Singing Nightingale At Fingringhoe, Essex, 2015, Richard Hull
During this time of great uncertainty and anxiety in the world, I feel the value of beautiful and insightful writing even more than usual. There is the palpable sense of crisis pressing in on our minds, with no obvious end in sight. With every official announcement telling us to stay at home as much as possible comes the inevitable sense that the crisis is right outside on our doorsteps. At such a time as this, I turn to some fine passages of writing on the outdoors which also look back into the miraculous entity that is the human mind. In this mind, belonging to all of us, lies the faculty of deeper and wider perception, reached through proper attention to the senses. Perhaps by activating this perception, we can, for a time, bypass the intrusive and toxic anxiety of the present time and remind ourselves of the type of thought that always belongs in human consciousness.
Here are two pieces of writing, different in style, but both demonstrating the perception that I want to illustrate. The first is from Richard Jefferies’ essay, ‘Nature and Eternity’. The second is from a book, ‘A Life of One’s Own’, by Marion Milner (also known as Joanna Field), published in 1934. Milner was a psychologist who escaped from a restricted upbringing by exploring the reservoir of creative perception in her mind. I don’t want to attempt any analysis of the two texts but will let them speak for themselves.
From ‘Nature and Eternity’ by Richard Jefferies
‘Throwing open the little wicket-gate, by a step the greensward of the meadow is reached. Though the grass has been mown and the ground is dry, it is better to carry a thick rug, and cast it down in the shadow under the tall horse-chestnut-tree. It is only while in a dreamy, slumbrous, half-mesmerized state that nature’s ancient papyrus roll can be read—only when the mind is at rest, separated from care and labour; when the body is at ease, luxuriating in warmth and delicious languor; when the soul is in accord and sympathy with the sunlight, with the leaf, with the slender blades of grass, and can feel with the tiniest insect which climbs up them as up a mighty tree. As the genius of the great musicians, without an articulated word or printed letter, can carry with it all the emotions, so now, lying prone upon the earth in the shadow, with quiescent will, listening, thoughts and feelings rise respondent to the sunbeams, to the leaf, the very blade of grass. Resting the head upon the hand, gazing down upon the ground, the strange and marvellous inner sight of the mind penetrates the solid earth, grasps in part the mystery of its vast extension upon either side, bearing its majestic mountains, its deep forests, its grand oceans, and almost feels the life which in ten thousand thousand forms revels upon its surface. Returning upon itself, the mind joys in the knowledge that it too is a part of this wonder—akin to the ten thousand thousand creatures, akin to the very earth itself. How grand and holy is this life! how sacred the temple which contains it!
Out from the hedge, not five yards distant, pours a rush of deep luscious notes, succeeded by the sweetest trills heard by man. It is the nightingale, which tradition assigns to the night only, but which in fact sings as loudly, and to my ear more joyously, in the full sunlight, especially in the morning, and always close to the nest. The sun has moved onward upon his journey, and this spot is no longer completely shaded, but the foliage of a great oak breaks the force of his rays, and the eye can even bear to gaze at his disc for a few moments. Living for this brief hour at least in unalloyed sympathy with nature, apart from all disturbing influences, the sight of that splendid disc carries the soul with it till it feels as eternal as the sun. Let the memory call up a picture of the desert sands of Egypt—upon the kings with the double crown, upon Rameses, upon Sesostris, upon Assurbanipal the burning beams of this very sun descended, filling their veins with tumultuous life, three thousand years ago. Lifted up in absorbing thought, the mind feels that these three thousand years are in truth no longer past than the last beat of the pulse. It throbbed—the throb is gone; their pulse throbbed, and it seems but a moment since, for to thought, as to the sun, there is no time. This little petty life of seventy years, with its little petty aims and hopes, its despicable fears and contemptible sorrows, is no more the life with which the mind is occupied. This golden disc has risen and set, as the graven marks of man alone record, full eight thousand years. The hieroglyphs of the rocks speak of a fiery sun shining inconceivable ages before that. Yet even this almost immortal sun had a beginning—perhaps emerging as a ball of incandescent gas from chaos: how long ago was that? And onwards, still onwards goes the disc, doubtless for ages and ages to come. It is time that our measures should be extended; these paltry divisions of hours and days and years—aye, of centuries—should be superseded by terms conveying some faint idea at least of the vastness of space. For in truth, when thinking thus, there is no time at all. The mind loses the sense of time and reposes in eternity.’
From ‘A Life of One’s Own’ by Marion Milner (Joanna Field): describing an experience in the Black Forest, Germany
‘Those flickering leaf-shadows playing over the heap of cut grass. It is fresh scythed. The shadows are blue or green, I don’t know which, but I feel them in my bones. Down into the shadows of the gully, across it through glistening space, space that hangs suspended filling the gully, so that little sounds wander there, lose themselves and are drowned; beyond, there’s a splash of sunlight leaping out against the darkness of forest, the gold in it flows richly in my eyes, flows through my brain in still pools of light. That pine, my eye is led up and down the straightness of its trunk, my muscles feel its roots spreading wide to hold it so upright against the hill. The air is full of sounds, sighs which fade back into the overhanging silence. A bee passes, a golden ripple in the quiet air. A chicken at my feet fussily crunches a blade of grass . . .
I sat motionless, draining sensation to its depths, wave after wave of delight flowing through every cell in my body. My attention flickered from one delight to the next like a butterfly, effortless, following its pleasure; sometimes it rested on a thought, a verbal comment, but these no longer made a chattering barrier between me and what I saw, they were woven into the texture of my seeing. I no longer strove to be doing something, I was deeply content with what was. At other times my senses had often been in conflict, so that I could either look or listen but not both at once. Now hearing and sight and sense of space were all fused into one whole.’