Monday, July 01, 2013


Enjoying Nature

G. Lowes Dickinson (1852-1932), "Motoring," The Independent Review 1 (1903) 578-589 (at 578-580):
Within twenty miles of London, on the fringe of one of the main roads, stretches a great wood of Scotch firs. Under their ever-green shelter, the secluded earth rises into hillocks or sinks into dells, overlaid with a tangled mat of brown fir needles, and covered with an undergrowth of fern, and of stunted oak or chestnut. At a certain spot, the forest aisles open upon a shallow lake, half choked with beds of rushes, but offering still a clear surface, to reflect the crowding stems and a strip of sky. The warm air is fragrant with the scent of bracken and pine; and the stillness is complete, except for the occasional cry of a coot, a plash in the pool, a rustle in the sedge, and, even when here is no wind, a faint murmur, as of a distant sea, haunting the multitudinous foliage. At all times the place is mysterious, solemn and vast: at evening or dawn, when the level rays fleck the stems with fire; at noon, in the great heat, the intensified silence; but most of all at night, under the stars or the moon, when nothing is heard but the burr of the night-jar, and, every now and again, the cry of a screech-owl on the wing, or the rising of a fish in the glimmering lake.

Such a spot, if we were a race capable of mythology, would have been peopled long ago by gracious and kindly spirits. Somewhere in the recesses would have been hidden a marble shrine; and the wanderer would have fancied, eluding him among the trunks, the gleam of a Dryad's hair, or, slipping under the wave, the silver shoulder of a nymph. Still, the place cannot be said to need such pagan denizens. And the feelings of a modern man who may be sensitive to its influences, if vaguer, are perhaps more pregnant, if less lovely, more profound, than those of the Greek he is half-inclined to envy. At any rate, here, if anywhere, may be received the spiritual influences of Nature: her grave rebuke of our ambitions, frets and fears, her message of the amplitude of time and space, her suggestion of a life more large, more serene, more significant than our own. Here, for a moment, we may be released from the dizzy wheel of action; here have access to the springs of dignity and grace. Nor is this a privilege reserved to a few. The wood is common ground; it is easily accessible; it is wide enough to ensure, even in the presence of a crowd, a due measure of solitude. People from the city, one might suppose, would take advantage of its hospitality, would discover it, and love it, and seek it again and again, in silence, or in grave and temperate discourse. Friendships here might be made and sealed, avenues opened to the affections, glimpses offered to the intelligence that might fructify in philosophic thought. Among the millions of London some hundreds, one might be inclined to think, would care to take advantage of such opportunities. But it is not so. Occasionally a group of cyclists enters the place to bathe; a few of the neighbours pass through it on their way to work. Otherwise, it is commonly deserted. Londoners, even on their holidays, are otherwise employed. What then are they doing? Let us look and see.

I have spoken of the silence of the wood; but, in doing so, I purposely omitted to mention a disturbing circumstance. At certain times, and especially at the week-end, curious sounds penetrate to the shores of the lake. A distant murmur is heard, increasing to a roar, then dying away, but only to recur at longer or shorter intervals. On a Saturday afternoon, or a Sunday, there will be almost no intermission of these noises. And if, moved by curiosity, the wanderer in the wood emerges upon the highway, he is confronted by a strange spectacle. There passes before him, with the speed of a railway train, an unending series of clouds of dust, each leaving behind it a malodorous trail, and accompanied by an indescribable din—a panting, rattling, hissing, bellowing, groaning—punctuated, but never interrupted, by the harsh bray of a discordant horn. Within these whirlwinds may be dimly perceived wheeled vehicles, carrying forms which are presumably human, but which, often enough, are so disguised by masks and head-gear, so begoggled, swathed, and mummified, that one might be pardoned for mistaking them for inhabitants of some other world.

Clinging close to these cars, in the thickest of the dust and stench, like parasites attached to huge dung-beetles, may be seen bunches of cyclists, bent double over their handle-bars, their eyes fixed to the ground, their feet revolving maniacally, as they endeavour desperately to keep pace with the vehicle that shelters them. And in between, on what space of the public road may be still available, may be observed, every now and again, huge waggons, drawn by four horses, and loaded with humanity of both sexes. Snatches of cacophonous song, shrieks of hysterical laughter, the blast of a cornet, or the scape [sic, read scrape?] and scream of a gramophone, mark their progress from public-house to public-house. Nor are pedestrians absent. Occasionally a drunkard stumbles by, or collapses with an oath upon the side of the road. What is it? What is happening? It is London taking a holiday! It is the capital of the British Empire enjoying Nature!

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