Woodnotes Wild

Paul Griffin looks to the natural world for a shadow of the divine

There is this strong feeling inside me, and I suppose in many other people, against the building of houses; and not only houses. Living in a small, overpopulated country, we feel it to be unfair that what remains to us of countryside should be hijacked by estates and airports and second homes, while the population remains pretty constant, give or take a few illegal immigrants. Wildlife is disappearing, and many a country town and village contains a large proportion of homes which are no longer inhabited by locals, but remain empty for all but a few weeks and weekends of the year. Even those who inhabit the houses continuously prove on inspection to be potters and basket-weavers and long-distance commuters, with no local connections. The natives have long moved out into council houses or gravitated to somewhere that offers accommodation they can afford. I know an old lady who lives in a row of seven houses, of which five are as silent as the grave for 300 days a year. Not many neighbourly kindnesses for her!

There is nothing new here. We all tend to see the planet disappearing under a skin of concrete, and some people join Greenpeace, the WWF, and even organizations that will not stop at violence in order to protest against the inhumanity of humanity. If you want to object to what is going on in your backyard, you feel the need to extend the same concern to other people's backyards; hence the worry about lemurs and wetlands and Indian lions among those who have no real connection with any of them.

Why do we need tigers?

This general feeling can be abundantly justified. What I ask myself is whether it is founded on something more than current concerns about overpopulation. After all, why do we need tigers and the rest? What have tigers ever done for us? We are human beings, in a world dominated by human beings, with room and potential for everyone to be comfortable. Is it a necessary part of that comfort that we should have muddy fields and forests to walk in, and red squirrels to peer at, and red kites to shower us with ordure? Beyond a proper provision of parks in which to exercise the dog, and sufficient land to produce food, why do we need Nature?

Urbs in rure

This is a good question, which ought to take us back thousands of years to the Ancient Greeks, who tended to idealize country life even then, when a large proportion of the world was untroubled by human devastation. Why, for goodness sake? An Ancient Greek had more countryside than he knew what to do with. Why should he grumble, even if he lived in the centre of Athens?

We can trace this attitude down the ages, in Horace, in Spenser and Shakespeare and Milton, in the Classical writers and artists, and of course in the Romantics who followed Rousseau, up to the present day. However, its causes and effects vary. Horace loved the county because, like so many through the ages, he wanted to be idle. All very well, if you are a famous writer and own a Sabine farm; one cannot imagine Horace getting up early to milk the cows or taking a hand with the sheep shearing. The same applies to those countless writers and artists who have built up an ideal rural life, replete with many pipes and jolly shepherdesses, a sort of foretaste of heaven.

Talking of which, we have a significant collection of artists who have taken a religious view of the countryside. What in Greek and Latin writers was the worship of Pan and assorted nereids and dryads became a vague and never very easy mysticism in the European Romantics. Wordsworth took up the theme of Henry Vaughan from 150 years before, who wrote of days

When on some gilded Cloud, or flower
My gazing soul would dwell an hour,
And in those weaker glories spy
Some shadows of eternity. 

(The Retreat)

This became Wordsworth's ‘visional gleam’, the message of Nature conveyed by the Lake District and the Lesser Celandine, but obscured by age and civilization. It even had a moral burden:

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can. 

(The Tables Turned)

Here is a son of theism, even if it is pantheism. It has passed into general currency of a vague sort. My revered father would say that a Sunday walk in the country was better than any religious service, and to judge from people's behaviour this is a very common current attitude. But make no mistake about it, my father was firmly implying the existence of a God, even if his worship was best conducted in rural or ‘natural’ surroundings.

Man in context

I doubt if much would be served by a disquisition on natura naturans and natura naturata beyond my observing that in the sense of ‘created nature’ we have to include Oxford Street and everything that people do not include when they talk of ‘Nature’. What they mean most of the time is whatever is untouched by man, in the broadest sense. Clearly, the English landscape is largely created by man; man makes fields and hedges and breeds the sheep that graze the Lake District; it is hard to find a place where he has not interfered. There are rubbish dumps on Himalayan slopes, and even the sunset may well be affected by industrial emissions. In this sense, one has to concur with Psalm 8:

‘Thou makest (man) to have dominion of the works of thy hands: and thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet; all sheep and oxen: yea, and the beasts of the field; the fowls of the air, and the fishes of the sea: and whatsoever walketh through the paths of the seas.’

Humanity certainly has power over Nature, if not complete power. If one insists on natural purity, one is probably left with earthquakes and floods, which are not generally regarded as objects of worship.

Even so, wild animals, living in uninhabited surroundings and feeding on what live things are around, do offer a sense of unspoilt Nature, which for some reason we feel should be preserved, and not interfered with by men with axes and fire and theodolites. Marvell talks of ‘man's happy garden state’, looking back to the original myth of Eden, God's garden. Adam and Eve were themselves part of the natural state in Eden, until they interfered and were despatched to our fallen world.

Post-lapserian

Eden may suggest that Nature needs some sort of guidance, for it is God's garden, and having a garden implies a degree of maintenance. However, perhaps plants only needed maintenance in our lower world, after Adam and Eve had done their worst.

I am approaching the state of general confusion that afflicts all who try to understand Nature. The point is that Eden is a religious myth, as my father's statement was a religious one. It seems to me that at the root of all our longing for the countryside, below the rational arguments from self-interest and neighbour-interest, is a religious feeling about the creation. It is time the atheist was heard. Ask him about what I have said, and he will reply that I am one in a long line of deluded people who believe in what they wish were true. In fact, he would say, we are entirely material creatures, and our feelings about the countryside are entirely material feelings, based partly on material factors and partly on an ancestral memory of days spent in more primitive times. The material factors are the strain of modern life, of any life in community right back to ancient Athens; a transference of our love of domesticated companions to creatures in the wild; a sense of sympathy with sentient beings like ourselves; and even the wish to study other elements of our evolved world, with benefit to ourselves and others.

All this raises the aesthetic question. Why do we feel uplifted when we see the Lakes, the sky at sunset, breaking waves, snow-capped mountains, and the rest? My dogs have always cheered up on seeing an expanse of common or a good beach, but I suspect their emotion is not quite of the human kind, but is related to a need for exercise, defecation, and rabbits, less strongly felt by you and me. Perhaps it is possible to argue that our view of Helvellyn is related to the feeling that it spells potential health and scope for a wee-wee; but I doubt it.

It is easier for an atheist to explain the feeling aroused by a Mozart sonata or the Taj Mahal in human terms. I can only point to human experience, and maintain that the one feeling is of exactly the same sort as the other.

Religion and feeling

Of course, despite the current trend to believe the opposite, not all religious feelings are good. No doubt the ancient Philistines had sincere religious feelings towards Baal. Wordsworth felt that the message of Nature was essentially moral, and therefore good; but surely morality would have to be extensively redefined before this could be accepted. Aesthetic experience does not immediately prove the existence of God; it may just arise from a faculty evolved among the other differentiations of species, like the sex urge. Yet there is a clear point to the sex urge. Surely no species can have felt the need for aesthetics in order to survive.

It is all so easy for the theist. Aesthetic experience is a sense of wonder at the glory of God, a way in which God communicates with his creation through his creation. Dylan Thomas represents the twentieth century experience in his poem ‘Fern Hill’

‘Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs…’
‘…it was all shining, it was Adam and maiden…’
‘So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.’

There is the Eden myth again, the link between pastoral and religious feeling – a turning away from our fellows, yes, which some churchmen would feel was against our Lord's injunction to love one another. But this is about childhood. Adulthood brings the need and the duty to be social. Only the autistic or the hermit could wish to forsake humanity; a truth which need not stop us looking for relief towards a rural paradise, when worldly needs and duties have finally been satisfied.

If we believe that ‘Heaven lies about us in our infancy’, it seems perverse and against our human instinct to insist that Heaven is a worldly construction. How far Dylan Thomas looked ahead I cannot tell. To him the rural idyll was something once found and later lost. To a conventional Christian it may also be something to be recaptured after, in Dylan's metaphor.

 Time has released his dying prisoners.
‘Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.’

A divine beauty

Is this merely a statement of happiness in youth? More to the point, is our reaction to it merely that of a dying animal, that dislikes interference with its backyard? I think not. It is the modern custom to sneer at rational proofs for the existence of God of the Augustinian kind; yet if we cannot talk rationally about God to rational people, gone is the one evangelistic bridge between us and them. Some of Augustine's proofs are open to rational counter-argument; but it seems to me that the argument from order and beauty, and especially from beauty, is a real clincher.

Paul Griffin lives and worships in Suffolk

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