I have from time to time quoted here from my favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, both from his published poems and from his diaries and notebooks. With regard to the latter, I have made the point that they contain prose that is finer and more lyrical, more poetical and profound, than most other writers' polished work. And yet these were notes that he jotted down, usually inspired by his observations of Nature.
I read from Hopkins every day, and just yesterday I came across the following notebook entry (October 29, 1870), prompted by an early frost:
...I found one morning the ground in one corner of the garden full of small pieces of potsherd from which there rose up (and not dropped off) long icicles carried on in some way each like a forepitch of the shape of the piece of the potsherd it grew on, like a tooth to its root for instance, and most of them bended over and curled like so many tusks or horns or, best of all and what they looked likest when they first caught my eye, the first soft root-spurs thrown out from a sprouting chestnut. This bending of the icicle seemed so far as I could see not merely a resultant, where the smaller spars of which it was made were still straight, but to have flushed them too.
And a few days before, he noted this about the flood of the nearby river:
...Yesterday it was a sallow glassy gold at Hodder Roughs and by watching hard the banks began to sail upstream, the scaping unfolded, the river was all in tumult but not running, only the lateral motions were perceived, and the curls of froth where the waves overlap shaped and turned easily and idly... Today the river was wild, very full, glossy brown with mud furrowed in permanent billows through which from head to head the water swung with a great down and up again. These heads were scalped with rags of jumping foam. But at the Roughs the sight was the burly water-backs which heave after heave kept tumbling up from the broken foam and their plum heap turning open in ropes of velvet...
As I have remarked before, no one sees the world in this way anymore. We are losing our sense of Nature, and with it, our sense of our own humanity. Earlier in my life this numbing disconnect was a question of speed and an obsession with productivity and materialism. Now, increasingly, it is a question of technology. Everywhere I turn, people's faces are fixated on miniature screens, of cell phones and iPads and laptops. Even at the dinner table people not only do not talk to one another, they no longer so much as look at one another, so fascinated are they by the virtual reality in their palms. And this palmistry, I fear, bodes the future. Yet it is nothing new.
Recently I read with my son Ray Bradbury's short story "The Veldt" about children in his imagined future so addicted to the fantasy world of their electronic devices that they lose all sense of humanity, morality, even reality. They prefer the pixilated projections on the walls of their room to contact with their fellow human beings, even with their parents. And that, in Bradbury's story, results in tragedy.
Our current obsession with a miniature video world is, I think, stripping us slowly but surely of an essential aspect of our humanity: the ability to see Nature, and to understand that we are a part of it, and not of the virtual flat-screen world. That manufactured world is an adjunct to our consciousness, not an expression of our essence. And while that adjunct is useful and entertaining, the essence is what we are and why we are on Earth. To the extent that the virtual world is supplanting the Natural world, especially in the lives of our children, our future is in peril.
We must, I believe, rescue our young people from the addiction to electronics just as we would from an addiction to nicotine or alcohol. For both serve to dull and distort and destroy consciousness, and with consciousness go morality and humanity.
Hopkins clearly understood that Nature is the affect of the divine; that through it we gain an understanding not only of ourselves, but of that transcendent reality from which our souls spring. Nature, in his view, is what connects us to the truth about our humanity - our human nature: that it is beautiful and ordered, spontaneous and meticulously plotted and paced by a spirit that both infuses us on Earth and summons us to eternity. For him, Nature is a mirror in which our destiny is reflected.
Now, I am not saying that we should all go gazing at the icicles, but we must retain a basic understanding of and sensitivity to the world of Nature around us. We ought to encourage our children to spend at least some time learning about Nature, and to looking at it and thinking about it; time, in effect, to take the world outside into our world within. If we do not, I fear, that Nature within us will wither and die.
Not long ago I asked a young friend of mine to look after my garden while I was out of town. As it was very hot, I asked her to please water the roses. She looked at me with a bland expression and inquired, "Which ones are the roses?"
Wake up and smell them? She couldn't even dream of them. And that, in itself, is a tragedy.