Tuesday, 20 February 2007


Nature in Downland

WH Hudson: page 178

…On such a day of silence and desolation a remembrance of late summer has come back suddenly like a lightning-flash to my mind, with such startling vividness as to affect me powerfully. A vision of the vanished insect life that a little while ago covered these green flowering hills. I moved and had my being amid that life as in a golden mist spread over the earth; my ears were full of the noise of innumerable fine small voices blending into one voice; wheresoever I looked their minute swift-moving bodies appeared as thin dark lines on the air and over the green surface. Forms so infinitely varied, yet so wonderfully fashioned, each aglow with its complete separate life, and all in harmony with all life and all nature, responsive in a million secret springs to each and every external influence; so well balanced in their numerous parts and perfect in their equipment, so intense in their lives as to seem fitted to endure forever. And now in so short a time, in a single day and night as it seems, it is all over, the feast and fairy-dance of life; the myriads of shining gem-like bodies turned to dead dust, the countless multitude of brilliant little individual souls dissipated into thin air and blown whithersoever the wind blows!

The first and inevitable effect of such a thought, when the tremendous tragedy of t he passing year is brought unexpectedly and vividly before the mind, compressed into a moment of time, is a profound melancholy, as of a black shadow of apprehension coming over the soul. But it is like a shadow on the earth on a day of flying cloud and broken sunshine that is quickly gone. That teeming life of yesterday has indeed vanished from our sight for ever; it is nothing now, and its place will know it no more; but extinction came not on it before the seeds of the life that is to be were sown – small and abundant as the rust-coloured seed of the mullein, that looked like inorganic dust, and was shaken out of its dead cups by the blast and scattered upon the ground. Or smaller still, like the infinitesimal particles enclosed within the round case of the dead fungus of the downs – the devil’s snuff-box of the peasant - which, when trodden upon, or broken by a blow of a stick, sends out a dense purple or deep yellow vapour, which floats away in the wind and vanishes. The still earth is full of it. Out of the matted roots of the turf and from the grey soil beneath, innumerable forms of life resembling those that have vanished will spring to light – creatures of a thousand beautiful shapes, lit with brilliant colour, intense in their little lives, for ever moving in a passionate, swift, fantastic dance.

And we shall see it all again, and in seeing renew the old familiar pleasure. For these innumerable little lives quickly pass while ours endure. Furthermore the brief life which they have is but one, and though their senses be brilliant they see not beyond their small horizons. To us the Past and the Future are open, like measureless countries of diversified aspect, lying beyond our horizon; yet we may see them and are free to range over them at will. It may even happen that the autumnal spectacle of the cessation of life on the earth, nature’s yearly tragedy, brought thus suddenly and sharply before the mind’s eye, may cause us to realise for the first time what this freedom of the mind really means. It multiplies our years and makes them so many that it is a practical immortality. A vivid consciousness of it, coming thus suddenly, puts the soul in a proud temper, and we all at once begin to abhor the sickly teachings of those who see in nature’s mutations, in cloud and wind and rain and the fall of the leaf, and the going out of ephemeral life, nothing but mournful messages, dreary symbols, reminders of our mortality. It is a false, debilitating doctrine which they preach and sing; an ancient fable, a tale of a bogie invented a thousand years ago to frighten unruly children and make them good. We are rather of the Psalmist’s virile mind, when he said that those who had compassed him round, and had come to him like bees, were extinct as the fire under the thorns; and then triumphantly cried, “I shall not die, but live!”

Let us imagine a god, or immortal being of some kind, in a reverie, seated on some great hill – Cabburn, or Firle, or Cissbury – seeing as in a vision the “insect tribes of human kind” that have dwelt upon these green downs since the coming of man – Saxon, and Dane, and Roman, and Briton, and the earlier races that were slain by the Celt, and the earlier still, and others and still others farther back in time. All the events of long thousands of years, all the thousands of “generations of deciduous men,” called back and seen passing in procession before that clear cold immortal mind. Dark and pale races, speaking strange tongues; love and hate and all passions, heard and seen in music and laughter and cries, and agitated speech, and faces ashen white and burning red, and wide fixed eyes; tumults and wars upon wars, the shock of furious battle, the shouts of victory that frightened nature. And thereafter peace; toil and rest, and day and night; a young mother sitting on the summit of some high hill, looking out upon the vast range, the illimitable green world, the distant grey and silver sea, all the world sleeping in a peaceful sunshine and no cloud on all the sky; a young mother fondling her firstborn and laughing in pure gladness of heart. And then the fading out of earth of that golden sunshine, and the grey chill evening of fear and flight; men drunk with blood, still thirsting for blood, their mouths frothing, their eyes ablaze, streaming over the hills, untiring as wolves on the track of the fugitives. The slayers in their turn are slain by death; in long quiet years there is a slow recovery of lost good, increase of people, and little children with shrill glad voices playing merry games in all the hollow hills, and staining their lips purple with blackberries as in the old forgotten years. And once more strife, and all natural calamities – cold, and fever, and wasting famine; people with white skeleton faces sitting in rows on the hill-side, like those who sit by the river waiting for the slow ferryman to ferry them over, one by one. Slain by men or by some natural agency, still they pass and pass, and are succeeded by others – other tribes, other races, speaking a new language, but swayed by the same passion, and war still succeeds war. Then peace again, the lasting peace that causes all sweet and gentle feelings, all virtues, all graces, to flourish – the peace that is like a secret, unfelt malady which is slowly consuming a beautiful woman’s life. And after long quiet, the battle-cry, the strange men with the old wolfish hunger and fury in their faces, the heavens darkened again with the smoke of cruel fires; and after the storm, quiet again, the old silence and desolation, wild-flowers blooming everywhere on the graves of a dead, forgotten people.

We can imagine that even he, albeit immortal, recalling and seeing again that immeasurable procession of human forms – the long long series of events and the millions of passionate, strenuous lives that have ceased to be - all compressed into a few moments of time, would feel his mind darkened with a sudden great shadow of sorrow. But the shadow would quickly pass; and his immortality would again be to him like the sun shining in a blue sky that is without a cloud.

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