The Strand Magazine/Volume 3/Issue 15/Beauty in Nature

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Sir John Lubbock, Bart., M.P.


" RURAL life," says Cicero, "is not delightful by reason of cornfields only and meadows, and vineyards and groves, but also for its gardens and orchards; for the feeding of cattle, the swarms of bees, and the variety of all kinds of flowers." Bacon considered that a garden is "the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man; without which buildings and palaces are but gross handiworks, and a man shall ever see, that when ages grow to civility and elegancy men come to build stately sooner than to garden finely, as if gardening were the greater perfection." No doubt "the pleasure which we take in a garden is one of the most innocent delights in human life."[1] Elsewhere there may be scattered flowers, or sheets of colour due to one or two species, but in gardens one glory follows another. Here are brought together all the

Quaint enamelled eyes,
That on the green turf suck the honeyed showers,
And purple all the ground with vernal flowers.
Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
The white pink and the pansy freaked with jet,
The glowing violet,
The musk rose, and the well-attired woodbine,
With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears.[2]

We cannot, happily we need not try to, contrast or compare the beauty of gardens with that of woods and fields.

And yet, to the true lover of Nature, wild flowers have a charm which no garden can equal. Cultivated plants are but a living herbarium. They surpass, no doubt, the dried specimens of a museum; but, lovely as they are, they can be no more compared with the natural vegetation of our woods and fields, than the captives in the Zoological Gardens with the same wild species in their native forests and mountains.

Often, indeed, our woods and fields even rival gardens in the richness of colour. We have all seen meadows glorious with Narcissus and early purple Orchis, Cowslips, Buttercups, or Cuckoo flowers; cornfields blazing with poppies; woods carpeted with Bluebells, Anemones, Primroses and Forget-me-nots; commons with the yellow Lady's-bedstraw, Harebells, and the sweet Thyme; marshy places with the yellow stars of the Bog Asphodel, the Sundew sparkling with diamonds, Ragged Robin, the beautifully fringed petals of the Buckbean, the lovely little Bog Pimpernel, or the feathery tufts of Cotton grass; hedgerows with Hawthorn and Traveller's Joy, wild Rose, Honeysuckle, and Bryony; underneath are the curious leaves and orange fruit of the Lords and Ladies, the snowy stars of the Stitchwort, Succory, Yarrow, and several kinds of Violets; while all along the banks of streams are the red spikes of the Loosestrife, the Hemp Agrimony, water Groundsel, Sedges, Bulrushes, flowering Rush, and Sweet Flag.

Many other sweet names will also at once occur to us—Snowdrops, Daffodils, Heart's-ease, Lady's-mantles and Lady's-tresses, Eyebright, Milkwort, Foxgloves, Herb Roberts, Geraniums, and among rarer species, at least in England, Columbine and Elecampane.

But Nature does not provide delights for the eye only. The other senses are not forgotten. A thousand sounds—many delightful in themselves, and all by association—songs of birds, hum of insects, rustle of leaves, ripple of water—seem to fill the air. Flowers, again, are sweet as well as lovely. The scent of pine woods, which is said to be very healthy, is certainly delicious, and the effect of woodland scenery is good for the mind as well as for the body.

"Resting quietly under an ash tree, with the scent of flowers, and the odour of green buds and leaves, a ray of sunlight yonder lighting up the lichen and the moss on the oak trunk, a gentle air stirring in the branches above, giving glimpses of fleecy clouds sailing in the ether, there comes into the mind a feeling of intense joy in the simple fact of living."[3]

Woods and forests were to our ancestors the special scenes of enchantment.

The great ash tree Ygzdrasil bound together heaven, earth, and hell. Its top reached to heaven, its branches covered the earth, and the roots penetrated into hell. The three Normas, or Fates, sat under it spinning the thread of life.

Of all the gods and goddesses of classical mythology or our own folk-lore, none were more fascinating than the Nature Spirits, Elves and Fairies, Neckhans and Kelpies, Pixies and Ouphes, Mermaids, Undines, Water Spirits, and all the Elfin World—

Which have their haunts in dale and piny mountain,
Or forests, by slow stream or tingling brook.

They come out, as we are told, especially on moonlight nights. But while evening thus clothes many a scene with poetry, forests are fairyland all day long.

Almost any wood contains many and many a spot well suited for fairy feasts; where one might almost expect to find Titania resting, as once we are told:

She lay upon a bank, the favourite haunt
Of the spring wind in its first sunshine hour,
For the luxuriant strawberry blossoms spread
Like a snow shower then, and violets
Bowed down their purple vases of perfume
About her pillow—linked in a gay band
Floated fantastic shapes; these were her guards,
Her lithe and rainbow elves.

In early spring the woods are bright with the feathery catkins of the willow, followed by the bright green of the beech, the white or pink flowers of the thorn, the pyramids of the horse-chestnut, festoons of the laburnum and acacia, while the oak slowly wakes from its winter sleep, and the ash leaves long linger in their black buds.

Under foot is a carpet of flowers—anemones, cowslips, primroses, bluebells; and the golden blossoms of the broom, which, however, while gorse and heather continue in bloom for months, "blazes for a week or two, and is then completely extinguished, like a fire that has burnt itself out."[4]

In summer the tints grow darker, the birds are more numerous and full of life, the air teems with insects, with the busy murmur of bees and the idle hum of flies, while the cool of morning and evening, and the heat of the day are all alike delicious.

As the year advances and the flowers wane, we have many beautiful fruits and berries, the red hips and haws of the wild roses, scarlet hollyberries, crimson yew cups, the translucent berries of the guelder rose, hanging coral clusters of the black bryony, feathery festoons of the traveller's joy, and many others less conspicuous, but still exquisite in themselves—acorns, beech nuts, ash-keys, and many more.

It is really difficult to say which are most beautiful, the tender greens of spring, or the rich tints of autumn, which glow so brightly in the sunshine.

Tropical fruits are even more striking. No one who has seen it can ever forget a grove of orange trees in full fruit; while the more we examine the more we find to admire—all perfectly and exquisitely finished "usque ad ungues," perfect inside and outside, for Nature

Does in the pomegranate close,
Jewels more rare than Ormus shows.[5]

In winter the woods are comparatively bare and lifeless, even the brambles and woodbine, which straggle over the tangle of underwood, being almost leafless. Still, even then they have a beauty and interest of their own: the mossy boles of the trees, the delicate tracery of the branches, which can hardly be appreciated when they are covered with leaves, and under foot the beds of fallen leaves; while the evergreens seem brighter than in summer, the ruddy stems and rich green foliage of the Scotch pines and the dark spires of the firs seeming to acquire fresh beauty.

"The woods are bare and lifeless."

Again, in winter, though no doubt the living tenants of the woods are much less numerous, many of our birds being then far away in the dense African forests, on the other hand those which remain are much more easily visible. We can follow the birds from tree to tree and the squirrel from bough to bough.

It requires little imagination to regard trees as conscious beings; indeed, it is almost an effort not to do so.

"The various action of trees," says Ruskin, "rooting themselves in inhospitable rocks, stooping to look into ravines, hiding from the search of glacier winds, reaching forth to the rays of rare sunshine, crowding down together to drink at sweetest streams, climbing hand in hand among the difficult slopes, opening in sudden dances among the mossy knolls, gathering into companies at rest among the fragrant fields, gliding in grave procession over the heavenward ridges—nothing of this can be conceived among the unvexed and unvaried felicities of the lowland forest; while to all these direct sources of greater beauty are added, first the power of redundance—the mere quantity of foliage visible in the folds and on the promontories of a single Alp being greater than that of an entire lowland landscape (unless a view from some Cathedral tower); add to this charm of redundance that of clearer visibility—tree after tree being constantly shown in successive height, one behind another, instead of the mere tops and flanks of masses, as in the plains; and the forms of multitudes of them continually defined against the clear sky, near and above, or against white clouds entangled among their branches, instead of being confused in dimness of distance."

There is much that is interesting in the relations of one species to another. Many plants are parasitic upon others. The foliage of the beech is so thick that scarcely anything will grow under it except those spring plants, such as the anemone and the wood buttercup or goldylocks, which flower early before the beech is in leaf.

There are other cases in which the reason for the association of species is less evident. The Larch and the Arolla (Pinus cembra) are close companions. They grow together in Siberia; they do not occur in Scandinavia or Russia, but both appear in certain Swiss valleys, especially in the cantons of Lucerne and Valais and the Engadine.

Another very remarkable case which has recently been observed is the relation existing between some of our forest trees and certain fungi the species of which have not yet been clearly ascertained. The root tips of the trees are, as it were, enclosed in a thin sheet of closely woven mycelium. It was at first supposed that the fungus was attacking the roots of the tree, but it is now considered that the tree and the fungus mutually benefit one another. The fungus collects nutriment from the soil, which passes into the tree and up to the leaves, where it is elaborated into sap, the greater part being utilised by the tree, but a portion reabsorbed by the fungus. There is reason to think that, in some cases at any rate, the mycelium is that of the truffle.

The great tropical forests have a totally different character from ours.

"Morning in a Brazillian forest."

Sir Wyville Thomson graphically describes a morning in a Brazilian forest:—

"The night was almost absolutely silent. Only now and then a peculiarly shrill cry of some night bird reached us from the woods. As we got into the skirt of the forest, the morning broke, but the reveil in a Brazilian forest is wonderfully different from the slow creeping on of the dawn of a summer morning at home, to the music of the thrushes answering one another's full rich notes from neighbouring thorn-trees. Suddenly a yellow light spreads upwards in the east, the stars quickly fade, and the dark fringes of the forest and the tall palms show out black against the yellow sky, and almost before one has time to observe the change the sun has risen straight and fierce, and the whole landscape is bathed in the full light of day. But the morning is yet for another hour cool and fresh, and the scene is indescribably beautiful. The woods, so absolutely silent and still before, break at once into noise and movement. Flocks of toucans flutter and scream on the tops of the highest forest trees, hopelessly out of shot; the ear is pierced by the strange wild screeches of a little band of macaws which fly past you like the wrapped-up ghosts of the birds on some gaudy old brocade."[6]

In our own country, though woodlands are perhaps on the increase, true forest scenery is gradually disappearing. This is, I suppose, unavoidable, but it is a matter of regret. Forests have so many charms of their own. They give delightful impressions of space and of abundance.

The extravagance is sublime. Trees, as Jefferies says, "throw away handfuls of flowers; but in the meadows the careless, spendthrift ways of grass and flower and all things are not to be expressed. Seeds by the hundred million float with absolute indifference on the air. The oak has a hundred thousand more leaves than necessary, and never hides a single acorn. Nothing utilitarian—everything on a scale of splendid waste. Such noble, broadcast, open-armed waste is delicious to behold. Never was there such a lying proverb as 'Enough is as good as a feast.' Give me the feast, give me squandered millions of seeds, luxurious carpets of petals, green mountains of oak-leaves. The greater the waste, the greater the enjoyment—the nearer the approach to real life."

"By the shores of the Swiss lakes."

Nowhere is woodland scenery more beautiful than where it passes gradually into the open country. The separate trees, having more room both for their roots and branches, are finer, and can be better seen, while when they are close together "one cannot see the wood for the trees." The vistas which open out are full of mystery and of promise, and tempt us gradually out into the green fields.

What pleasant memories these very words recall, games in the hay as children, and sunny summer days throughout life. "Go out," says Ruskin, "in the spring time, among the meadows that slope from the shores of the Swiss lakes to the roots of their lower mountains. There, mingled with the taller gentians and the white narcissus, the grass grows deep and free; and, as you follow the winding mountain paths, beneath arching boughs all veiled and dim with blossom-paths that for ever droop and rise over the green banks and mounds, sweeping down in scented undulation, steep to the blue water, studded here and there with new-mown heaps, filling all the air with fainter sweetness—look up towards the higher hills, where the waves of everlasting green roll silently into their long inlets among the shadows of the pines; and we may, perhaps, at last know the meaning of those quiet words of the 147th Psalm: 'He maketh the grass to grow upon the mountains.'"

In the passage just quoted, Ruskin alludes especially to Swiss meadows. They are especially remarkable in the beauty and variety of flowers. In our fields the herbage is mainly grass, and if it often happens that they glow with buttercups or are white with ox-eye daisies, these are but unwelcome intruders, and add nothing to the value of the hay. Swiss meadows, on the contrary, are sweet and lovely with wild geraniums, harebells, bluebells, pink restharrow, yellow lady's-bedstraw, chervil, eye-bright, red and white silenes, geraniums, gentians, and many other flowers which have no familiar names, all adding, not only to the beauty and sweetness of the meadows, but forming a valuable part of the crop itself.[7]

"At the foot of the downs."

On the downs, indeed, things change slowly, and in parts of Sussex the strong, slow oxen still draw the wagons laden with warm hay or golden wheat sheaves, or drag the wooden plough along the slopes of the downs, just as they did a thousand years ago.

I love the open downs most, but without hedges England would not be England. Hedges are everywhere full of beauty and interest, and nowhere more so than at the foot of the downs, where they are in great part composed of wild guelder roses and rich, dark yews, decked with festoons of traveller's joy, the wild bryonies, and garlands of wild roses covered with thousands of white or delicate pink flowers, each with a centre of gold.

At the foot of the downs spring sparking, clear streams; rain from heaven purified still further by being filtered through a thousand feet of chalk; fringed with purple loosestrife, and willowherb, starred with white water ranunculuses, or rich watercress, while every now and then a brown water-rat rustles in the grasses at the edge, and splashes into the water, or a pink speckled trout glides out of sight.

In many of our Midland and Northern counties most of the meadows lie in parallel undulations or "rigs." These are generally about a furlong (220 yards) in length, and either one or two poles (5 1/2 or 11 yards) in breadth. They seldom run straight, but tend to curve towards the left. At each end of the field a high bank, locally called a balk, often three or four feet high, runs at right angles to the rigs. In small fields there are generally eight, but sometimes ten, of these rigs, which make in the one case four, in the other five acres. These curious characters carry us back to the old tenures, and archaic cultivation of land, and to a period when the fields were not in pasture, but were arable.

The team generally consisted of eight oxen. Few peasants, however, possessed a whole team, several generally joining together and dividing the produce. Hence the number of "rigs," one for each ox. We often, however, find ten instead of eight; one being for the parson's tithe, the other tenth going to the ploughman.

When eight oxen were employed, the goad would not, of course, reach the leaders, which were guided by a man who walked on the near side. On arriving at the end of each furrow, he turned them round, and, as it was easier to pull than to push them, this gradually gave the furrow a turn towards the left, thus accounting for the slight curvature. Lastly, while the oxen rested on arriving at the end of the furrow, the ploughman scraped off the earth which had accumulated on the coulter and ploughshare, and the accumulation of these scrapings gradually formed the balk.

It is fascinating thus to trace indications of old customs and modes of life, but it would carry us away from the present subject.

Even though the Swiss meadows may offer a greater variety, our English fields are yet rich in flowers: yellow with cowslips and primroses, pink with cuckoo flowers and purple with orchis, while buttercups, however unwelcome to the eye of the farmer, turn many a meadow into a veritable field of the cloth of gold, and there are few prettier sights in nature than an English hay-field on a summer evening, with a copse, perhaps, at one side, and a brook on the other; men with forks tossing the hay in the air to dry; women with wooden rakes arranging it in swaithes ready for the great four-horse waggon, or collecting it in cocks for the night; while some way off the mowers are still at work, and we hear from time to time the pleasant sound of the sharpening of the scythe. All are working with a will, lest rain should come and their labour be thrown away. This too often happens. But, though we often complain of our English climate, it is yet, take it all in all, one of the best in the world, being comparatively free from extremes either of heat or cold, drought or deluge. To the happy mixture of sunshine and rain we owe the greenness of our fields, lit and

Warmed by goiden sunshine,
And fed by silver rain,

which now and again sprinkles the whole earth with diamonds.

  1. The Spectator.
  2. Milton.
  3. Jefferies' "Wild Life in a Southern Country."
  4. Hamerton.
  5. Marsell.
  6. Thomson's "Voyage of the Challenger."
  7. M. Correvon informs me that the Gruyère cheese is supposed to owe its peculiar flavour to the Alpine Alchemilla, which is now on that account often purposely grown elsewhere.