Jim Spates has kindly shared with readers of this site this entry from his wonderful blog, Why RuskinGeorge P. Landow

From the most immense (mountains) to the minuscule (moss), Ruskin's love of the marvels of nature never waned. Among all the messages he tried to communicate over the course of his career, to remind us of our intimate, enduring, and essential connection with the marvelous world in which we drew breath was one of the most important.Nature was there--had been put there purposely he said frequently--for our delighting. If we would but devote the small amount of time that was needed to cultivate the relationship, we would quickly find that nature, all along, had been waiting for our notice. Whether we liked it or not, denied it or not, ignored it or not, we were not just merely in nature, we were of nature, were nature.

The sole thought in Nature's mind, he argued in Modern Painters II (1846), was to provide all the creatures living in it, whatever their varied their levels of sentience might be, with the means necessary for reaching their own highest potential, and with, once they had attained that highest state, the ability to exult not merely in their own realization but to appreciate the perfection that had been realized in all the other creatures and things around them. To live in such a state of delight was what it meant to be fully alive. And so, left to follow their own deepest impulses, all things living would strive to gain that highest level, would attempt to become a perfect instance of the thing which they were. Every tree, Ruskin said, strove to become a perfect tree, every Alpine adenostyle strove with all its might to become a perfect adenostyle. Here they are!

Winds and storms might come; damage might be done; injury might be affected. But, as soon as the onslaughts passed—even, indeed, while such buffeting continued—these assailed trees and adenostyles would start to right themselves, to heal themselves, to become as close to perfect as they might whatever conditions their new circumstances might impose. Life--healthy, happy, life!--was all that mattered, all that nature wished for them and us. And when they attained their perfect states, even when they were somewhat shy of them, living things became beautiful and we, the unique beings seeing them, discovered that, naturally, our hearts lept in joy at their lovelinesses, and, in the process of such effortless leaping, came a step or two closer to our own perfection as well.

In an earlier post offering instance of Ruskin's love of nature, "Spring Inspiration" (16), a passage describing the glories which the Alps freely gave to looking eyes, he described the flowers as "coming forth in clusters crowded for very love," and, a bit further on, told us of "a blue gush of violets" (pretty sexy images! his carefully chosen words not unlike those of a lover cherishing her or his beloved; but then, when it came to nature, that is what he was: an ardent lover). And in that same passage, there was his pointed notice of "the golden softness of deep, warm, amber-colored moss."

Moss? Who, other than dedicated botanists, looks at moss!? When in its presence (do we ever know we are in its presence?) don't we almost always pass it by stonily. Not disdaining it exactly, but simply not noticing it--deeming it an "incidental," a trifle, at most "a little green something..."?

But what might happen if we paused in our neglectful stroll for a few moments and peered at this non-entity of nature's a little more closely? Here is our subject's report of what such a looking revealed to him of this minuscule during one dawn morning as he stood by his favorite rock high above the town of Chamouni in the French Alps, the spot that afforded him the best view of his adored Mont Blanc. The passage comes from the last chapter, the tenth, of the first part of the fifth volume of Modern Painters (1860), that entire first part having been given the title, "Of Leaf Beauty"! In typical Ruskin fashion, by the passage's end we have moved from the littlest of the leaves motionless to nothing other than a celebration of all the beauties of our earth.

The morning is very quiet. There is no wind. Ruskin's glance falls first on the trees flourishing in the nearby meadow:

Leaves motionless! The strong pines wave above them and the weak grasses tremble beside them. But the blue stars rest upon the earth with a peace as of heaven as, far along the ridges of iron rock, moveless as they, the rubied crests of Alpine peaks rise flush in the low rays of morning. Nor are these... yet the stillest leaves. Others there are, subdued to a deeper quietness, the mute slaves of the earth, to whom we owe, perhaps, thanks, and tenderness, the most profound of all we have to render for the leaf ministries.

It is strange to think of the gradually diminished power and withdrawn freedom among the orders of leaves: from the sweep of the chestnut and gadding of the vine, down to the close shrinking trefoil and contented daisy pressed on earth; coming at last to the leaves that are not merely close to earth, but themselves a part of it--fastened down to it by their sides, here and there only a wrinkled edge rising from the granite crystals. [In earlier chapters, we] found beauty in the tree yielding fruit and in the herb yielding seed. How of the herb yielding no seed, the fruitless, flowerless lichen of the rock?...

Meek creatures! The first mercy of the earth, veiling with hushed softness its dintless rocks; creatures full of pity, covering with strange and tender honor the scarred disgrace of ruin, laying quiet finger on the trembling stones, to teach them rest. No words that I know of will say what these mosses are. None are delicate enough, none perfect enough, none rich enough. How is one to tell of the rounded bosses of furred and beaming green, the starred divisions of rubied bloom, fine-filmed, as if the Rock Spirits could spin porphyry as we do glass, the traceries of intricate silver, and fringes of amber, lustrous, arborescent, burnished through every fiber into fitful brightness and glossy traverses of silken change, yet all subdued and pensive, and framed for simplest, sweetest offices of grace? They will not be gathered, like the flowers, for chaplet or love-token! But of these the wild bird will make its nest, and the wearied child his pillow...

Yet, as in one sense the humblest, in another they are the most honored of the earth-children. Unfading, as motionless, the worm frets them not, and the autumn wastes not. Strong in lowliness, they neither blanch in heat nor pine in frost. To them, slow-fingered, constant-hearted, is entrusted the weaving of the dark, eternal tapestries of the hills; to them, slow-penciled, iris-dyed, the tender framing of their endless imagery. Sharing the stillness of the unimpassioned rock, they share also its endurance. And while the winds of departing spring scatter the white hawthorn blossom like drifted snow, and summer dims on the parched meadow the dropping of its cowslip gold, far above, among the mountains, the silver lichen spots rest, star-like, on the stone, and the gathering orange stain upon the edge of yonder western peak reflects the sunsets of a thousand years.

Mountains! Mosses! And we have not yet visited the fields or the pines and ...! Enjoy this penultimate penultimate day of Spring! And bask in the delightful thought that, veritably in moments, it will be glorious Summer!

Moss on Ruskin's Rock, Chamouni, French Alps


Last modified 8 August 2005