especially admirable for its extremely accomplished rendering of the sea, of its waves and unceasing fluidity. If you take a few minutes to look it over I am sure you will also get a sense of what a fine piece of public art it is. I marvel at it every time I drive by and, as I do so, silently applaud both Ken and the City for creating it!! May all our communities be blessed with such uplifting images!

Kenneth Millington, mural, Geneva, New York
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