"The beauty of the earth is the first beauty," writes Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue, whose wise books I return to again and again. "Millions of years before us the earth lived in wild elegance. Landscape is the first-born of creation. Sculpted with huge patience over millenia, landscape has an enormous diversity of shape, presence, and memory. There is poignancy in beholding the beauty of landscape: it often feels as though it has been waiting for centuries for the recognition and witness of the human eye. In the ninth Duino Elgy, Rilke says:
"How can we ever know the difference we make to the soul of the earth? Where the infinite stillness of the earth meets the passion of the human eye, invisible depths strain towards the mirror of the name. In the word, the earth breaks silence. It has waited a long time for the word. Concealed beneath familiarity and silence, the earth holds back and it never occurs to us to wonder how the earth sees us. Is it not possible that a place could have huge affection for those who dwell there? Perhaps your place loves having you there. It misses you when you are away and in its secret way rejoices when you return. Could it be possible that a landscape might have a deep friendship with you? that it could sense your presence and feel the care you extend towards it? Perhaps your favourite place feels proud of you. We tend to think of death as a return to clay, a victory for nature. But maybe it is the converse: that when you die, your native place will fill with sorrow. It will miss your voice, your breath and the bright waves of your thought, how you walked through the light and brought news of other places. Perhaps each day our lives undertake unknown tasks on behalf of the silent mind and vast soul of nature. During its millions of years of presence perhaps it was also waiting for us, for our eyes and our words. Each of us is a secret envoi of the earth.
"We were once enwombed in the earth and the silence of the body remembers that dark, inner longing. Fashioned from clay, we carry the memory of the earth. Ancient, forgotten things stir within our hearts, memories from the time before the mind was born. Within us are depths that keep watch. These are depths that no words can trawl or light unriddle. Our neon times have neglected and evaded the depth-kingdoms of interiority in favour of the ghost realms of cyberspace. Our world becomes reduced to an intense but transient foreground. We have unlearned the patience and attention of lingering at the thresholds where the unknown awaits us. "
"'We are here to abet creation and to witness it, to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed," Annie Dillard concurs. "Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but we notice each others beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.''
Pictures above: Daffodils in the village churchyard, and Tilly among the wild daffodils in our woods, spring 2013. The illustrations are by Walter Crane, published in Flowers from Shakespeare's Garden (1909). The John O'Donohue quotes are from Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (2004), the Annie Dillard quote is from an article in Life Magazine (1988), and the Robert Macfarlane quote is from The Old Ways (2012). This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2013, and is posted today with additional art and photos.