Nature Closely Observed


I love Keats’ delicate descriptions of the natural world. We wish that he had lived longer than his so very short life of a mere 25 years—what a great loss that he died so young, yet what fruitful 25 years. As he suggests, there is great joy and delight to be discovered in escaping the restless world of city life through time spent in solitude amidst ‘Nature’s Observatory’:

O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,—
Nature’s observatory—whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell...”
From Sonnet VII   by John Keats

Being alone makes it easy to pause at a field gate or look over a gap in the hedge to spot those rabbits nibbling in the neighbouring field, totally unaware that they are being watched. Then pausing to try to identify  the birds singing in the surrounding trees, before moving on to hear the musical sounds of running water in a nearby stream.  With the wind in the trees, the rustle of dried leaves on the wayside, and the movement of some small creature in the hedge bottom, there is constant interest everywhere. If we are observant, we see a special wildflower in the hedge, or a bird’s feather on the path, or even the empty shell of a bird’s egg. It’s the small details, in which nature excels, that are so appealing. At times it may just be the delicious sound of pure silence.

It’s not just the sights and sounds either. Soon we catch the smell of a fox that has passed this way, or the scent of cut grass in a recently cut meadow or , in late summer, a field of corn where the combine harvesters have recently been.

The so called ‘romantic’ nature poets, like Keats ,Wordsworth and John Clare, and rural naturalists like Gilbert White of Selbourne and Richard Jefferies  of the 18th-19th century were keen ‘observers’ of the natural world. They saw what most of the rest of us never notice, or perhaps we are treading so heavily as we walk the path, or talking to someone else, that every creature around us has beaten a hasty retreat and disappeared into the undergrowth long before we arrive.

What noisy creatures we are. Wherever we go we seem to take noise with us. You are sitting in total quiet in the country somewhere, beginning to hear birdsong and listening to any rustle  in the hedgerow-waiting in  expectation of seeing what creature it is-when your peace is disturbed by a car engine and slamming doors, followed by loud voices and that inevitable intrusive music. Not many people these days, it seems, are able to live life  without the ‘comfort’ of continual noise around them.

Now, there is no use staying in that once quiet place. All the wildlife has fled into the bushes.There will be nothing to see or hear for ages. You will have to move on and try to find another quiet place and start over again. Frustrated, I turn to John Clare’s poem ‘A Summer Evening’ to cheer myself—that there are still a few quiet  ‘spirits’ like him with whom to share these days:

‘The frog half fearful jumps across the path,
And little mouse that leaves its hole at eve
Nimbles with timid dread beneath the swath;
My rustling steps awhile their joys deceive,
Till past, and then the cricket sings more strong,
And grasshoppers in merry moods still wear
The short night weary with their fretting song.
Up from behind the molehill jumps the hare,
Cheat of his chosen bed, and from the bank
The yellowhammer flutters in short fears
From off its nest hid in the grasses rank,
And drops again when no  more noise it hears.
Thus nature’s human link and endless thrall,
Proud man, still seems the enemy of all.’

‘A Summer Evening’  by John Clare

Dear John Clare.  One’s heart goes out to him,  a poor humble poet of his local Northamptonshire fields and woods. Despite his troubled life and sad later years, what a rich legacy of nature poetry he has left behind for us all. But we envy him his intimate closeness to the countryside and its plants and animals. When asked how he found inspiration for his poems he said delightfully :

‘I found the poems in the fields and only wrote them down.’

So we don’t need to be rich or ‘successful’ to leave a lasting legacy . Some of the humblest lives have had the greatest influence.What about that Carpenter from Nazareth, for example!

Long live the quiet, and less frequented parts of our English countryside and may success be given to the fight to save them as places of peace and quietness.

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