NATURE MYSTICS REVISITED
“Through a gradual awakening to natural beauty, she reached a perception of beauty peculiar to herself. She began to perceive analogies. Nature became for her, not a fortuitous assemblage of pretty things, but a harmony, a poem solemn and austere. It was for her no longer a flat painting on the wall of life. Beauty breathed there, light shone there that was not of the flower or the star. A tremor, mysterious and thrilling, seemed to run with the light through all matter, through a single open blossom of the wild gean tree and through the whispering forest.”*
In an earlier post – https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/7/6/ – I introduced Nature Mystics: the Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism as a new and refreshing departure in Moon Books’ Pagan Portals series. This book, which I highly recommended, looks at literature seen to have nourished the culture and sensibility of modern Paganism. Rebecca Beattie, the author, has dedicated it “to all those Nature Mystics who have come before and continue to inspire us to a spiritual path with their words”.
This post is about a single book that I have read since reviewing Nature Mystics and would probably not have read otherwise. This is The House in Dormer Forest by Mary Webb. Unlike the better known Precious Bane and Gone to Earth, it is set at about the time of publication (1920) or perhaps a little earlier. I don’t think of it as a brilliant novel, but it does testify to a form of nature mysticism, one that brings together external nature, human consciousness, and the divine.
Running through the book is an assumption of the interdependence of humans with each other and with the rest of the natural world. Yet there is also a balancing emphasis on the personal, inner journey of individuation. The author makes this comment on two somewhat negatively portrayed matriarchal characters: “these two had been meant for individualists. This not being allowed, they became egoists, which always happens on the principle that if you deny a child sugar it will steal from the sugar-basin. The human mind, unless it is to remain nescient, must have itself, must develop and explore itself. The more vital, the more awake it is, the more it must turn inwards. For within, deep in the tenebrous recesses of sub-consciousness, man hopes to find God. Not in churches, not in his fellows, not in nature will he find God until he has found all these things mirrored in that opaque and fathomless pool, lying within his own being of which, as yet, we know nothing.”
If the inner journey has been made possible, the experience of creation is transformed. Human relationship can flourish and the human role of witness to external nature can become a mutual gift. I was brought up with an educated aversion to ‘purple passages’ and their perceived sentimentality. Yet now, I am happy to offer this one. “So it was with Michael and Amber. Arms were stretched forth in welcome. Flute notes fell from thickets. The eyes of bird and insect, the dewy gaze of a few late flowers, peered on them with new meanings. Along by the streams the willows, clad in silver-dusted feathers, meditated like stately birds. Willows are of all trees the most mysterious. It is said that they were the first of trees that before a bird sang or a bee quested for honey the world was full of willow forests. There the wind went in spring, a visible golden wave, deeply laden with yellow pollen. There, in the glistening air, with none but their own silver tongues to break the silence, the willows waited. They waited for the insects to come to their yellow aments; for the birds to flash in and out, making low music in the dusk. But they awaited also the perception which would complete their creation. The flowers that bloom unknown for a thousand years only exist when at last one flower blossoms under a perceptive eye. For that flower the pollen was launched spring after spring, the nectar gathered, the seed rounded. So the understanding of beauty is a priesthood. Amber and Michael gave to the forest almost as much as they gathered from it as they wandered in the warm and mellow harvest weather.”
*Mary Webb The House in Dormer Forest The Echo Library: Fairford, Gloucestershire, England, 2012
I really like the richer and more lyrical writing that is labeled ‘purple’ whereas the cold and stripped down habits of modern prose I often find rather cold and alienating…
Thanks for that comment Nimue. I’m definitely moving that way myself – in Mary Webb’s case, I feel a richness of observation and love behind her text. Greater economy would have lost both texture and meaning.
I’ve got the Nan Shepherd quartet (because Robert McFarlane kept going on about her in his books) when I have finished, can lend.
Thanks for the offer. I’d love to have a look.