The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman

The Magic of the Woods


    SOMETIMES I think we feel it most powerfully when it comes upon us afresh, as we emerge from thronging streets some morning in spring; indeed, even on the street corners themselves it may overtake us suddenly in the April twilight, in a bunch of mayflowers or a pussy-willow spray. Then how quickly the humdrum and soil of habit are forgotten! We are reinstated instantly with the zest of a primitive unjaded life, and are almost willing to declare that existence has no other end than this in-rush of joy, this conversion in the blood. It seems to justify the narrow plodding to which we have been confined all the gray days of winter, and to heighten our appreciation of a freedom of spirit, which, we know now, is ours by right of inheritance. [Page 225] The coming of spring, say the wise to themselves, is the mystic book of revelation in the great volume of nature, the superb transcendent note, reassuring doubt, dissolving fear, establishing happiness for ever and ever. And there is nothing so rare as a day in June, partly because we reach it through blizzard and fog and east wind, through toil and fortitude and iron persistence.

    And then, again, it seems, at the end of summer, as if the true magic of the woods were only put forth after long reserve, slowly, timorously, shyly exerting over us its most potent influence. There are hints and signs, now and then, indeed, which make the careless wonder whether he has seen any touch of the true magic of the woods at all. Perhaps once or twice between August and December the exact moment may occur for the tireless observer when glimpses of the unworldliness of nature may come to him, and he may hear or think he hears the glad oracular whisper of the universal message. He [Page 226] may then have the rare fortune (in perfect health, in perfect goodness, of a sound mind) to feel himself for an instant in complete harmony with all being. He is no longer a jarring note in a splendid theme; no longer knows himself somehow at variance with his surroundings; no longer perceives the gulf between the idea and fact, wish and performance; but from a profound inexplicable content is only able to say:

                            “Beauty through my senses stole;
                             I yielded myself to the perfect whole.”

    I do not mean to speak in fables; I only refer to those experiences of the magic of nature which we all have had. It is this magic which draws us out of the city and away from our palaces of art back to the fundamental and sincere. It is at the bottom of our cry for simplicity, our cry for recreation and rest. It is the magic of the woods which makes the essence of our summer holiday and infuses us anew with the inspiring taste of real life. [Page 227] And even if the utmost wonder of that magic is hidden from us, there still remains the wholesome touch of an unsophisticated mode of life.

    There we have a palpable secret to take home with us. If the woods will not tell us what their magic really is, they certainly offer us a comment on our own life. In running away from the forms of civilization to the refuge of nature we do well. But why? Because nature is greater and better than man with his art? Not at all; simply because all of nature is good, while much of our own art of living is lamentably bad. And we make a grievous error if we attempt to love nature to the total exclusion of the civilized and civilizing arts. Nature is inexorable, but man’s art is tentative and haphazard. It is seldom perfect; it is nearly always a compromise or a makeshift. Nature’s laws are established; the future of man is still problematical. It follows that nothing in nature can be rejected or despised, while much in [Page 228] our civilization is to be improved or discarded altogether. And what we are to bring home from nature is the large temper of patience. We are not to return to the artificial mode of life with scorn for its artificiality, but with love for its art. It took nature unaccounted æons to get as far as primitive man; but man in a single year, by comparison, has achieved his splendid art of life. All that is most worth living for is as much the gift of art as of nature. Nature gave us the impulse, the joy, the power; but we have given ourselves the means of making these things prevail. If the usual course of life as we know it seems to us futile and vapid and false, that is the fault of a bad art of life. Well, then, let us get a better art; let us adjust ourselves more exactly to the environment; let us modify both desire and condition until they coincide. Don’t let us waste time in stupidly reviling modern life as artificial; let us make it artistic. This does not mean that we are to import more of the fine arts into our lives, [Page 229] but that we are to evolve a fine art of life itself, as a nation and as individuals. If a few people can live in peace, in security, with comfort and love and a reasonable amount of freedom, that means that the art of modern life is good — to a certain extent. When every one can live so, it will mean that art has improved — is, nearing perfection. It seems to me that at the summer’s end, when we can say:

                            “My heart had a touch of the woodland time,”

the greater portion of that experience must result in a renewal of enthusiasm for the beautiful art of life, an impulse of generosity and hope for others. The only use of an outing is to reinforce one’s faith for the next inning. A love of nature can surely never make a man either a morose hermit or a precious æsthetic. Rightly loved, nature must make us more resourceful and apt in the practice of the complex art of living, more unexacting and humane. [Page 230]