The Beauties of Nature and the Wonders of the World We Live In, Part I of X

CHAPTER I – INTRODUCTION of The Beauties of Nature and the Wonders of the World We Live In, by Sir John Lubbock

Published in 1892

The world we live in is a fairyland of exquisite beauty, our very existence is a miracle in itself, and yet few of us enjoy as we might, and none as yet appreciate fully, the beauties and wonders which surround us. The greatest traveller cannot hope even in a long life to visit more than a very small part of our earth, and even of that which is under our very eyes how little we see!

What we do see depends mainly on what we look for. When we turn our eyes to the sky, it is in most cases merely to see whether it is likely to rain. In the same field the farmer will notice the crop, geologists the fossils, botanists the flowers, artists the colouring, sportsmen the cover for game. Though we may all look at the same things, it does not at all follow that we should see them.

It is good, as Keble says, “to have our thoughts lift up to that world where all is beautiful and glorious,” but it is well to realise also how much of this world is beautiful. It has, I know, been maintained, as for instance by Victor Hugo, that the general effect of beauty is to sadden. “Comme la vie de l’homme, meme la plus prospere, est toujours au fond plus triste que gaie, le ciel sombre nous est harmonieux. Le ciel eclatant et joyeux nous est ironique. La Nature triste nous ressemble et nous console; la Nature rayonnante, magnifique, superbe … a quelque chose d’accablant.”

This seems to me, I confess, a morbid view. There are many no doubt on whom the effect of natural beauty is to intensify feeling, to deepen melancholy, as well as to raise the spirits. As Mrs. W. R. Greg in her memoir of her husband tells us: “His passionate love for nature, so amply fed by the beauty of the scenes around him, intensified the emotions, as all keen perception of beauty does, but it did not add to their joyousness. We speak of the pleasure which nature and art and music give us; what we really mean is that our whole being is quickened by the uplifting of the veil. Something passes into us which makes our sorrows more sorrowful, our joys more joyful, our whole life more vivid. So it was with him. The long solitary wanderings over the hills, and the beautiful moonlight nights on the lake served to make the shadows seem darker that were brooding over his home.”

But surely to most of us Nature when sombre, or even gloomy, is soothing and consoling; when bright and beautiful, not only raises the spirits, but inspires and elevates our whole being

Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings.

Kingsley speaks with enthusiasm of the heaths and moors round his home, “where I have so long enjoyed the wonders of nature; never, I can honestly say, alone; because when man was not with me, I had companions in every bee, and flower and pebble; and never idle, because I could not pass a swamp, or a tuft of heather, without finding in it a fairy tale of which I could but decipher here and there a line or two, and yet found them more interesting than all the books, save one, which were ever written upon earth.”

Those who love Nature can never be dull. They may have other temptations; but at least they will run no risk of being beguiled, by ennui, idleness, or want of occupation, “to buy the merry madness of an hour with the long penitence of after time.” The love of Nature, again, helps us greatly to keep ourselves free from those mean and petty cares which interfere so much with calm and peace of mind. It turns “every ordinary walk into a morning or evening sacrifice,” and brightens life until it becomes almost like a fairy tale.

In the romances of the Middle Ages we read of knights who loved, and were loved by, Nature spirits, of Sir Launfal and the Fairy Tryamour, who furnished him with many good things, including a magic purse, in which

As oft as thou puttest thy hand therein
A mark of gold thou shalt iwinne,

as well as protection from the main dangers of life. Such times have passed away, but better ones have come. It is not now merely the few, who are so favoured. All those who love Nature she loves in return, and will richly reward, not perhaps with the good things, as they are commonly called, but with the best things, of this world; not with money and titles, horses and carriages, but with bright and happy thoughts, contentment and peace of mind.

Happy indeed is the naturalist: to him the seasons come round like old friends; to him the birds sing: as he walks along, the flowers stretch out from the hedges, or look up from the ground, and as each year fades away, he looks back on a fresh store of happy memories.

Though we can never “remount the river of our years,” he who loves Nature is always young. But what is the love of Nature? Some seem to think they show a love of flowers by gathering them. How often one finds a bunch of withered blossoms on the roadside, plucked only to be thrown away! Is this love of Nature? It is, on the contrary, a wicked waste, for a waste of beauty is almost the worst waste of all.

If we could imagine a day prolonged for a lifetime, or nearly so, and that sunrise and sunset were rare events which happened but a few times to each of us, we should certainly be entranced by the beauty of the morning and evening tints. The golden rays of the morning are a fortune in themselves, but we too often overlook the loveliness of Nature, because it is constantly before us. For “the senseless folk,” says King Alfred,

is far more struck
At things it seldom sees.

Well, says Cicero, did Aristotle observe, If there were men whose habitations had been always underground, in great and commodious houses, adorned with statues and pictures, furnished with everything which they who are reputed happy abound with; and if, without stirring from thence, they should be informed of a certain divine power and majesty, and, after some time, the earth should open, and they should quit their dark abode to come to us; where they should immediately behold the earth, the seas, the heavens; should consider the vast extent of the clouds and force of the winds; should see the sun, and observe his grandeur and beauty, and also his creative power, inasmuch as day is occasioned by the diffusion of his light through the sky; and when night has obscured the earth, they should contemplate the heavens bespangled and adorned with stars; the surprising variety of the moon, in her increase and wane; the rising and setting of all the stars, and the inviolable regularity of their courses; when, says he, they should see these things, they would undoubtedly conclude that there are Gods, and that these are their mighty works.”

Is my life vulgar, my fate mean,
Which on such golden memories can lean?

At the same time the change which has taken place in the character of our religion has in one respect weakened the hold which Nature has upon our feelings. To the Greeks to our own ancestors, every River or Mountain or Forest had not only its own special Deity, but in some sense was itself instinct with life. They were not only peopled by Nymphs and Fauns, Elves and Kelpies, were not only the favourite abodes of Water, Forest, or Mountain Spirits, but they had a conscious existence of their own.

In the Middle Ages indeed, these spirits were regarded as often mischievous, and apt to take offence; sometimes as essentially malevolent even the most beautiful, like the Venus of Tannhaeuser, being often on that very account all the more dangerous; while the Mountains and Forests, the Lakes and Seas, were the abodes of hideous ghosts and horrible monsters, of Giants and Ogres, Sorcerers and Demons. These fears, though vague, were none the less extreme, and the judicial records of the Middle Ages furnish only too conclusive evidence that they were a terrible reality. The light of Science has now happily dispelled these fearful nightmares.

Unfortunately, however, as men have multiplied, their energies have hitherto tended, not to beautify, but to mar. Forests have been cut down, and replaced by flat fields in geometrical squares, or on the continent by narrow strips. Here and there indeed we meet with oases, in which beauty has not been sacrificed to profit, and it is then happily found that not only is there no loss, but the earth seems to reward even more richly those who treat her with love and respect.

Scarcely any part of the world affords so great a variety in so small an area as our own island. Commencing in the south, we have first the blue sea itself, the pebbly beaches, the white chalk cliffs of Kent, the tinted sands of Alum Bay, the Red Sandstone of Devonshire, Granite and Gneiss in Cornwall: inland we have the chalk Downs and clear streams, the well-wooded weald and the rich hop gardens; farther westwards the undulating gravelly hills, and still farther the granite tors: in the centre of England we have to the east the Norfolk Broads and the Fens; then the fertile Midlands, the cornfields, rich meadows, and large oxen; and to the west the Welsh mountains; farther north the Yorkshire Wolds, the Lancashire hills, the Lakes of Westmoreland; lastly, the swelling hills, bleak moors, and picturesque castles of Northumberland and Cumberland.

There are of course far larger rivers, but perhaps none lovelier than

The crystal Thamis wont to glide
In silver channel, down along the lee,

by lawns and parks, meadows and wooded banks, dotted with country houses and crowned by Windsor Castle itself (see Frontispiece). By many Scotland is considered even more beautiful.

And yet too many of us see nothing in the fields but sacks of wheat, in the meadows but trusses of hay, and in woods but planks for houses, or cover for game. Even from this more prosaic point of view, how much there is to wonder at and admire, in the wonderful chemistry which changes grass and leaves, flowers and seeds, into bread and milk, eggs and cream, butter and honey!

Almost everything, says Hamerton, “that the Peasant does, is lifted above vulgarity by ancient, and often sacred, associations.” There is, indeed, hardly any business or occupation with reference to which the same might not be said. The triviality or vulgarity does not depend on what we do, but on the spirit in which it is done. Not only the regular professions, but every useful occupation in life, however humble, is honourable in itself, and may be pursued with dignity and peace.

Working in this spirit we have also the satisfaction of feeling that, as in some mountain track every one who takes the right path, seems to make the way clearer for those who follow; so may we also raise the profession we adopt, and smooth the way for those who come after us. But, even for those who are not Agriculturists, it must be admitted that the country has special charms. One perhaps is the continual change. Every week brings some fresh leaf or flower, bird or insect. Every month again has its own charms and beauty. We sit quietly at home and Nature decks herself for us.

In truth we all love change. Some think they do not care for it, but I doubt if they know themselves.

“Not,” said Jefferies, “for many years was I able to see why I went the same round and did not care for change. I do not want change: I want the same old and loved things, the same wild flowers, the same trees and soft ash-green; the turtle-doves, the blackbirds, the coloured yellow-hammer sing, sing, singing so long as there is light to cast a shadow on the dial, for such is the measure of his song, and I want them in the same place. Let me find them morning after morning, the starry-white petals radiating, striving upwards up to their ideal. Let me see the idle shadows resting on the white dust; let me hear the humble-bees, and stay to look down on the yellow dandelion disk. Let me see the very thistles opening their great crowns I should miss the thistles; the reed grasses hiding the moor-hen; the bryony bine, at first crudely ambitious and lifted by force of youthful sap straight above the hedgerow to sink of its weight presently and progress with crafty tendrils; swifts shot through the air with outstretched wings like crescent-headed shaftless arrows darted from the clouds; the chaffinch with a feather in her bill; all the living staircase of the spring, step by step, upwards to the great gallery of the summer, let me watch the same succession year by year.”

After all then he did enjoy the change and the succession.

Kingsley again in his charming prose idyll “My Winter Garden” tries to persuade himself that he was glad he had never travelled, “having never yet actually got to Paris.” Monotony, he says, “is pleasant in itself; morally pleasant, and morally useful. Marriage is monotonous; but there is much, I trust, to be said in favour of holy wedlock. Living in the same house is monotonous; but three removes, say the wise, are as bad as a fire. Locomotion is regarded as an evil by our Litany. The Litany, as usual, is right. ‘Those who travel by land or sea’ are to be objects of our pity and our prayers; and I do pity them. I delight in that same monotony. It saves curiosity, anxiety, excitement, disappointment, and a host of bad passions.”

But even as he writes one can see that he does not convince himself. Possibly, he admits, “after all, the grapes are sour”; and when some years after he did travel, how happy he was! At last, he says, triumphantly, “At last we too are crossing the Atlantic. At last the dream of forty years, please God, would be fulfilled, and I should see (and happily not alone), the West Indies and the Spanish Main. From childhood I had studied their Natural History, their Charts, their Romances; and now, at last, I was about to compare books with facts, and judge for myself of the reported wonders of the Earthly Paradise.”

No doubt there is much to see everywhere. The Poet and the Naturalist find “tropical forests in every square foot of turf.” It may even be better, and especially for the more sensitive natures, to live mostly in quiet scenery, among fields and hedgerows, woods and downs; but it is surely good for every one, from time to time, to refresh and strengthen both mind and body by a spell of Sea air or Mountain beauty.

On the other hand we are told, and told of course with truth, that though mountains may be the cathedrals of Nature, they are generally remote from centres of population; that our great cities are grimy, dark, and ugly; that factories are creeping over several of our counties, blighting them into building ground, replacing trees by chimneys, and destroying almost every vestige of natural beauty.

But if this be true, is it not all the more desirable that our people should have access to pictures and books, which may in some small degree, at any rate, replace what they have thus unfortunately lost? We cannot all travel; and even those who can, are able to see but a small part of the world. Moreover, though no one who has once seen, can ever forget, the Alps, the Swiss lakes, or the Riviera, still the recollection becomes less vivid as years roll on, and it is pleasant, from time to time, to be reminded of their beauties.

There is one other advantage not less important. We sometimes speak as if to visit a country, and to see it, were the same thing. But this is not so. It is not every one who can see Switzerland like a Ruskin or a Tyndall. Their beautiful descriptions of mountain scenery depend less on their mastery of the English language, great as that is, than on their power of seeing what is before them. It has been to me therefore a matter of much interest to know which aspects of Nature have given the greatest pleasure to, or have most impressed, those who, either from wide experience or from their love of Nature, may be considered best able to judge. I will begin with an English scene from Kingsley. He is describing his return from a day’s trout-fishing:

“What shall we see,” he says, “as we look across the broad, still, clear river, where the great dark trout sail to and fro lazily in the sun? White chalk fields above, quivering hazy in the heat. A park full of merry hay-makers; gay red and blue waggons; stalwart horses switching off the flies; dark avenues of tall elms; groups of abele, ’tossing their whispering silver to the sun’; and amid them the house, a great square red-brick mass, made light and cheerful though by quoins and windows of white Sarsden stone, with high peaked French roofs, broken by louvres and dormers, haunted by a thousand swallows and starlings. Old walled gardens, gay with flowers, shall stretch right and left. Clipt yew alleys shall wander away into mysterious glooms, and out of their black arches shall come tripping children, like white fairies, to laugh and talk with the girl who lies dreaming and reading in the hammock there, beneath the black velvet canopy of the great cedar tree, like some fair tropic flower hanging from its boughs; and we will sit down, and eat and drink among the burdock leaves, and then watch the quiet house, and lawn, and flowers, and fair human creatures, and shining water, all sleeping breathless in the glorious light beneath the glorious blue, till we doze off, lulled by the murmur of a thousand insects, and the rich minstrelsy of nightingale and blackcap, thrush and dove.

“Peaceful, graceful, complete English country life and country houses; everywhere finish and polish; Nature perfected by the wealth and art of peaceful centuries! Why should I exchange you, even for the sight of all the Alps?”

Though Jefferies was unfortunately never able to travel, few men have loved Nature more devotedly, and speaking of his own home he expresses his opinion that: “Of all sweet things there is none so sweet as fresh air one great flower it is, drawn round about; over, and enclosing us, like Aphrodite’s arms; as if the dome of the sky were a bell-flower drooping down over us, and the magical essence of it filling all the room of the earth. Sweetest of all things is wild-flower air. Full of their ideal the starry flowers strained upwards on the bank, striving to keep above the rude grasses that push by them; genius has ever had such a struggle. The plain road was made beautiful by the many thoughts it gave. I came every morning to stay by the star-lit bank.”

Passing to countries across the ocean, Humboldt tells us that: “If I might be allowed to abandon myself to the recollection of my own distant travels, I would instance, amongst the most striking scenes of nature, the calm sublimity of a tropical night, when the stars, not sparkling, as in our northern skies, shed their soft and planetary light over the gently heaving ocean; or I would recall the deep valleys of the Cordilleras, where the tall and slender palms pierce the leafy veil around them, and waving on high their feathery and arrow-like branches, form, as it were, ‘a forest above a forest’; or I would describe the summit of the Peak of Teneriffe, when a horizon layer of clouds, dazzling in whiteness, has separated the cone of cinders from the plain below, and suddenly the ascending current pierces the cloudy veil, so that the eye of the traveller may range from the brink of the crater, along the vine-clad slopes of Orotava, to the orange gardens and banana groves that skirt the shore. In scenes like these, it is not the peaceful charm uniformly spread over the face of nature that moves the heart, but rather the peculiar physiognomy and conformation of the land, the features of the landscape, the ever-varying outline of the clouds, and their blending with the horizon of the sea, whether it lies spread before us like a smooth and shining mirror, or is dimly seen through the morning mist. All that the senses can but imperfectly comprehend, all that is most awful in such romantic scenes of nature, may become a source of enjoyment to man, by opening a wide field to the creative power of his imagination. Impressions change with the varying movements of the mind, and we are led by a happy illusion to believe that we receive from the external world that with which we have ourselves invested it.”

Humboldt also singles out for especial praise the following description given of Tahiti by Darwin:

“The land capable of cultivation is scarcely in any part more than a fringe of low alluvial soil, accumulated round the base of mountains, and protected from the waves of the sea by a coral reef, which encircles at a distance the entire line of coast. The reef is broken in several parts so that ships can pass through, and the lake of smooth water within, thus affords a safe harbour, as well as a channel for the native canoes. The low land which comes down to the beach of coral sand is covered by the most beautiful productions of the inter-tropical regions. In the midst of bananas, orange, cocoa-nut, and breadfruit trees, spots are cleared where yams, sweet potatoes, sugar-cane, and pine-apples are cultivated. Even the brushwood is a fruit tree, namely, the guava, which from its abundance is as noxious as a weed. In Brazil I have often admired the contrast of varied beauty in the banana, palm, and orange tree; here we have in addition the breadfruit tree, conspicuous from its large, glossy, and deeply digitated leaf. It is admirable to behold groves of a tree, sending forth its branches with the force of an English Oak, loaded with large and most nutritious fruit. However little on most occasions utility explains the delight received from any fine prospect, in this case it cannot fail to enter as an element in the feeling. The little winding paths, cool from the surrounding shade, led to the scattered houses; and the owners of these everywhere gave us a cheerful and most hospitable reception.”

Darwin himself has told us, after going round the world that “in calling up images of the past, I find the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes; yet these plains are pronounced by all to be most wretched and useless. They are characterised only by negative possessions; without habitations, without water, without trees, without mountains, they support only a few dwarf plants. Why then and the case is not peculiar to myself have these arid wastes taken so firm possession of my mind? Why have not the still more level, the greener and more fertile pampas, which are serviceable to mankind, produced an equal impression? I can scarcely analyse these feelings, but it must be partly owing to the free scope given to the imagination. The plains of Patagonia are boundless, for they are scarcely practicable, and hence unknown; they bear the stamp of having thus lasted for ages, and there appears no limit to their duration through future time. If, as the ancients supposed, the flat earth was surrounded by an impassable breadth of water, or by deserts heated to an intolerable excess, who would not look at these last boundaries to man’s knowledge with deep but ill-defined sensations?”

Hamerton, whose wide experience and artistic power make his opinion especially important, says:

“I know nothing in the visible world that combines splendour and purity so perfectly as a great mountain entirely covered with frozen snow and reflected in the vast mirror of a lake. As the sun declines, its thousand shadows lengthen, pure as the cold green azure in the depth of a glacier’s crevasse, and the illuminated snow takes first the tender colour of a white rose, and then the flush of a red one, and the sky turns to a pale malachite green, till the rare strange vision fades into ghastly gray, but leaves with you a permanent recollection of its too transient beauty.”

Wallace especially, and very justly, praises the description of tropical forest scenery given by Belt in his charming Naturalist in Nicaragua:

“On each side of the road great trees towered up, carrying their crowns out of sight amongst a canopy of foliage, and with lianas hanging from nearly every bough, and passing from tree to tree, entangling the giants in a great network of coiling cables. Sometimes a tree appears covered with beautiful flowers which do not belong to it, but to one of the lianas that twines through its branches and sends down great rope-like stems to the ground. Climbing ferns and vanilla cling to the trunks, and a thousand epiphytes perch themselves on the branches. Amongst these are large arums that send down long aerial roots, tough and strong, and universally used instead of cordage by the natives. Amongst the undergrowth several small species of palms, varying in height from two to fifteen feet, are common; and now and then magnificent tree ferns send off their feathery crowns twenty feet from the ground to delight the sight by their graceful elegance. Great broad-leaved heliconias, leathery melastomae, and succulent-stemmed, lop-sided leaved and flesh-coloured begonias are abundant, and typical of tropical American forests; but not less so are the cecropia trees, with their white stems and large palmated leaves standing up like great candelabra. Sometimes the ground is carpeted with large flowers, yellow, pink, or white, that have fallen from some invisible tree-top above; or the air is filled with a delicious perfume, the source of which one seeks around in vain, for the flowers that cause it are far overhead out of sight, lost in the great over-shadowing crown of verdure.”

“But,” he adds, “the uniformity of climate which has led to this rich luxuriance and endless variety of vegetation is also the cause of a monotony that in time becomes oppressive.” To quote the words of Mr. Belt: “Unknown are the autumn tints, the bright browns and yellows of English woods; much less the crimsons, purples, and yellows of Canada, where the dying foliage rivals, nay, excels, the expiring dolphin in splendour. Unknown the cold sleep of winter; unknown the lovely awakening of vegetation at the first gentle touch of spring. A ceaseless round of ever-active life weaves the fairest scenery of the tropics into one monotonous whole, of which the component parts exhibit in detail untold variety of beauty.”

Siberia is no doubt as a rule somewhat severe and inhospitable, but M. Patrin mentions with enthusiasm how one day descending from the frozen summits of the Altai, he came suddenly on a view of the plain of the Obi the most beautiful spectacle, he says, which he had ever witnessed. Behind him were barren rocks and the snows of winter, in front a great plain, not indeed entirely green, or green only in places, and for the rest covered by three flowers, the purple Siberian Iris, the golden Hemerocallis, and the silvery Narcissus green, purple, gold, and white, as far as the eye could reach.

Wallace tells us that he himself has derived the keenest enjoyment from his sense of colour:

“The heavenly blue of the firmament, the glowing tints of sunset, the exquisite purity of the snowy mountains, and the endless shades of green presented by the verdure-clad surface of the earth, are a never-failing source of pleasure to all who enjoy the inestimable gift of sight. Yet these constitute, as it were, but the frame and background of a marvellous and ever-changing picture. In contrast with these broad and soothing tints, we have presented to us in the vegetable and animal worlds an infinite variety of objects adorned with the most beautiful and most varied hues. Flowers, insects, and birds are the organisms most generally ornamented in this way; and their symmetry of form, their variety of structure, and the lavish abundance with which they clothe and enliven the earth, cause them to be objects of universal admiration. The relation of this wealth of colour to our mental and moral nature is indisputable. The child and the savage alike admire the gay tints of flowers, birds, and insects; while to many of us their contemplation brings a solace and enjoyment which is both intellectually and morally beneficial. It can then hardly excite surprise that this relation was long thought to afford a sufficient explanation of the phenomena of colour in nature; and although the fact that

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air,

might seem to throw some doubt on the sufficiency of the explanation, the answer was easy, that in the progress of discovery man would, sooner or later, find out and enjoy every beauty that the hidden recesses of the earth have in store for him.”

Professor Colvin speaks with special admiration of Greek scenery:

“In other climates, it is only in particular states of the weather that the remote ever seems so close, and then with an effect which is sharp and hard as well as clear; here the clearness is soft; nothing cuts or glitters, seen through that magic distance; the air has not only a new transparency so that you can see farther into it than elsewhere, but a new quality, like some crystal of an unknown water, so that to see into it is greater glory.” Speaking of the ranges and promontories of sterile limestone, the same writer observes that their colours are as austere and delicate as the forms. “If here the scar of some old quarry throws a stain, or there the clinging of some thin leafage spreads a bloom, the stain is of precious gold, and the bloom of silver. Between the blue of the sky and the tenfold blue of the sea these bare ranges seem, beneath that daylight, to present a whole system of noble colour flung abroad over perfect forms. And wherever, in the general sterility, you find a little moderate verdure a little moist grass, a cluster of cypresses or whenever your eye lights upon the one wood of the district, the long olive grove of the Cephissus, you are struck with a sudden sense of richness, and feel as if the splendours of the tropics would be nothing to this.”

Most travellers have been fascinated by the beauty of night in the tropics. Our evenings no doubt are often delicious also, though the mild climate we enjoy is partly due to the sky being so often overcast. In parts of the tropics, however, the air is calm and cloudless throughout nearly the whole of the year. There is no dew, and the inhabitants sleep on the house-tops, in full view of the brightness of the stars and the beauty of the sky, which is almost indescribable.

“Il faisait,” says Bernardin de St. Pierre of such a scene, “une de ces nuits delicieuses, si communes entre les tropiques, et dont le plus abile pinceau ne rendrait pas le beaute. La lune paraissait au milieu du firmament, entouree d’un rideau de nuages, que ses rayons dissipaient par degres. Sa lumiere se repandait insensiblement sur les montagnes de l’ile et sur leurs pitons, qui brillaient d’un vert argente. Les vents retenaient leurs haleines. On entendait dans les bois, au fond des vallees, au haut des rochers, de petits cris, de doux murmures d’oiseaux, qui se caressaient dans leurs nids, rejouis par la clarte de la nuit et la tranquillite de l’air. Tous, jusqu’aux insectes, bruissaient sous l’herbe. Les etoiles etincelaient au ciel, et se reflechissaient au sein de la mer, qui repetait leurs images tremblantes.”

In the Arctic and Antarctic regions the nights are often made quite gorgeous by the Northern Lights or Aurora borealis, and the corresponding appearance in the Southern hemisphere. The Aurora borealis generally begins towards evening, and first appears as a faint glimmer in the north, like the approach of dawn. Gradually a curve of light spreads like an immense arch of yellowish-white hue, which gains rapidly in brilliancy, flashes and vibrates like a flame in the wind. Often two or even three arches appear one over the other. After a while coloured rays dart upwards in divergent pencils, often green below, yellow in the centre, and crimson above, while it is said that sometimes almost black, or at least very dark violet, rays are interspersed among the rings of light, and heighten their effect by contrast. Sometimes the two ends of the arch seem to rise off the horizon, and the whole sheet of light throbs and undulates like a fringed curtain of light; sometimes the sheaves of rays unite into an immense cupola; while at others the separate rays seem alternately lit and extinguished. Gradually the light flickers and fades away, and has generally disappeared before the first glimpse of dawn.

We seldom see the Aurora in the south of England, but we must not complain; our winters are mild, and every month has its own charm and beauty.

In January we have the lengthening days.

” February ” the first butterfly.

” March ” the opening buds.

” April ” the young leaves and spring flowers.

” May ” the song of birds.

” June ” the sweet new-mown hay.

” July ” the summer flowers.

” August ” the golden grain.

” September ” the fruit.

” October ” the autumn tints.

” November ” the hoar frost on trees and the pure snow.

” December ” last not least, the holidays of Christmas, and the bright fireside.
It is well to begin the year in January, for we have then before us all the hope of spring.

Oh wind,
If winter comes, can spring be long behind?

Spring seems to revive us all. In the Song of Solomon

My beloved spake, and said unto me,
Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
The voice of the turtle is heard in our land,
The fig tree putteth forth her green figs,
And the vines with the tender grape give a good smell.

“But indeed there are days,” says Emerson, “which occur in this climate, at almost any season of the year, wherein the world reaches its perfection, when the air, the heavenly bodies, and the earth make a harmony, as if nature would indulge her offspring…. These halcyon days may be looked for with a little more assurance in that pure October weather, which we distinguish by the name of the Indian summer. The day, immeasurably long, sleeps over the broad hills and warm wide fields. To have lived through all its sunny hours, seems longevity enough.” Yet does not the very name of Indian summer imply the superiority of the summer itself, the real, the true summer, “when the young corn is bursting into ear; the awned heads of rye, wheat, and barley, and the nodding panicles of oats, shoot from their green and glaucous stems, in broad, level, and waving expanses of present beauty and future promise. The very waters are strewn with flowers: the buck-bean, the water-violet, the elegant flowering rush, and the queen of the waters, the pure and splendid white lily, invest every stream and lonely mere with grace.”

For our greater power of perceiving, and therefore of enjoying Nature, we are greatly indebted to Science. Over and above what is visible to the unaided eye, the two magic tubes, the telescope and microscope, have revealed to us, at least partially, the infinitely great and the infinitely little.

Science, our Fairy Godmother, will, unless we perversely reject her help, and refuse her gifts, so richly endow us, that fewer hours of labour will serve to supply us with the material necessaries of life, leaving us more time to ourselves, more leisure to enjoy all that makes life best worth living.

Even now we all have some leisure, and for it we cannot be too grateful.

“If any one,” says Seneca, “gave you a few acres, you would say that you had received a benefit; can you deny that the boundless extent of the earth is a benefit? If a house were given you, bright with marble, its roof beautifully painted with colours and gilding, you would call it no small benefit. God has built for you a mansion that fears no fire or ruin … covered with a roof which glitters in one fashion by day, and in another by night. Whence comes the breath which you draw; the light by which you perform the actions of your life? the blood by which your life is maintained? the meat by which your hunger is appeased?… The true God has planted, not a few oxen, but all the herds on their pastures throughout the world, and furnished food to all the flocks; he has ordained the alternation of summer and winter … he has invented so many arts and varieties of voice, so many notes to make music…. We have implanted in us the seeds of all ages, of all arts; and God our Master brings forth our intellects from obscurity.”

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