Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Description of Nature
By John Ruskin (1819–1900)
From ‘Modern Painters’

“TO dress it and to keep it.”  1
  That, then, was to be our work. Alas! what work have we set ourselves upon instead! How have we ravaged the garden instead of kept it,—feeding our war-horses with its flowers, and splintering its trees into spear shafts!  2
  “And at the East a flaming sword.”  3
  Is its flame quenchless? and are those gates that keep the way indeed passable no more? or is it not rather that we no more desire to enter? For what can we conceive of that first Eden which we might not yet win back, if we chose? It was a place full of flowers, we say. Well: the flowers are always striving to grow wherever we suffer them; and the fairer, the closer. There may indeed have been a Fall of Flowers, as a Fall of Man: but assuredly creatures such as we are can now fancy nothing lovelier than roses and lilies; which would grow for us side by side, leaf overlapping leaf, till the earth was white and red with them, if we cared to have it so. And Paradise was full of pleasant shades and fruitful avenues. Well: what hinders us from covering as much of the world as we like with pleasant shade and pure blossom, and goodly fruit? Who forbids its valleys to be covered over with corn, till they laugh and sing? Who prevents its dark forests, ghostly and uninhabitable, from being changed into infinite orchards, wreathing the hills with frail-floretted snow, far away to the half-lighted horizon of April, and flushing the face of all the autumnal earth with glow of clustered food? But Paradise was a place of peace, we say, and all the animals were gentle servants to us. Well: the world would yet be a place of peace if we were all peacemakers, and gentle service should we have of its creatures if we gave them gentle mastery. But so long as we make sport of slaying bird and beast, so long as we choose to contend rather with our fellows than with our faults, and make battle-field of our meadows instead of pasture,—so long, truly, the Flaming Sword will still turn every way, and the gates of Eden remain barred close enough, till we have sheathed the sharper flame of our own passions, and broken down the closer gates of our own hearts.  4
  I have been led to see and feel this more and more, as I considered the service which the flowers and trees, which man was at first appointed to keep, were intended to render to him in return for his care; and the services they still render to him, as far as he allows their influence, or fulfills his own task towards them. For what infinite wonderfulness there is in this vegetation, considered, as indeed it is, as the means by which the earth becomes the companion of man—his friend and his teacher! In the conditions which we have traced in its rocks, there could only be seen preparation for his existence;—the characters which enable him to live on it safely, and to work with it easily—in all these it has been inanimate and passive; but vegetation is to it as an imperfect soul, given to meet the soul of man. The earth in its depths must remain dead and cold, incapable except of slow crystalline change; but at its surface, which human beings look upon and deal with, it ministers to them through a veil of strange intermediate being; which breathes, but has no voice; moves, but cannot leave its appointed place; passes through life without consciousness, to death without bitterness; wears the beauty of youth, without its passion; and declines to the weakness of age, without its regret.  5
  And in this mystery of intermediate being, entirely subordinate to us, with which we can deal as we choose, having just the greater power as we have the less responsibility for our treatment of the unsuffering creature, most of the pleasures which we need from the external world are gathered, and most of the lessons we need are written,—all kinds of precious grace and teaching being united in this link between the Earth and Man: wonderful in universal adaptation to his need, desire, and discipline; God’s daily preparation of the earth for him, with beautiful means of life. First a carpet to make it soft for him; then, a colored fantasy of embroidery thereon; then, tall spreading of foliage to shade him from sun heat, and shade also the fallen rain, that it may not dry quickly back into the clouds, but stay to nourish the springs among the moss. Stout wood to bear this leafage; easily to be cut, yet tough and light, to make houses for him, or instruments (lance shaft, or plow handle, according to his temper): useless it had been, if harder; useless, if less fibrous; useless, if less elastic. Winter comes, and the shade of leafage falls away, to let the sun warm the earth; the strong boughs remain, breaking the strength of winter winds. The seeds which are to prolong the race, innumerable according to the need, are made beautiful and palatable, varied into infinitude of appeal to the fancy of man or provision for his service: cold juice or glowing spice, or balm, or incense, softening oil, preserving resin, medicine of styptic, febrifuge, or lulling charm: and all these presented in forms of endless change. Fragility or force, softness and strength, in all degrees and aspects; unerring uprightness as of temple pillars, or undivided wandering of feeble tendrils on the ground; mighty resistances of rigid arm and limb to the storms of ages, or wavings to and from with faintest pulse of summer streamlet. Roots cleaving the strength of rock, or binding the transience of the sand; crests basking in sunshine of the desert, or hiding by dripping spring and lightless cave; foliage far tossing in entangled fields beneath every wave of ocean—clothing with variegated, everlasting films the peaks of the trackless mountains, or ministering at cottage doors to every gentlest passion and simplest joy of humanity.  6
  Being thus prepared for us in all ways, and made beautiful, and good for food and for building and for instruments of our hands, this race of plants, deserving boundless affection and admiration from us, become, in proportion to their obtaining it, a nearly perfect test of our being in right temper of mind and way of life: so that no one can be far wrong in either who loves the trees enough; and every one is assuredly wrong in both who does not love them, if his life has brought them in his way. It is clearly possible to do without them, for the great companionship of the sea and sky are all that sailors need; and many a noble heart has been taught the best it had to learn between dark stone walls. Still, if human life be cast among trees at all, the love borne to them is a sure test of its purity. And it is a sorrowful proof of the mistaken ways of the world that the “country,” in the simple sense of a place of fields and trees, has hitherto been the source of reproach to its inhabitants; and that the words “countryman,” “rustic,” “clown,” “paysan,” “villager,” still signify a rude and untaught person, as opposed to the words “townsman” and “citizen.” We accept this usage of words, or the evil which it signifies, somewhat too quietly; as if it were quite necessary and natural that countrypeople should be rude, and townspeople gentle. Whereas I believe that the result of each mode of life may, in some stages of the world’s progress, be the exact reverse; and that another use of words may be forced upon us by a new aspect of facts, so that we may find ourselves saying: “Such-and-such a person is very gentle and kind,—he is quite rustic; and such-and-such another person is very rude and ill-taught,—he is quite urbane.”  7
  At all events, cities have hitherto gained the better part of their good report through our evil ways of going on in the world generally;—chiefly and eminently through our bad habit of fighting with each other. No field, in the middle ages, being safe from devastation, and every country lane yielding easier passage to the marauders, peacefully minded men necessarily congregated in cities, and walled themselves in, making as few cross-country roads as possible; while the men who sowed and reaped the harvests of Europe were only the servants or slaves of the barons. The disdain of all agricultural pursuits by the nobility, and of all plain facts by the monks, kept educated Europe in a state of mind over which natural phenomena could have no power; body and intellect being lost in the practice of war without purpose, and the meditation of words without meaning. Men learned the dexterity with sword and syllogism, which they mistook for education, within cloister and tilt-yard; and looked on all the broad space of the world of God mainly as a place for exercise of horses, or for growth of food.  8
  There is a beautiful type of this neglect of the perfectness of the Earth’s beauty, by reason of the passions of men, in that picture of Paul Uccello’s of the battle of Sant’ Egidio, in which the armies meet on a country road beside a hedge of wild roses; the tender red flowers tossing above the helmets and glowing between the lowered lances. For in like manner the whole of Nature only shone hitherto for man between the tossing of helmet crests: and sometimes I cannot but think of the trees of the earth as capable of a kind of sorrow, in that imperfect life of theirs, as they opened their innocent leaves in the warm springtime, in vain for men; and all along the dells of England her beeches cast their dappled shade only where the outlaw drew his bow, and the king rode his careless chase; and by the sweet French rivers their long ranks of poplar waved in the twilight, only to show the flames of burning cities, on the horizon, through the tracery of their stems; amidst the fair defiles of the Apennines, the twisted olive trunks hid the ambushes of treachery; and on their valley meadows, day by day, the lilies which were white at the dawn were washed with crimson at sunset….  9
  Of the many marked adaptations of nature to the mind of man, it seems one of the most singular, that trees intended especially for the adornment of the wildest mountains should be in broad outline the most formal of trees. The vine, which is to be the companion of man, is waywardly docile in its growth, falling into festoons beside his cornfields, or roofing his garden walks, or casting its shadow all summer upon his door. Associated always with the trimness of cultivation, it introduces all possible elements of sweet wildness. The pine, placed nearly always among scenes disordered and desolate, brings into them all possible elements of order and precision. Lowland trees may lean to this side and that, though it is but a meadow breeze that bends them, or a bank of cowslips from which their trunks lean aslope. But let storm and avalanche do their worst, and let the pine find only a ledge of vertical precipice to cling to, it will nevertheless grow straight. Thrust a rod from its last shoot down the stem;—it shall point to the centre of the earth as long as the tree lives.  10
  Also it may be well for lowland branches to reach hither and thither for what they need, and to take all kinds of irregular shape and extension. But the pine is trained to need nothing and to endure everything. It is resolvedly whole, self-contained, desiring nothing but lightness, content with restricted completion. Tall or short, it will be straight. Small or large, it will be round. It may be permitted also to these soft lowland trees that they should make themselves gay with show of blossom, and glad with pretty charities of fruitfulness. We builders with the sword have harder work to do for man, and must do it in close-set troops. To stay the sliding of the mountain snows, which would bury him; to hold in divided drops at our sword points the rain, which would sweep away him and his treasure fields; to nurse in shade among our brown fallen leaves the tricklings that feed the brooks in drought; to give massive shield against the winter wind, which shrieks through the bare branches of the plain;—such service must we do him steadfastly while we live. Our bodies also are at his service: softer than the bodies of other trees, though our toil is harder than theirs. Let him take them as pleases him, for his houses and ships. So also it may be well for these timid lowland trees to tremble with all their leaves, or turn their paleness to the sky, if but a rush of rain passes by them; or to let fall their leaves at last, sick and sere. But we pines must live carelessly amidst the wrath of clouds. We only wave our branches to and fro when the storm pleads with us, as men toss their arms in a dream.  11
  And finally, these weak lowland trees may struggle fondly for the last remnants of life, and send up feeble saplings again from their roots when they are cut down. But we builders with the sword perish boldly; our dying shall be perfect and solemn, as our warring; we give up our lives without reluctance, and for ever.  12
  I wish the reader to fix his attention for a moment on these two great characters of the pine,—its straightness and rounded perfectness; both wonderful, and in their issue lovely, though they have hitherto prevented the tree from being drawn. I say first, its straightness. Because we constantly see it in the wildest scenery, we are apt to remember only as characteristic examples of it those which have been disturbed by violent accident or disease. Of course such instances are frequent. The soil of the pine is subject to continual change; perhaps the rock in which it is rooted splits in frost and falls forward, throwing the young stems aslope; or the whole mass of earth around it is undermined by rain; or a huge bowlder falls on its stem from above, and forces it for twenty years to grow with weight of a couple of tons leaning on its side. Hence, especially at edges of loose cliffs, about waterfalls, or at glacier banks, and in other places liable to disturbance, the pine may be seen distorted and oblique; and in Turner’s ‘Source of the Arveron,’ he has, with his usual unerring perception of the main point in any matter, fastened on this means of relating the glacier’s history. The glacier cannot explain its own motion, and ordinary observers saw in it only its rigidity; but Turner saw that the wonderful thing was its non-rigidity. Other ice is fixed, only this ice stirs. All the banks are staggering beneath its waves, crumbling and withered as by the blast of a perpetual storm. He made the rocks of his foreground loose—rolling and tottering down together; the pines, smitten aside by them, their tops dead, bared by the ice wind.  13
  Nevertheless, this is not the truest or universal expression of the pine’s character. I said long ago, even of Turner: “Into the spirit of the pine he cannot enter.” He understood the glacier at once: he had seen the force of sea on shore too often to miss the action of those crystal-crested waves. But the pine was strange to him, adverse to his delight in broad and flowing line; he refused its magnificent erectness. Magnificent!—nay, sometimes, almost terrible. Other trees, tufting crag or hill, yield to the form and sway of the ground; clothe it with soft compliance; are partly its subjects, partly its flatterers, partly its comforters. But the pine rises in serene resistance, self-contained; nor can I ever without awe stay long under a great Alpine cliff, far from all house or work of men, looking up to its companies of pine, as they stand on the inaccessible juts and perilous ledges of the enormous wall, in quiet multitudes, each like the shadow of the one beside it—upright, fixed, spectral as troops of ghosts standing on the walls of Hades, not knowing each other—dumb for ever. You cannot reach them, cannot cry to them: those trees never heard human voice; they are far above all sound but of the winds. No foot ever stirred fallen leaf of theirs. All comfortless they stand, between the two eternities of the Vacancy and the Rock: yet with such iron will that the rock itself looks bent and shattered beside them,—fragile, weak, inconsistent, compared to their dark energy of delicate life, and monotony of enchanted pride;—unnumbered, unconquerable.  14
  Then note, farther, their perfectness. The impression on most people’s minds must have been received more from pictures than reality, so far as I can judge, so ragged they think the pine; whereas its chief character in health is green and full roundness. It stands compact, like one of its own cones, slightly curved on its sides, finished and quaint as a carved tree in some Elizabethan garden; and instead of being wild in expression, forms the softest of all forest scenery: for other trees show their trunks and twisting boughs; but the pine, growing either in luxuriant mass or in happy isolation, allows no branch to be seen. Summit behind summit rise its pyramidal ranges, or down to the very grass sweep the circlets of its boughs; so that there is nothing but green cone and green carpet. Nor is it only softer, but in one sense more cheerful than other foliage; for it casts only a pyramidal shadow. Lowland forest arches overhead, and checkers the ground with darkness; but the pine, growing in scattered groups, leaves the glades between emerald-bright. Its gloom is all its own; narrowing into the sky, it lets the sunshine strike down to the dew. And if ever a superstitious feeling comes over me among the pine glades, it is never tainted with the old German forest fear, but is only a more solemn tone of the fairy enchantment that haunts our English meadows; so that I have always called the prettiest pine glade in Chamouni, “Fairies’ Hollow.” It is in the glen beneath the steep ascent above Pont Pelissier, and may be reached by a little winding path which goes down from the top of the hill; being indeed not truly a glen, but a broad ledge of moss and turf, leaning in a formidable precipice (which however the gentle branches hide) over the Arve. An almost isolated rock promontory, many-colored, rises at the end of it. On the other sides it is bordered by cliffs, from which a little cascade falls, literally down among the pines; for it is so light, shaking itself into mere showers of seed pearl in the sun, that the pines don’t know it from mist, and grow through it without minding. Underneath, there is only the mossy silence; and above, for ever, the snow of the nameless Aiguille.  15
  And then the third character which I want you to notice in the pine is its exquisite fineness. Other trees rise against the sky in dots and knots, but this in fringes. 1 You never see the edges of it, so subtle are they; and for this reason, it alone of trees, so far as I know, is capable of the fiery change which we saw before had been noticed by Shakespeare. When the sun rises behind a ridge crested with pine,—provided the ridge be at a distance of about two miles, and seen clear,—all the trees, for about three or four degrees on each side of the sun, become trees of light, seen in clear flame against the darker sky, and dazzling as the sun itself. I thought at first this was owing to the actual lustre of the leaves; but I believe now it is caused by the cloud dew upon them,—every minutest leaf carrying its diamond. It seems as if these trees, living always among the clouds, had caught part of their glory from them; and, themselves the darkest of vegetation, could yet add splendor to the sun itself.  16
  Yet I have been more struck by their character of finished delicacy at a distance from the central Alps, among the pastoral hills of the Emmenthal or lowland districts of Berne; where they are set in groups between the cottages, whose shingle roofs (they also of pine) of deep gray blue, and lightly carved fronts, golden and orange in the autumn sunshine, gleam on the banks and lawns of hillside,—endless lawns, mounded and studded and bossed all over with deeper green hay heaps, orderly set, like jewelry (the mountain hay, when the pastures are full of springs, being strangely dark and fresh in verdure for a whole day after it is cut). And amidst this delicate delight of cottage and field, the young pines stand delicatest of all, scented as with frankincense, their slender stems straight as arrows, and crystal white, looking as if they would break with a touch, like needles; and their arabesques of dark leaf pierced through and through by the pale radiance of clear sky, opal blue, where they follow each other along the soft hill ridges, up and down.  17
  I have watched them in such scenes with the deeper interest, because of all trees they have hitherto had most influence on human character. The effect of other vegetation, however great, has been divided by mingled species: elm and oak in England, poplar in France, birch in Scotland, olive in Italy and Spain, share their power with inferior trees, and with all the changing charm of successive agriculture. But the tremendous unity of the pine absorbs and molds the life of a race. The pine shadows rest upon a nation. The Northern peoples, century after century, lived under one or other of the two great powers of the Pine and the Sea, both infinite. They dwelt amidst the forests, as they wandered on the waves, and saw no end, nor any other horizon;—still the dark-green trees, or the dark-green waters, jagged the dawn with their fringe or their foam. And whatever elements of imagination, or of warrior strength, or of domestic justice, were brought down by the Norwegian and the Goth against the dissoluteness or degradation of the South of Europe, were taught them under the green roofs and wild penetralia of the pine.  18
Note 1. Keats (as is his way) puts nearly all that may be said of the pine into one verse, though they are only figurative pines of which he is speaking. I have come to that pass of admiration for him now, that I dare not read him, so discontented he makes me with my own work; but others must not leave unread, in considering the influence of trees upon the human soul, that marvelous ode to Psyche. Here is the piece about pines:—
  “Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane
In some untrodden region of my mind,
Where branchèd thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,
Instead of pines, shall murmur in the wind:
Far, far around shall those dark-clustered trees
Fledge the wild-ridgèd mountains, steep by steep;
And there by zephyrs, streams, and birds, and bees,
The moss-lain Dryads shall be lulled to sleep;
And in the midst of this wide quietness
A rosy sanctuary will I dress
With the wreathed trellis of a working brain,
With buds, and bells, and stars without a name,
With all the Gardener Fancy e’er could feign,
Who, breeding flowers, will never breed the same.
And there shall be for thee all soft delight
      That shadowy thought can win;
A bright torch, and a casement ope, at night.
      To let the warm Love in.”    [back]

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