Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

The Friendship of Nature*


 

In the current number of the Atlantic Monthly is a paper on "The Forests of the Yosemite Park," by Mr. John Muir, in which he describes his meeting with Emerson among those great woods; and how he invited the philosopher to a night by a camp fire in the heart of the solitude. Emerson seemed to be willing to go with his new-found enthusiastic guide: but the friends who made up his party were timorous, feared colds, and thought their learned poet had better not be exposed to the night air; so the plan was abandoned. This was a disappointment to Mr. Muir, who evidently had been a worshipper of Emerson's poetry, and expected his hero to share his own younger and more accustomed devotion to wild life.

"You are yourself a Sequoia," he said to Emerson; "stop and get acquainted with your big brethren."."But he was past his prime," the narrator continues, "and was now a child in the hands of his affectionate, but sadly civilized friends, who seemed as full of old-fashioned conformity as of bold intellectual independence. It was the afternoon of the day and the afternoon of his life, and his cause was now westward down all the mountains into the sunset. The party mounted and rode away in wondrous contempt, apparently; tracing the trail through ecanthais and dogwood bushes, around the bases of the big trees, up the slope of the Sequoia basin, and over the divide. I followed to the edge of the grave. Emerson lingered in the rear of the train, and when he reached the top of the ridge, after all the rest of the party were over and out of sight, he turned his horse, took of his hat, and waved me a last good-by."

That picture is significant. It was Emerson who had written earlier in his life the beautiful poem, "Good-by, Proud World," which we all have quoted at one time or another; it was he who said that

"Nature ever faithful is to such as trust her faithfulness."

It was he who had for years been leading the sedulous youth of the country into closer and closer communion with the Almighty Mother; but at last he could not break the ties of habit, he dared not venture himself into the primitive and fundamental as a child. And his ardent admirer was disappointed of a rare treat. I am afraid it is true that in age or in dejection or in poor health we lean on our human friends, and do not trust to the great unpersonal Nature for comfort or solace.

Is not our love of nature only the sentiment of abounding vitality and rugged self-reliance? In his prime a man is unacquainted with fear, his look is outward upon the bright changing face of the earth, so fresh, so beautiful, so untouched by time, so vigorous, so unafraid. He may have a genius for society and spend his useful life in one of a thousand glittering successful ways, with hardly a thought for nature (as we call it); or he may have a genius for solitude and introspection, and walk apart from his fellows, "a lover of the forest ways." The trees and the hills may appeal to him, and the sea tell him wonderful stories, with its old monotonous voice, so that he is content and even happy by himself with little human companionship. The day is enough for him; the birds are his musicians, and he has said in his heart, "I will commune with the Great Mother." And so long as he is young and well, with that temperament, his solitary habit may suffice, and in lonely silence he may find solace for the common griefs and disappointments of men.

But let him fall for an hour below the normal level of health, let the sudden sweeping cut of sickness upon him, and the pith of all his brave credulity will melt away. His adored monitor and mistress cannot break the adamantine silence for the sake of one poor mortal; he no longer finds in her countenance the sympathy he fancied was resident there; in truth, it was no more than the shadow of his own exceeding great desire and superabundant vitality; and now that the need of help or sympathy or understanding is come, he must turn to his own kind.

But perhaps I have seemed to wrong the beloved and majestic spirit of Emerson, the great human friend. For all that he taught of the love of Nature, he inculcated the love of man more; for all he made us partakers of his passion for the beauty of earth, he made us still more believers in ourselves, in the potent, sweet, life bringing force of society and comradeship. There is in reality a power in Nature to rest and console us; but few are so strong as to be able to rely on that lonely beneficence; and we must seek the gentler aid of our fellow-beings. Indeed, only those who are humane at heart can rightly hear the obscure word of Nature; while those who have been reared not far from the wild school of the forest make the best citizens and friends.

Perhaps the greatest boon that we can receive from Nature is health. Our friendship with her should give us sanity first of all. The strain of life in these days in our cities is apt to become excessive in two directions: We are apt to become wholly engrossed in affairs and suffer from sheer physical exhaustion, or we may become too completely and dangerously detached from the current interests of existence. Either one may mean madness and death. But a daily contact with the elements, with elemental conditions of being-sunshine, and rain, and roads, and honest grass, and the swish of winds in the trees-is a sedative and tonic in one. To know the kindliness of Nature we must take constant care to abide by her customs, not to hurry over-duly, nor to tarry too long, but to move with the appointed rhythm she has bestowed upon us, each man true to his own measure, and so in accord with his fellows and not at variance with the purpose of creation.


"The Friendship of Nature," Commercial Advertiser, Apr. 7, 1900 [back]