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Posts Tagged ‘naturalism’

Venus of the Woods

October 4, 2016 | by

Celebrating the history of the beloved ash tree.

Charles May, The Old Ash, photograph, 1863.

Charles May, The Old Ash, photograph, 1863.

As a small child, my mother was taken to the Lake District, in the hope that she would have a better chance of survival under the shelter of the northwestern hills than at home on the flat, overexposed coast of Lincolnshire. It was early 1940. It would have been a grand adventure, were it not for the constant reminders that things were not as they should be. It was not just the absence of fathers, uncles, brothers, but the presence in the hotel grounds of oddly damaged things: a blind cat, a broken wheelbarrow, a man who had been at Dunkirk and did not seem quite like other grown-ups. What my mother remembers most vividly is a young woman, pale in face and dress, who spent her days sitting outside, staring up into the branches of the tall ash tree and drawing what she saw. When the sun came out, her pencil lines darkened, turning the tracery of tiny branches into black lace veils. She never spoke, but day after day she looked up and re-created the impossible patterns on her large, flat sheets of paper. What did the ash tree mean to that unknown woman? Or to my mother, in whose agitated, impressionable mind it took root and has remained ever since?

The ash tree is known as the Venus of the woods, and it seems to stir powerful feelings in those who gaze on its graceful form. Whether it is standing in spacious parkland or in an unkempt, November hedge, or rising naked from a sea of bluebells, the ash’s curvy limbs taper to an end with tips pointing to the heavens. A young ash is often like a half-open peacock’s tail, not quite ready to display its beauties; the branches of a mature ash, once fully fanned out, will slope down toward the earth, before sweeping up again, as if to send the buds flying. Through the summer the boughs cascade in all directions, wave-shaped and covered in green sprays. There are no angles on a young ash tree—everything is rounded and covered in fluttering foliage, soft as the feathers in a boa or the fur of a chinchilla. The boughs gain a few inches and furrow with the passing years, but with maturity come striking attitudes. In winter their silhouettes stencil clear skies like a row of unframed stained glass windows. The ebullient black buds stand proud, as if impatient for the spring, but in fact the ash is usually the last to come into leaf and the first to shed its seasonal foliage. The uncovered form of the ash, though, is just as compelling as the full-dress splendor of more eye-catching trees. Read More »

A Worshipper of Flowing

June 30, 2014 | by


A sketch of Miłosz by Zbigniew Kresowaty.

A happy birthday to Czesław Miłosz, who was born today in 1911 and died in 2004. Miłosz nursed a lifelong fascination with science and naturalism, particularly as they were reconciled—or not—with the Catholic teachings of his youth. He outlined the opposition in his 1994 Art of Poetry interview:


What fascinated you about nature?


Well, my great hero was Linnaeus; I loved the idea that he had invented a system for naming creatures, that he had captured nature that way. My wonder at nature was in large part a fascination with names and naming. But I was also a hunter. So was my father. Today I am deeply ashamed of having killed birds and animals. I would never do that now, but at the time I enjoyed it. I was even a taxidermist. In high school, when I was about thirteen or fourteen, I discovered Darwin and his theories about natural selection. I was entranced and gave lectures about Darwin in our naturalists’ club. But at the same time, even though it was a state school, the priests were very important. So on the one hand, I was learning about religion, the history of the Church, dogmatics, and apologetics; on the other hand, I learned about science, which basically undermines religion. Eventually I turned away from Darwinism because of its cruelty, though at first I embraced it. Nature is much more beautiful in painting, in my opinion.


Can a connection be made between the naturalist’s and the poet’s appreciation of nature?


David Wagoner has written a poem called “The Author of American Ornithology Sketches a Bird, Now Extinct.” It’s a poem about Alexander Wilson, one of the leading ornithologists in America, shooting and wounding an Ivory-billed woodpecker, which he kept to draw because it was a specimen that was new to him. The bird was slowly dying in his house. Wilson explains that he has to kill birds so that they can live on the pages of his books. It’s a very dramatic poem. So the relation of science to nature, and I suspect also of art to nature, is a sort of a meeting of the minds of both scientist and artist in that they both have a passion to grasp the world …

That passion is in evidence throughout “Rivers,” a prose poem by Miłosz published in our Summer 1998 issue; here the geological and religious meanings of rivers are made to sit—illuminatingly, if not comfortably—next to each other. It’s an appropriately crisp read for a humid summer evening, and it begins:

“So lasting they are, the rivers!” Only think. Sources somewhere in the mountains pulsate and springs seep from a rock, join in a stream, in the current of a river, and the river flows through centuries, millennia. Tribes, nations pass, and the river is still there, and yet it is not, for water does not stay the same, only the place and the name persist, as a metaphor for a permanent form and changing matter. The same rivers flowed in Europe when none of today’s countries existed and no languages known to us were spoken.

Read the whole poem here.


The Uncommon Birds of George Edwards

April 3, 2014 | by

George Edwards, born today in 1694, is known as “the father of British ornithology”—as fine a paternal legacy as a guy can hope for. Today, his reputation as a naturalist endures in no small part because of his excellent drawings, which introduced English readers to scores of exotic creatures: first and foremost, birds. His greatest work is the four-volume Natural History of Uncommon Birds, whose full august title deserves to be seen in toto: A Natural History of Uncommon Birds: And of Some Other Rare and Undescribed Animals, Quadrupeds, Fishes, Reptiles, Insects, &c., Exhibited in Two Hundred and Ten Copper-plates, from Designs Copied Immediately from Nature, and Curiously Coloured After Life, with a Full and Accurate Description of Each Figure, to which is Added A Brief and General Idea of Drawing and Painting in Water-colours; with Instructions for Etching on Copper with Aqua Fortis; Likewise Some Thoughts on the Passage of Birds; and Additions to Many Subjects Described in this Work.

These drawings are taken from that work, which you can read here. Of particular note is his illustration of the dodo, which was, even then, extraordinarily rare and facing extinction.

As for the man: According to The Aurelian Legacy: British Butterflies and Their Collectors, a contemporary of Edwards’s “described him as of medium stature, inclined to plumpness and of a cheerful, kindly nature ‘associated with a charming diffidence.’”