It is often said that civilization is hostile to the love of nature, but there is much to be said on the other side. Macaulay, in a well-known passage of his History, shows how the appreciation of natural beauties has been enhanced by civilization. He is describing the horror with which Scottish Highland scenery was once held, by contrast with the enthusiasm with which its beauties are now courted. That scenery was the same at the end of the seventeenth century as it is now: the crags, the glens, the woods and waters, the broom and wild roses, the roaring cataracts and the snowy mountain tops. Yet in those days they inspired nothing but horror and loathing; for before a man can be charmed by scenery, he must be assured that he will not be robbed, stripped and mangled, or killed outright; that he will not fall down the precipices, drown in the cataracts, or die of exposure on the hill-sides. "Indeed law and police, trade and industry, have done far more than people of romantic dispositions will readily admit, to develop in our minds a sense of the wilder beauties of nature."
And truly nature has a rough side, and needs to be wooed and won. But why cannot man himself, as one of the animate orders, be regarded as a part of nature? If so, then his works, whereby he tames and subdues nature in her harsher aspects, must also be considered as works of nature.
In short, to avoid being misled by false issues, the real issue seems to be, not between man and nature, or between civilization and wildness, but between the artificial and the natural, between excess and balance, between discord and harmony. And here the following will serve as an apposite text:
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
This saying, by whomever said, is an aphorism of ancient wisdom; and its counterpart may be found throughout all times and lands, including many wise men of our own day who have earnestly advocated simplicity. A book called Power Through Repose, while dealing largely with physical aspects of the question, nevertheless gives the key. In that book we were enjoined to relax. Owing to wrong habits of thought and to various emotions, such as fear and anxiety and hurry, we are grown accustomed to live in a state of strain, which extends even to our muscles, kept unconsciously in a state of tension, and to our every nerve and fiber. If we can but let go and relax, this state of tension may cease, and then the fount of real power within us will be allowed easy flow and expression, and thus we shall accomplish with ease and without effort what previously we have struggled in vain to achieve by worry and effort.
This then is the chief lesson we are to learn from "nature': to work easily and without effort. And, as just said, it is not the rustic who is immersed and involved in nature, who is best qualified to learn that lesson, but the cultivated man, who knows what artificiality is, but who also knows its opposite; and whom the progress of civilization has placed in a position where he can utilize the advantages of nature profitably.
In antiquity there was a cult of nature; we find it in classical antiquity; we find it still among "primitive" tribes. Certain learned people have squashed, or tried to squash, all this under the name "animism." It was a superstition, they say, marking early states in the evolution of intelligence or religion. Those simple-minded ancients believed that nature is alive; whereas we enlightened moderns — well, what do we believe after all?
Let us try to go back from that modern notion that nature is not alive (that is, it is dead), to the old idea that nature is alive and conscious. Then the feelings of artists can be explained otherwise than by regarding art as a pleasing illusion of the imagination. Artists indeed! Are we not all so to some extent, however small? "Lives there a man with soul so dead" that he has not, sometimes at least, when surrounded by the works of nature, felt the presences around him; indulged himself in what he may have called a game of make-believe, and "endowed" the trees and rocks with mind and life? Let us get rid of that idea of make-believe and try to think that there is no illusion but merely a perception of reality; that the rocks and trees, both severally and in conjunction, constitute living presences, with whose soul we may commune. In that way we may purge our mind and our heart of their contractions and dislocations, and attune ourselves to the tranquil harmony of our surroundings; and, just as the earth and the water may purge away the humors from our body, the soul of nature may cleanse our minds and our hearts.
No doubt many of the ancients indulged in a good deal of nonsense about nymphs and nature-spirits; but the superficial folly need not blind us to the fundamental truth. Nor need we seek to wear other people's clothes. We can get back to the spirit of antiquity without donning ancient habiliments; and we do not need to imitate those poets who made their poems artificial by an anachronistic introduction of Pan and Arcadian shepherds into an English landscape. Let us go back to nature in our own way, in a modern way. Let us not throw away the advantages of civilization, but use them. However crowded and artificial may be the outer circumstances of our life, we can always carry simplicity about with us in our hearts, and show it in our manners.
There are perhaps some people who show more enthusiasm in their talk about nature than they evince in their behavior. And there are surely others whose appreciation of nature is genuine, but who find that they are likely to get more sympathy out of the silence than out of any rash attempt to communicate their feelings to anyone else. But silence is one of the great mysteries which nature can communicate to us; and, deeper than the communication of minds through talk, lies the silent communion of hearts attuned to the same ideal.
Nature is a great initiator; and, as we are reminded, imparts her secrets only to those who worship at her shrine. Remaining a sealed book to those who abuse her, or who walk blindly through her beauties, she stands ever ready to reveal new wonders to all who will but open their eyes and their hearts, and attune themselves by sympathy, so that they may resound like a resonator to her vibrations.
In an important sense, then, nature is just what we are able to see. The ant, the nocturnal toad, the cow in her pasture, know one kind of nature. The holiday tripper may know nature only as a very capital place in which to deposit paper bags and tin cans.
Nature is waiting, wistfully, for — Man. It is his to play positive to her negative; for she is receptive, and her art is to respond. And with what boundless wealth can she respond! She needs to be wooed. She stands ready to resound to any chord we can strike; to imbody any glory to which we are capable of attaining. She is now, as always, the Great Mother, of infinite resource and bounty. But he who would receive must know how to ask.