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Love for the Natural World - a Flash of Golden Fire

 

In the presence of a tiger or a whale we feel a mixture of excitement, terror and awe; when we see the birds fluttering around a bird feeder or stroke a favourite dog or cat we feel pleasure and empathy; we even feel that the trees in a familiar wood or park are like old friends. These feelings of excitement, love, awe and empathy go back a long way, they are obviously present in the ancient cave paintings of animals at Lascaux. Some of these animals were hunted and were essential as food, so there is obviously a physical as well as an emotional connection to animals which still exists, and which has been amplified by scientific knowledge. Today we know much more about the physical connections between man and other living things; our dependence on the photosynthesis of trees for example which locks up carbon and releases oxygen is just one instance of the complex interactions between species that underpin the ecosystems that support human life.  In this essay though, I will explore the emotional rather than the physical connections between man and animals through the eyes of different writers living at different times. I will also touch on how such emotions may be related to scientific knowledge and to religious and moral ideas.  

 Anyone can identify with Wordsworth, whose heart leapt up when he saw a rainbow, and with David Attenborough in his awe and respect for the natural world he demonstrates in his TV series on the planet. Most people would also understand the intense excitement of the naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace on capturing a splendid new species of butterfly, but these uplifting and exciting feelings can also be a response to a variety of living things.

The shipwrecked sailor in the poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and published in 1789 has an intense emotional response to sea snakes; the Scottish explorer Mungo Park has powerful life-saving feelings evoked by a moss which he describes in his Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa in 1795, and in the science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? published in 1968 Philip K Dick tells of a man who has a overwhelming response to a toad. These very different books have at their centre a man in desperate circumstances who survives because his spirits are uplifted by a ‘spring of love’ for another species.

 The ‘flash of golden fire’ and ‘spring of love’ are quotations from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Coleridge. The mariner brought bad luck to the ship when he shot an albatross, and he is now marooned on a windless sea, the only living man in a ship full of dead sailors. The murdered albatross hangs like a stone around his neck:

 

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam ; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue                              
Their beauty might declare:                                       
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,

 And I blessed them unaware.

 

The self-same moment I could pray;                            

And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.’

 

 The mariner is fictional, but the real explorer Mungo Park had a similar experience. Park was a Scottish surgeon and botanist who set off to explore the Niger River in 1795 under the auspices of the ‘Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa’. Despite the fact that his two black servants were abducted he almost reached Timbuktu, but on his way back Arab bandits stripped and robbed him.

 He wrote: ‘I saw myself in a vast wilderness, naked and alone … I was 500 miles from the nearest European settlement …I confess my spirits began to fail me’. His gaze wandered vacantly over the ground when ‘painful as my recollections were, the extraordinary beauty of a small moss in fructification, irresistibly caught my eye. I mention this to show from what trifling circumstances the mind will sometimes derive consolation for though the whole plant was not larger than the top of one of my fingers, I could not contemplate the delicate conformation of its roots, leaves, and capsula, without admiration.’  His spirits lifted, he found the strength to walk to the coast.

Mungo wrote that the moss lifted his despair because it made him question whether the Being who had brought to perfection something of no importance in such an obscure place would look with unconcern at creatures formed in his own image. I find it impossible to think that I am the image of a Being who brought my moss to the perfection I saw in it.  I would expect such a Being to regard mosses and men as equally valuable expressions of divine creativity as are fishes and finches, dahlias and dinosaurs. I can echo Mungo’s admiration, but not his explanation.

 In ‘The Prelude’, Wordsworth writes:

 

There are in our existence spots of time,
Which with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating Virtue…’

 

The spot of time in which Mungo contemplated the delicate conformation of this moss did obviously have a huge ‘renovating virtue’. In ‘The Rainbow’ Wordsworth commends a lifelong appreciation of nature:

 

My heart leaps up when I behold
A Rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the man;
And I wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

 Wordsworth claims that this childlike response is not only necessary for life but is also ‘natural piety’. These are powerful claims.

Coleridge, when he writes of ‘the spring of love’, gives us an insight into why this response to nature has life affirming power. It is the power of love to take the self outside of its limitations, to feel the self being uplifted, liberated and re-affirmed by a connection with another being.  The most famous variety of love, sexual love, is of course well known for having this effect. The transcending of the self in the vision of spiritual connection with a deity or with the cosmos is a feature of religious experience. The feeling of being intensely moved by the beauty of something outside of our concern for our individual survival is one of the mainsprings of poetry.

 In the case of the Mariner and Mungo Park, the lifting of the spirit by nature is lifesaving. The scenario of Philip K Dick’s sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is very different but describes essentially the same situation. The hero Rick Deckard, like Mungo and the Ancient Mariner, is despairing and exhausted in a vast inhospitable wilderness, out of touch with other people, even alienated from them, and like the Mariner, suffering from guilt. Rick, a bounty hunter, has spent the day killing humanoid robots called androids which are superficially identical to humans. They have almost killed him but his job still feels like murder. He takes off in his hover car and goes to a post nuclear wasteland ‘…where no living thing would go. Not unless it felt the end had come.’ In his desperate state his eye is caught by a toad, supposedly an extinct animal, half buried in the stony soil. He carefully puts it in a box and drives home. His wife sees his eyes ‘round with awe’ as he holds the box with two hands, ‘as if … it contained something too fragile and valuable to let go of. ’  The toad turns out to be an electronic animal, and he is crestfallen, but the feeling of awe that he experienced was genuine, and lifted his spirits enough to save him from a despairing death.

 Wordsworth, Mungo Park and Philip K Dick, it seems to me, see the rainbow, the moss and the toad mainly in relation to human feelings, but Coleridge implies that the water snakes have their own existence unrelated to humanity. This is also the stance of the famous naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace. In The Malay Archipelago he describes his efforts to catch a butterfly:

‘During my first walk into the forest I had seen sitting on a leaf out of reach, an immense butterfly of a dark colour, marked with white and yellow. I could not capture it, as it flew away high up in the forest, but I at once saw that it was a female of a new species of Ornithoptera, the pride of the eastern tropics.

 

He looked eagerly for another specimen of this butterfly for two months, and eventually succeeded in capturing a male:

‘Fine specimens of the male are more than seven inches across the wings, which are velvety black and fiery orange, the latter colour replacing the green of the allied species.

The beauty and brilliance of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement that I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what to most people will seem an inadequate cause.’

 

David Attenborough, who was influenced by reading Wallace’s descriptions of birds of paradise when he was young, quotes Wallace’s conclusion that nature was not made for man in a TV programme ‘Attenborough in Paradise and Other Personal Voyages’ made in 1996:  

‘Wallace's emotions on discovering such marvels (birds of paradise) must surely be echoed by all of us who follow him. This is what he wrote:

"I thought of the long ages of the past during which the successive generations of these things of beauty had run their course. Year by year being born and living and dying amid these dark gloomy woods with no intelligent eye to gaze upon their loveliness, to all appearances such a wanton waste of beauty. It seems sad that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man, many of them have no relation to him, their happiness and enjoyments, their loves and hates, their struggles for existence, their vigorous life and early death, would seem to be immediately related to their own well-being and perpetuation alone."

 Indeed so.’

The Calvinist Mungo Park could not have echoed Attenborough’s ‘indeed so’, though I imagine that as a naturalist he would have found it easy to understand Wallace’s excitement.

Attenborough, as a spokesman for the ecological understanding of the late 20thC, outlines a moral dimension which emphasises our physical and emotional connection to nature.

"It's not just that we are dependent on the natural world for our food and for the very air we breathe - which is, of course, the case - and that the very richness of the natural world continues to provide us with all kinds of assistance. But it's a moral question about whether we have the right to exterminate species and leave a world that is more impoverished than the one we inherited … the natural world is important and valuable and beautiful and wonderful and an amazement and a pleasure."  

Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s instinctive response requires no knowledge of the physics of rainbows or the biology of phosphorescent water snakes, but Mungo Park’s botanical knowledge heightened his admiration of the moss and Wallace’s understanding of natural history intensified his response to the butterfly. David Attenborough’s pleasure in the natural world is surely also enhanced by his scientific knowledge.  

 It seems to me that the intense feelings that nature can arouse in us are essentially emotional:  to feel the ‘spring of love’ that connects us to water snakes, a moss, a rainbow, a butterfly or a toad is to experience something with a physical charge, something that can make our eyes become ‘round with awe’, our heart ‘beat violently’.  This may also be a part of scientific discovery, Archimedes’ eureka moment in the bath certainly excited him physically and emotionally. The scientific understanding of nature that sees all the species of the world linked by their historical evolutionary relationships and by their connections and interactions as inhabitants of the same planet supports the imaginative experiences of ‘the flash of golden fire’ and ‘the spring of love’.

 Feelings of awe, of pleasure, of losing oneself in the wonder of the world outside ourselves also raise questions of a religious and moral nature. People find different answers to these questions, Mungo Park invokes the Being that made man in his image, the Ancient Mariner imagines his saints taking pity on him, Wordsworth talks of piety, Deckard of a vision of himself as Mercer, the suffering old man who is at the heart of the state religion, Wallace sees that the world was not made for man and Attenborough considers the moral question of the effect of our lives on other species. Philosophical ideas, scientific knowledge, religious and moral opinions differ, but the powerful emotional experiences of the ‘spring of love’ and the ‘flash of golden fire’ are instinctive. 

 I am conscious though, of telling only half a story, emotional responses to the natural world are very variable, for many people snakes of any sort evoke terror, and toads provoke disgust. Like the ‘spring of love’, this ‘spring of terror’ is a response to the power of nature, a response which is largely instinctive but also conditioned by culture.

Our instinctive response to the natural world can engage the emotions and lift the spirits, and I would argue that this positive response to the beauty and wonder of the world can be described as a form of love. This is life affirming and can liberate a person who is in a state of despair and desolation.  The emotional force of the feeling does not depend on knowledge; as Wordsworth pointed out, it can be felt by a child. For Mungo Park, these feelings were religious, for David Attenborough the feelings evoke thoughts of  our moral relation to the rest of the world, but though their beliefs are different their instinctive feelings for nature are essentially the same. The sense of wonder can be enhanced by knowledge as the example of Wallace and the butterfly shows, and excitement can be part of scientific discovery as Archimedes demonstrated. In the moments when 'our heart leaps up' at 'the flash of golden fire' we feel the  connections between man and nature most powerfully.

 

Back to Strange Attractor homepage

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A Flash of Golden Fire considers the love of nature with reference to a poem by Coleridge, travel writing by the explorer Mungo Park and a sci-fi novel by Philip K Dick.
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