Strictly speaking, my first encounter with Ruskin was as an undergraduate at Lancaster University, when ‘The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’ was thrown at me but didn’t stick. It took some time after this for Ruskin to properly enter my life, but when he did so it had a transformative effect, leading me very gratefully into a purposeful life. Although my route into Ruskin and academia proved extremely unorthodox, there is something deeply appropriate and deeply Ruskinian about how it all happened.
After leaving university with a decent but by no means spectacular undergraduate degree I spent nearly a decade bringing up a family and entirely failing to find a place in the world. Unable to gain the confidence to find a job I was on the dole for so long that I was classified as long-term unemployed and was given a ‘choice’ of a number of courses to take if I wished to remain in receipt of benefits. Having had a lifelong love of trees I chose a year-long City and Guilds ‘Conservation Management: Trees and Woodlands’ course at Warwickshire College of Agriculture, a wonderful experience of practical and theoretical work that revived my self-worth and led to some short-term employment with an unstable and unscrupulous tree surgeon. Shortly after this we moved back to the Lancaster area, and through our children came to know the wonderful Dr Lawrence Woof.
While working for Lawrence on his house refurbishment, he mentioned that he was the editor of a new project at Lancaster University to produce a hypertext edition of Ruskin’s Modern Painters, and he mentioned that they were unable to find a contributor to provide annotations on Ruskin’s tree chapter, ‘Of Truth of Vegetation’. Would I like to take this on? And would I consider doing an MRes on Ruskin’s trees while I was at it? Deciding to do so was one of the best decisions of my life, leading me into the wonderful world of Lancaster’s Ruskin Seminar just at the time that Michael Wheeler and Robert Hewison were in charge and bringing the Ruskin Library project to fruition. More wonderful still was the effect of reading ‘Of Truth of Vegetation’ and discovering ‘Of Leaf Beauty’, ‘The Work of Iron’, the introduction to The Crown of Wild Olive, and other Ruskinian gems. Having come from a practical silvicultural background the richness and keenness of observation of Ruskin’s tree work astounded, astonished, and delighted me. No-one else that I have read comes close to Ruskin’s sensitivity and acuteness of vision when encountering and talking about nature.
As a result, my academic work has always been guided by a strong urge to engage – in a Ruskinian fashion – with the beauty of the natural world, to penetrate its mysteries, to appreciate and preserve its wonders, and to speak on its behalf. As well as teaching the infinite value of environment, Ruskin has always reminded me of a commitment to work, to labour, and to strive against the odds. Although I am now as much involved with other authors as with Ruskin, his mare maggiore remains wonderfully inescapable, and in these times of environmental collapse and disaster when the end, if we do nothing, really is nigh, I am eternally grateful for his voice, his passion, and his commitment in the face of human greed, stupidity, and violence.
Last modified 22 February 2019