223: Seeing: Ruskin’s Genius, for Spring!!

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, all in one. [Ruskin, Modern Painters]

The above few lines constitute one of Ruskin’s most famous aphorisms. I surprised myself the other day when I discovered that I had not shared it with readers of this blog before. It is often reproduced in works about him and conveys deep truth with the elegance of words that are his especial trademark.

For perhaps more than anything else, his greatest strength was his ability to SEE something in its essence and communicate what he had seen clearly, that communicating resulting in his writings’ ability to astonish readers as he told them things that before, even when they were quite familiar with them, they had never noticed. It began when he was just a little fellow. He would stroll into the family garden at his Herne Hill family home south of London and just sit and look at things for, often, hours at a time, thes subtlest qualities(what he was observing revealing themselves to him as he progressed. To go on such a sweet excursion with him, read the first two chapters of his remarkable autobiography, Praeterita– the second called “Herne Hill Almond blossoms.” This ability to see only became more enhanced as he got older. When his family was out for a drive or when he was accompanying his father on his rounds of sherry customers throughout England and Scotland, he would frequently ask for the coach to stop so he could get out and look at something with great care. Still later, during his trips to the Continent, he would frequently stop his carriage to get out, study and sketch some aspect of nature which had taken his eye and thought. Almost all of the wonderful passages containing his observations of nature included in our previous posts are the result of these exercises in seeing.

But these days, we all have a special “seeing treat” surrounding us all: Spring! And it should hardly come as a surprise that our subject devoted some of his most beautiful paragraphs to a description of this season celebrating the regeneration of life in the new year. The idea of today’s post is to share a few of those paragraphs. They come from the fifth volume of Modern Painters (part five, chapter 6), and illustrate same with some lovely examples taken, mostly, from my own front yard – which I intend to symbolize all of our front yards during these fleeting days!

I begin with a picture of our glorious cherry tree, a tree which, every spring, enriches our lives for about a week with its spectacular blossoms. Below that are the first part of his introduction to describing the processes of life and growth of this–and all trees–processes that only few of us have taken the time to see as he has!

Cherry Tree and Spring Daffodils, Geneva, New York, 2022

Leaves… are the feeders of the plant. Nothing must] interfere with their main business of finding food. Where the sun and air are, the leaf must go… [Therefore, in any group of leaves on any branch,] the first consideration with the young leaves is very much like that of young bees– how to keep out of the others’ way so that everyone may at once leave its neighbors as much fresh air and pasture as possible, while obtaining enough relative freedom for itself.

This would be quite a simple matter, producing simply balanced forms if each branch, with open air all around it, had nothing to think about but a reconcilement of interests among its own fellow leaves. But every branch has many others to meet or to cross, sharing with them, in various advantages what shade, or sun, or rain is to be had. Hence every single leaf cluster presents the general aspect of a little family, entirely at unity among themselves, but obliged to get their living by various shifts, concessions, and infringements of the family rules, in order not to invade the privileges of others in their neighborhood.

In short, what a piece of wondrous work is a tree.! But there is much more to it than that! The passage continues:

Branches of Cherry Tree. Geneva, New York, 2022

And, in the arrangement of these concessions, there is an exquisite sensibility among the leaves. They do not grow, each to its own liking until they run against one another, and then turn back sulkily; but, rather, by a watchful instinct; while yet far apart, they anticipate their companions’ courses, as navigators do with ships at sea, and, in every new unfolding of their edged tissue, they guide themselves by the sense of each other’s remote presence, and by watchful penetration of leafy purpose into the far future. So that every shadow which one casts on the next, and every glint of sun which each reflects on the mix, and every touch which, in toss of storm, each receives from the next, aid or arrest the development of their advancing form, and direct, as will be safest and best, the curve of every fold and the current of every vein.

In short, “There IS no wealth but life!”–And Life, as Ruskin understands it, is not only sentient, but intelligent, always striving, in its every blossom and branch, with every fiber of its being, toward its own effulgence, striving with every “breath,” to become all that can be, reaching always to actualize, at the highest possible level, all its capacities, whether inherent and gained–as the next part of the passage, employing Ruskin’s devotion to finding analogues in the laws of nature elsewhere, illustrates.

And this peculiar character exists in all the structures thus developed, and they are always visibly the result of volition on the part of the leaf, meeting an external force or fate to which it is never passively subject. Upon it, as on a mineral in the course of its formation, the great merciless influences of the universe, and the oppressive powers of minor things immediately near it, act continually. Heat and cold, gravity and the other attractions, windy pressure, or some local or unhealthy restraint [perhaps an invasive disease], must, in certain inevitable degrees, affect the whole of this life. But it is LIFE which they affect; a life of progress and of will, not a merely passive accumulation of substance.

But the order of the leaves is one of soft and subdued concession. Patiently, each awaits its appointed time, accepts its prepared place, yields its required observance. Under every oppression of external act, the leaf group follows a law laid down in his own heart–and all the members of it, whether in sickness or health, in strength or languor, slow-penciled, or iris-died, each exhibiting the tender framing of their endless imagery, they combine to carry out this first and last law of the universe, each receiving and seeming to desire for itself, only the life which they may communicate, the loveliness which they may reflect and all this law is not one whit less true when we consider this spring’s daffodils (like the ones that can be seen in the lower part of the photograph of the cherry tree above).

This may be seen by a single glance. The mineral – suppose an agate in the course of formation – shows, in every line, nothing but a dead submission to surrounding forces. Forming or congealing, its substance is here repelled, there attracted, unresistingly to its place, and its languid sinuosities follow the class of the rocks that contain them in servile deflection or compulsory cohesion, impotently calculable and cold. But the leaf, full of fears and affections, shrinks and seeks as it obeys. Not thrust, but awed into its retiring; not dragged, but won… its advance not bent aside, as by a bridle, into new courses… but persuaded and converted through tender continuance of voluntary change. The mineral and its being differing no less in modes of companionship; the mineral crystals group themselves neither in succession nor in sympathy. Both great and small recklessly strive for their place, as they gather into their opponent asperities. Their confused crowds fill the rock cavity, come together in the glittering, yet sordid, heat in which nearly every crystal, owing to its vain destiny, becoming in some degree imperfect, or impure. Here and there, one, at the cost and in defiance of the rest, rises into unmarked shape or unstained clearness.

Like any individual instance of life, nothing, even the most beautiful things, does not last for very long. Cherry tree blossoms have their function and time; daffodils have their function and time. But when that time is up, the life force fades and, sometimes to be replaced by another form of life seeking its own “moment in the sun.” It is an invariable Law of Nature–All things must pass. In the case of our cherry tree, as above mentioned, after about a week of glory, its pregnant leaves, which have been, to this point, growing patiently beneath the the beautiful buds, can stand it no more and burst out, pushing the blossom petals off, showering the grass and sidewalk with a beautiful spring “blossom storm” which lasts, at most, a couple of days, giving joy in its brief traverse way in the same way that its parent blossoms have done for the week prior. After this, the new leaves get their five months in the sun, at which point the fall having arrived, obeying yet another Law in their silent repertoire, they too will spontaneously relinquish their hold on center stage and retreat into a kind of hibernation until the next spring brings the whole cycle comes around again.

“Storm” of blossom petals from Cherry Tree, Geneva, New York, 2022

Or to say it again, There IS no wealth but life and, in the deepest spirit of today’s passage:

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, all in one.

For which “spring seeing, we are forever–and thankfully so- in your debt, Mr. Ruskin!

Until next time !

Spring well and joyously out there!



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2 Responses to 223: Seeing: Ruskin’s Genius, for Spring!!

  1. Shannon Gale says:

    Hello Jim,
    Beautifully said.
    I am visiting at RISD and saw an illustration exhibit at RISD museum with my son, a Senior at RISD, and saw a beautiful drawing by Ruskin in pencil and watercolor of berries and leaves on a branch. It is a small study and after reading your article I can imagine him on Herne Hill or Scotland drawing the little purple berries.
    Thank you for sharing your work.
    Shannon Gale

  2. Dearest Jim, how are you? And how pleasurable to be reading your writings on Ruskin after indeed a shamefully long time! It is beyond amazing how the mind, tangibly, lights up reading such language as Ruskin’s. I’d forgotten how perfectly logical it was, at same time being poetical.

    The passage you begin and end with is a personal favourite of mine as well. And the underlying overtone throughout the article, to my mind that of the necessity of ‘obedience’ — I wonder, a bit hopelessly, how many today will even tolerate, psychologically, to their own detriment.

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