by Michael Colebrook
Reprinted from GreenSpirit, Spring 1999
John Muir, the Scottish/American pioneer of nature conservation, was strongly influenced by the American and English Romantics, and it seems that several of these writers had special experiences of awakening or enlightenment involving the natural world.
Nature speaks to us all the time: our senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste evolved so that we can receive her messages. Most of the time these are simply part of the background to our existence, but every now and then, the true voice of wild nature breaks through; it forces itself onto the foreground and demands our absolute attention. Perhaps the most appropriate word to use for such an experience is epiphany, implying an event or manifestation leading to a new awareness but which also contains definite overtones of a spiritual experience.
Nature epiphanies were not confined to the high Romantic period but have been described by a number of authors who have cultivated an openness to the natural world. It is perhaps overstating the case to regard such epiphanies as part of the legacy of Romanticism, but it can be argued that the free use of language developed by the Romantics has made it easier for subsequent writers to describe their experiences. In this article I am going to focus on just one of these epiphanies; that experienced by William Wordsworth and described in Book 1 of his Prelude. It starts innocently enough; the young Wordsworth ‘borrowed’ a shepherd’s boat and rowed out onto Ulswater and, as he went:
A rocky steep uprose
Above the cavern of the willow-tree,
And now, as suited one who proudly rowed
With his best skill, I fixed a steady view
Upon the top of that same craggy ridge,
The bound of the horizon, for behind
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And as I rose upon the stroke my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan –
When, from behind that craggy steep (till then
The bound of the horizon), a huge cliff,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature, the huge cliff
Rose up between me and the stars, and still,
With measured motion, like a living thing
Strode after me. With trembling hands I turned
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the cavern of the willow-tree.
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,
And through the meadows homeward went with grave
And serious thoughts; and after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being. In my thoughts
There was a darkness – call it solitude
Or blank desertion; no familiar shapes
Of hourly objects, images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields,
But huge and mighty forms that do not live
Like living men moved slowly through my mind
By day, and were the trouble of my dreams.
In solitude, such intercourse was mine.
‘Twas mine among the fields both day and night,
And by the waters all the summer long.
(Prelude, Book 1, lines 395-428 & 451-2)
Following the experience, ‘for many days my brain/ Worked with a dim and undetermined sense/ Of unknown modes of being.’ Wordsworth was obliged to recognise that the natural world exists in its own right and has its own ways that are not within the realm of human experience or subject to human dominion; there are ‘huge and mighty forms that do not live/ Like living men’. This was a true epiphany, unforgettable and deeply disturbing but ultimately enriching and liberating. Book 1 of the Prelude opens with the lines:
Oh there is blessing in this gentle breeze
That blows from the green fields and from the clouds
And from the sky – it beats against my cheek,
And seems half-conscious of the joy it gives.
Oh welcome messenger, oh welcome friend!
A captive greets thee, coming from a house
Of bondage, from yon city’s walls set free,
A prison where he hath been long immured.
Now I am free, enfranchised and at large,
May fix my habitation where I will.
The poem is essentially autobiographical but it opens with lines about nature and the message is one of liberation from ‘yon city’s walls’. Clearly, by the time Wordsworth wrote the poem, the experience on Ulswater had been fully assimilated, the ‘unknown modes of being’ were no more a source of alienation but of homecoming, of belonging and of freedom – ‘enfranchised and at large’.
The significance of nature epiphanies was confirmed for me by Brian Swimme’s article in Interchange (Summer 1998) in which he describes his experiences in the Amazonian rain-forest. ‘Has my education, my training, my professional goals – have all these been in service of the agenda to defang the terrible beauty of the world? I who have been so terrified of becoming food for the forest come to see a simple truth – that all existence concerns eating and being eaten, and that this applies on more than the simplistic, literal level. . .One bite of the Amazon rainforest and I am changed. A new urge constellates my life, something difficult to understand, difficult to articulate, a prayer surfacing in a dream. In each instant the universe swells into being and is as suddenly consumed – horrible, sublime mystery’.
I think Brian Swimme comes close to expressing the conflicting emotions aroused by a true epiphany; he speaks of ‘a horror, a thrill, a terror, a vitality’. There is the initial shock of the sudden and unexpected exposure to something totally other, to ‘unknown modes of being’; to things going on that seem to have absolutely no relationship with our human existence, or if they do, they seem to pose a threat to it. Then there is the thrill of the challenge presented by the experience. Lastly there is some form of assimilation, or at least acceptance, of the nature of the experience. This process can be more or less instantaneous or, as with Wordsworth, it can take ‘all summer long’. The response to the challenge may be just a determination to find out more about whatever happened, but the most profound epiphanies result in an enlarged awareness of the vitality of nature and even a total transformation of ones outlook towards the natural world.
I make no claim to have had experiences of quite this magnitude but I do have two vivid memories of events relating to wild nature. All my life I have been interested in the animals that live in water, and the first event goes back a long way, to my boyhood, and a small stream, not much more than a ditch really, that ran across the bottom of my parents house. I used to spend hours just looking into it to see what I could see. One day I saw what I later found out to be a water scorpion (it is not a scorpion; it is an insect, about an inch long, but it has a vicious looking pair of pincers and a spike of a tail that looks as though it could sting). What has lived with me for the best part of sixty years was the shock of seeing something that was totally other and alien to my experience: ‘a dim and undetermined sense/ Of unknown modes of being.’
The second event happened much later in my life when I was lucky enough to be included in a group visiting the Bass Rock, an island nature reserve in the Firth of Forth. Walking around the rock, with its thriving colony of seals and its multitudes of gannets and other sea birds, I had an almost overwhelming feeling that I was an intruder, that the rock was the place for the seals and the gannets and I had no business to be there. The experience was in no way threatening, it was simply as if the real inhabitants of the Bass Rock were telling me that they deserved the same kind of respect for their home as I expect others to show for mine. I should wait for an invitation and, given the usual behaviour of humans towards the rest of the natural world, that invitation was likely to be a long time coming.