April 2, 2012

Nature's Metaphors

When spring arrives we think of renewal, of hope and energy, as a seemingly dead earth greens again. With such powerful imagery it's not surprising to me that so many religions have resurrection or rebirth myths, such as the Greek goddess Persephone, Jesus Christ, or rebirth in Buddhism. In his magisterial book Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama reminds readers in his introduction that "although we are accustomed to separate nature and human perception into two realms, they are, in fact, indivisible. Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind."

Language itself, and human spirituality, is based in nature, as Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in his essay "Nature" (full text here).
1. Words are signs of natural facts.
2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.
3. Nature is the symbol of spirit. 
He points out that a word used to express a "moral or spiritual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance. Right means straight; wrong means twisted; Spirit primarily means wind..." and that "man is an analogist, and studies relations in all objects".

We look at eggs, here those of a wood frog, and think of the fragile beginnings of life.

Young leaves covered with snow are persistence against adversity,

there are many thorny issues,

while some leaves, though dried, keep hanging in there. We tend to find poetic resonance in nature, an equivalent to our feelings. Fernando Pessoa argues against this tendency in his poem "The Keeper of Sheep"
Only if you don't know what flowers, stones, and rivers are
Can you talk about their feelings.
To talk about the soul of flowers, stones and rivers,
Is to talk about yourself, about your delusions.
Thank God stones are just stones,
And rivers nothing but rivers,
And flowers just flowers. 
I tend to I flip back and forth from an Emersonian to a Pessoan view of the world around me; there is great spiritual comfort in nature, but it is also just itself, not existing to serve humankind's needs.

Samuel Palmer, Garden in Shoreham, 1820s or early 1830s; opaque watercolor and gouache, 11 x 8 1/2 in.

I am ending with this painting of a tree in flower by Samuel Palmer, a follower of William Blake. Palmer's early paintings have a density of feeling, a mystical quality that shows nature as more than just flowers, stones, and rivers. Our responses to nature are mysterious and complex, based on cultural conceptions and personal history; they evolve, and they surprise, and for me they always enrich my life. 


  1. A great post, beautiful images and my favorite Samuel Palmer painting! Doesn't get any better than that. Hope you have a pleasant time with your family and we will all be looking forward to sharing in the art you see.

  2. Well it is a good thing the wind cannot read.

    1. and why is that? would the wind mind being equated with spirit?