By Christina Hardyment, complier of 'Pleasures of Nature: A Literary Anthology' now available from British Library Publishing.
Having enjoyed compiling literary anthologies about gardens (Pleasures of the Garden) and food (Pleasures of the Table), I turned to a much more challenging subject: Pleasures of Nature. Where to start and where to stop? I decided that a challenging way of classifying literary mentions of natural things would be to consider them in the context of the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Earthâ€™s â€˜sweet interchange of hill and valley, rivers, woods and plainsâ€™ are mournfully recalled by the exiled Satan in Paradise Lost, a tranquil scene quite unlike the â€˜mighty polypus mouth â€¦ chewing and digesting its food in its throat and bellyâ€™ of the earthquake described by Sabine Baring-Gould in his tempestuous romantic novel Winefred. Trees are firmly rooted in earth, particularly such ancient giants as the Borrowdale yews apostrophized by Wordsworth, and the hunched beech and juniper of the ancient combe found in the Marlborough Downs by Edward Thomas. And then there are particularly earthbound creatures: D H Lawrenceâ€™s â€˜little Titanâ€™ of a tortoise and Richard Braithwaiteâ€™s hedgehog, â€˜a whole fort in himselfâ€™.
â€˜View of the Source of the Arveyron, by Belanger and Vanlerberghe, engraved by Malgoâ€™, 1829. British Library Maps K.Top.76.84.b.
Writers conjure air up in rainbows, winds and mists, the â€˜tremendous voiceâ€™ of James Thomsonâ€™s thunder, and the â€˜livid flameâ€™ of his lightning. Leonardo da Vinci analysed the varying blues of atmosphere: smoky grey, azure, profoundly dark. Coleridge made startlingly vivid notes on sunsets and moonsets, observed while upturning his chamber pot out of the window of his Keswick residence, Greta Hall. Itâ€™s also the domain of Tennysonâ€™s eagle, falling like a thunderbolt, Dorothy Wordsworthâ€™s tremulously fluttering swallows, and Emersonâ€™s â€˜burly, dozing humble-bee.â€™
Plate from The Beauty of the Heavens by Charles F. Blunt, 1840. British Library 717.g.4*
Fiery phenomena invade all the elements of course, be they volcanoes (observed at Pompeii by Pliny, and at Krakatoa by R M Ballantyne), â€˜phosphorescent billowsâ€™ as whalesâ€™ tails lash the sea in Moby-Dick, or Robert Serviceâ€™s â€˜wild and weird and wanâ€™ Northern Lights dancing in the polar sky. Thomas Hardy likened the great bonfire lit on the heath in The Return of the Native to ancient funeral pyres and Bartholomew Anglicusâ€™s phoenix crawled into a nest â€˜of right sweet-smelling sticksâ€™, which is set on fire by the sun.
Plate from Campi Phlegraei: Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies by William Hamilton, Ambassador to the Court of Naples, 1776. British Library TAB.435.a.15, volume 1.
Water includes the sound of rain and what Henry Beston called the â€˜awesome, beautiful, and variedâ€™ voice of the ocean; the â€˜fleecy fallâ€™ of Hardyâ€™s snow, Gerard Manley Hopkinsâ€™s â€˜darksome burn, horseback brownâ€™. It too has its creatures: Grey Owlâ€™s beaver people, Henry Williamsonâ€™s otters and Graeme Stonesâ€™s â€˜storm-orphaned seal pupâ€™.
But time and again I came across passages that escaped my quartet of categories. So I added two more. One was Surprise, in honour of Terry Pratchett, who once jokingly defined it as a fifth element, which I could fill with fun in the form of Lewis Carrollâ€™s Bread-and-Butter-Fly, Jean FabrÃ©â€™s macabre account of the courting habits of the grasshopper, and Aldous Huxleyâ€™s jokey skit on Darwinism, â€˜Jonah and the Apesâ€™. Finally, I found a home for the most arresting passages and poems under Deep Thinking. God recurs: as a â€˜vast Chain of Beingâ€™ for Alexander Pope, in the changing seasons for Henry Vaughan, in the form of Space for Coleridge, jokingly in Rupert Brookeâ€™s piscine â€˜Heavenâ€™. The Japanese poet BashÃ¶ reads Buddhist poems under the moon, Robert Louis Stevenson wanders the bird-enchanted highlands in â€˜a trance of silenceâ€™. The pioneer environmentalist Aldo Leopold reminds us that â€˜in wildness is the salvation of the worldâ€™, and the physicist Chet Raymo gazes at the stars from a dark hillside, listening and watching â€˜for the tingle in the spineâ€™.
I found much to comfort, but also much to dread during my reading. We are taming and tidying our world too thoroughly. In our gardens, birds, bees and hedgehogs disappear in the face of pesticides. The rockpools on our beaches are all but deserted. In South America, Africa and Asia, forests shrink unimaginably quickly, and round the globe the oceans are being ruthlessly harvested and polluted. As we reach greedily for the stars, letâ€™s stop a while and remember Gilbert Whiteâ€™s tortoise, digging himself into the ground with a movement that â€˜little exceeded the hour hand of a clockâ€™, and the tall old shepherd in the Lakeland Hills who, Harriet Martineau tells us, â€˜has trod upon rainbowsâ€™.