Tag Archives: nature

All flows…

If rowers row and sowers sow, do flowers flow?

The prosaic answer is, no – ‘flow’ and ‘flower’ are two unrelated words. But in D.H. Lawrence’s poetic world, everything in the natural world – whether flowers or gemstones – is ‘flowing away’. Flowers, he says, ‘are just a motion, a swift motion, a coloured gesture; that is their loveliness’, and gems only seem to last for ever: ‘The wonderful slow flowing of the sapphire!’ *

He was right. Everything we see and feel around us is subtly changing, continually. We may think we enter the same living-room every morning, because everything in it – each piece of furniture and fabric – is still in the same place. Nothing has moved. But there are changes. Dust has settled. The curtains have faded a little in the sunlight. Paint has darkened: we notice it only when we take pictures off the wall and see the difference in the colour underneath.

Beyond our everyday experience, sand dunes shift, rocks are eroded and stars burn themselves out – all of them ‘flowing away’.

Sometimes, though, things don’t flow; they get suddenly chopped.

A couple of days ago, I visited my favourite garden, Buscot Park in Oxfordshire, for the first time since last September. As usual, like a cat or dog checking out its territory, I took a quick tour of the familiar places. The walled garden with its fountain was still there. So was the holly circle where I sit on the grass and watch other people drifting in and out, gazing and wondering at the obelisk sundial in the centre. The white garden still had its four swinging benches round the edges, and I could still walk through the avenues of poplar trees that rustle like tin foil in the breeze.

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I probably wouldn’t have noticed the enormous cedar tree just to the east of the 18th-century house – except that the massive trunk was stretched out on the ground, shorn of its upper branches, next to its equally impressive, fresh, unweathered stump. There was no foliage to tell me what variety of tree it was, but I recognised the distinctive smell – similar to, though a bit sweeter than, the balls of wood, saturated with cedar oil, that I use to keep the moths out of my winter woollies.

Cedar stump, Buscot April 2017I counted the rings – at least 180 – some wide, some very narrow, giving clues to the weather conditions during each passing decade. For 180 years this tree had been growing taller and wider while generations of human beings argued and fought, made amazing discoveries, and shrank the world with cars, aeroplanes and satellite communications.

It’s always sad to see a majestic tree brought down to the ground. This cedar was toward the ‘flower’ end of Lawrence’s spectrum, yet closer to the sapphire than we are. Its life may have come to an abrupt end, but its ‘flow’ continues in its sweet, pungent scent and in whatever beautiful and practical use is found for its wood.


* ‘Fidelity’, from Pansies (1929). See ‘Flowers they fade…’

Awesome

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My last post, about ‘things men have made’ (D.H. Lawrence), reminded me of the summer when I travelled by train from Paris to the south of France. Sitting on a bench at a railway station – perhaps Nîmes, perhaps a much smaller place called Alès – I saw a man standing in the open doorway of a train. He was perfectly framed there, each hand resting comfortably on a side wall, his head not quite touching the archway above. It struck me that (yes, obviously!) we design and make trains human-sized, for human use, under human control.

When I arrived at the campsite where I was to stay for a fortnight, near the town of Anduze, I found that it was on a cliff-top above a river gorge. These cliffs were not human-sized, designed and made for human use. The man I’d seen on the train, if standing against these sheer walls, would be dwarfed, not framed by them.

At night-time on the beach by that river, the Milky Way was visible with a brightness of individual massed stars that I had never seen before and have never seen since. The stream of stars followed the course of the river, like a reflection of the water beneath.

The feeling evoked by both these sights, the cliffs and the river of stars, was awe. I was confronted by something seemingly boundless, not made to fit and frame a human being – something that existed for its own sake, regardless of our human needs.

Of course, human-made artefacts can be awe-inspiring as well, such as rockets, oceangoing liners or magnificent bridges. Ironically, though, many of them are designed for the purpose of bringing awe-inspiring natural phenomena – space, the roaring seas – under our control, thus reducing their awesomeness.

In the 18th century, there was a fashion for bringing whole landscapes under control. Wealthy landowners paid for the view from their stately homes to be carefully shaped, placing grassy banks, trees and lakes in combinations that seemed to be ‘natural’ but were actually contrived to create perfectly proportioned ‘picturesque’ vistas – making the physical environment into something that might be seen in a painting, surrounded by a frame.

When we see something awesome, our instinct is often to try to tame it. We seem reluctant to leave anything out of our control. We try to make ourselves ‘the measure of all things’ (Protagorus).

I wonder – is there anything made by human hands that is awe-inspiring in itself but doesn’t also tame the awesomeness of nature?


Photo taken on the line of the steam train of Cevennes, between Anduze and Saint-Jean-du-Gard, France. By Georges Seguin (Okki) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons