A good idea from ... Ruskin

  • @alaindebotton
DISLIKING nature, rather like disliking children, is something of which we are taught to be ashamed. Any respectable member of the species would be moved by the sight of rolling meadows, sunsets, mountains, forests and streams. For years I had no sympathy with nature, and hid my reluctance to spend any time with it, complaining about the mosquitoes and the wasps and the difficulty of finding good films to see in the countryside. I was even indifferent to nature when it cropped up in literature. When a novelist explained what the clouds looked like or started a chapter by summing up the colour of the leaves on the trees, I'd skip the description or fall asleep.

Then I discovered the works of John Ruskin (1819-1900) and nothing has been the same since. I've taken walks in the countryside, I look at trees and study clouds. Last weekend, I sat on a rock and listened intently to a stream for 20 minutes.

No one reads Ruskin now. About the only thing people seem to know about him is the story that he refused to sleep with his wife after seeing her naked for the first time on their wedding night, because the only women he had known until then had been sculptures in art galleries. But in the 19th century he was renowned for his writings on Venice, Turner, the Italian Renaissance and Gothic architecture, and most appreciated for his writings on nature.

His books contain extraordinary meditations on everyday nature: grass, apple trees, clouds, beaches, rainfalls and lakes. I've become devoted to his essay "On the Sound of Scottish Streams"; "I know no other waters to be compared with them," he writes, "such streams can only exist under very subtle concurrence of rock and climate. There must be much soft rain, not tearing the hills down with floods, and the rocks must break irregularly and jaggedly. Our Yorkshire shales and limestones merely form tables and shelves for the rivers to drip and leap from; while the Cumberland and Welsh rocks break too boldly, and lose the multiplied chords of musical sound..."

Ruskin doesn't just describe nature's physical appearance (which can get dull), he talks about its psychological and emotional resonances. Rather than saying that a pine tree is tall and green, he says that it is the most self-contained of trees, and that it is timid, possessing the quiet strength of many timid people. He believed that we should look to nature to find our emotions and struggles expressed in more dramatic terms, and should "read" it for moral instruction and consolation.

In his work we find, beautifully assembled in language, sensations about nature of which we had never been more than semi-conscious. His work offers an example of what all good writers can do for their readers; namely, bring back to life, from the deadness caused by habit and inattention, valuable but neglected aspects of experience.