The Ritual of Nature



    ALWAYS and everywhere the law of strict congruity obtaining in nature, is not less wonderful than the law of universal variation. Before my window a cherry-tree is waving in the sunlight; it bears some thousands of leaves, no two of which are precisely alike; yet it is itself only one of hundreds of other cherry-trees within eyeshot, while they again are a mere handful of all the cherry-trees in the State. And still of these myriad of leaves, you could not place one down upon another and find them to match precisely. There would be some slight difference of outline, a dent here, a point there, — the individual idiosyncrasy of the leaf. Yet all these cherry [Page 203] leaves conform to the type and character which they have gradually developed for themselves. They are great sticklers for tradition, these leaves; they allow complete personal liberty, within certain limits. If you are a cherry leaf you may be as odd and queer as you please, so long as you remain a cherry leaf. It is ordered, however, that you must so far conform to the character of your race as to be distinguishable from the elms and the alders. Latitude is allowed, but degrees of latitude are found necessary.
    It would seem, then, that Nature is strictly a formalist in dealing with her tribes, that she permits them just so much liberty of action and freedom of thought as shall conserve the interest of the individual, and not enough to imperil the integrity of the sect. “Dwell in harmony,” she seems to say, “all you multitudes of differing schools. Be yourselves, each as distinct as you please; every individual by himself distinguished from his brother, yet not alien. Let there be no infringing [Page 204] on the borders of your fellow tribes.” So that with all her tolerance the Great Mother still limits personal whim, still forbids fancy to overstep the bounds of reasonable divergence, still humours ambition but discourages arrogance, and still mitigates the pride of life in her children by imposing a frontier beyond which they shall not pass. Surely from her immemorial custom the open-minded observer will learn the double precept of perfect liberty in perfect obedience, and her service, too, is perfect freedom. The lesser gospel of the leaves, like the greater gospel of the sages, is the utmost range of will within the utmost bounds of law. Each after his kind shall thrive and prosper as it was in the beginning, and none shall transcend his apportioned sphere. So that in the stupendous hierarchy whose visible temple is the dome of blue, whose worshippers are the congregations of the all-growing creatures, there is promulgated the dogma of limitations.
    In proof of this, behold the rituals of the [Page 205] forest! The aspiration of the maples taking shape, after the traditions of their ancestors for a thousand generations, in one form, the aspiration of the pines in another. To the tanager one peculiar intonation, and to the song-sparrow another. The litany of the white-throat and the psalm of the thrush. Whatever may be in the dark mind of the owl, he is given but few words to express it; the plaintive iterations of the whippoorwill must serve him in lieu of a more voluminous chant; and who shall say that brilliant utterance of the bobolink is sufficient for him? Yet it is all he has. And none shall transcend his allotted ritual, nor praise the Power in forms unprescribed.
    To be a bystander, therefore, an individualist, a radical, a non-conformist, is the one atrocious crime in nature. All this seeming rigour of differentiation is only the first glimpse of a world which is one, whole, single, indivisible. At first sight it appears that our brother the cherry is alien in race to our [Page 206] cousin the peach; so they may be by our faulty terms of distinction. But the scientists affirm that all classification is but more or less convenient; that it is never absolute, nor accurate beyond a certain point; that characteristics melt and merge into one another, so that often it is impossible to tell this species from that; and various forms of life are blended like the colours of the spectrum.
    How came the woodthrush to outstrip the robin in song? And why is the fox still the wolf’s better in intelligence? By attempting, by aspiration, by daring the unknown and achieving the untried.
    While, therefore, there are two observances in the ritual of Nature, the duty of obedience, and the duty of adventure, the latter is the greater of the two. The seed which is placed in dry bin is secure, and will last a hundred years intact; its fellow which is thrust into the moist earth takes a thousand chances of death for the one chance of glorious energy, growth, and perfection. Following the law [Page 207] of obedience it would live to see its offspring spread through the forest, cover the earth with shad, and fulfil the offices of the ritual appointed for its kind.
    Yet every leaf, every bud that sprang from that courageous fecundity would only conform to the pattern of his tribe so much and no more. There would remain to each his own character, his individuality, his own mode of worship, if one may say so. And it is just this increment of variation, for ever at play in the forces of the universe, that makes for progress, interest, truth. So that while we admire the sober catholicity of Nature, and keep in mind her singleness of brotherhood, we are to reverence her boundless liberality still more.
    I have no doubt our friend the cherry-tree is well content to be himself, “imperial, plain, and true;” also, I have no doubt that deep in his sappy heart there lurks the patient power which in time will make him enlarge [Page 208] his ritual, ennobling his worship, and spreading wider the gospel according to St. Cherry. For the abiding rebellious spirit is good, but the divine unrest is good, too [Page 209].