On nature

Water is not as innocuous as may first appear. Those who have experienced floods will know this. They may associate water with disorder; their imagination of what happens should the seas rise will itself be disordered. They see nothing positive in it. They value water only to the degree that it is useful for their own purposes; they want it piped and dam’d, or at least prettified; when it is unwanted, they want it to go away. They understand water to be stupid; “inanimate” and thus lacking a brain. Even a pigeon, or a squirrel, has “consciousness,” but water, not so. They are contemptuous of water, in all those moments when they are not frightened by it; or parched, longing for its return.

But water has a mind of its own. I noticed this on the weekend, while admiring a small creek or brook through a meadow, three feet at its widest. It had self-organized, neatly. Without the slightest assistance from bureaucrats and environmentalists, the water had designed and cut its own path. It had exploited gravity to govern its own flow; it had even thoughtfully supplied itself with a little floodplain to accommodate special occasions. Yet with carefully drawn banks to which it might or might not return.

It had arranged the pebbles in its course in a way to its liking, showing to my mind an exquisite taste. Liberal, in the best sense, it was also sheltering some little fishes, defined broadly to include a crayfish or two; and other miniature animals in their exoskeletons, and their sparkling veinous wings. It was watering the wildflowers of the field, without making an oppressive show of the enterprise — leaving the wildflowers to advertise accomplishments it was itself too modest to declare.

As we could say of the saints, it was knowing. It knew enough to find its way to a river, but along that way, had created a delightful little pond. And like a fine artist, it refused to be rushed. Here was an artistic sensibility superior to my own; for I could not have done half so good a job of planning its meander, with my cruelly limited gardening skills. I would surely have geometricized somewhere, and spoilt the whole effect.

That was a minor work; there are larger canvases on which the water will “express itself” — sometimes as liquid, sometimes as vapour, sometimes as ice. Even without leaving the High Doganate, I am constantly impressed by its meteorological works; as too, by its extraordinary ability to focus. It will not be put off or distracted, even by the presence of a large conurbation. In cooperation with the elements of earth, air, and fire, it renders scenes of extraordinary beauty, never repeating itself. Sometimes when a fog rolls in from the Lake, I think it is taking a break between compositions; but no, the fog turns out to be a composition in itself. For the water is tireless.

Recently, I made an old point from theology — queen of the sciences. As pagans, and verily, atheists, we comprehend nature from the ground up. We proceed from our own random location, outward. Nature to this view is infinite, so that we will never get to the end. But if Christian, we may take it from the top down. We can see that it everywhere makes sense, on multiple levels, thanks to the existence of a Divine Plan. Nature cannot explain God, for this reason; but God can explain nature.

Somewhere up here is or was a thin book of lithographs, reproducing pencil and watercolour sketches from the rambles of the young J.M.W. Turner. I think he left about twenty thousand of them, to be meticulously catalogued by the British Museum, and then hidden away. Ruskin famously sneered at all this work (little of which he saw) as Turner’s “learning period.” As the author of the book (Gerald Wilkinson) avers, it could not have been. Turner sprang almost fully formed with the ability to paint the weather; and to the last, this is what he painted so well. Even a sketch we could never have seen before, we immediately recognize as “a Turner,” paradoxically because of truth not to a style, but to nature herself. We think we have seen it before, when we haven’t.

What we see, as Turner ages, is less an artistic than an intellectual progression, from the pre-industrial world of the eighteenth century, to the industrial one of the nineteenth. This becomes visible in the vortices of his later works. He pursues drama.

The paradox here is that, in his transitions from watercolour to oil, the scenes become more stilted; and this although his canvases are vast, in comparison to the size of the pocket sketchbooks he took on his walks through England, Scotland, Wales. He tries to make statements in those giant canvases.

He should not have tried; he should have “sketched” with the oils, as Constable before him. As Ezra Pound said, in his latest Canto, “Do not move / Let the wind speak.” Like every other modern, Turner is now trying to control the message; he is trying to put the blissful skies to his own use. In the course of which, he must lie about the skies, when he never lied before.

It is the Victorian affectation. It continues to the present day. We do our romanticizing in a factory. We push for the special effect. We will not let it happen, on its own terms. Always, there is a message, some “unique selling point.” Always, we are trying to write the message; to put the jingle into the music. Always it seems, or rather, does not seem but is, that we are defeating ourselves.

Instead, we should be content, and unambitious; we should try to be the messenger only, like the priest performing the ancient Mass. Until, as it were, entirely by surprise, someone shoots us for it.

That little stream, that brook (I will not tell where I found it) knows better than a squirrel, better than a pigeon, better than a man. Quietly, I think, it is carrying the Word; and patiently, to anyone who will listen. But the sounds of the city make it impossible to hear.

That, anyway, is my message for this morning.