Thursday, July 27, 2017

Nature lessons from Henry

A bee, a thistle, a country road: I was every bit as entranced as nature-loving Henry Ryecroft would have been  in George Gissing's semi-autobiographical The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, written more than a century ago.
This wild area of Duck Creek Park on Saltspring Island is a good place to observe nature. Ryecroft would have been at home here.

Look at thistledown up close, and it's a marvel. No wonder the seeds spread like, well, weeds.

Knee-high banks of golden grasses and drying weeds nearly erase the path into a section of Duck Creek Park in mid-summer; wade through it and you end up in near-wilderness. But it’s here that the dragonflies tilt and glisten against the sun, the birds are loudest and you can watch as a perfect sphere of translucent spikes detaches from a foamy mass of thistledown and floats silently into the air.

I always appreciate that kind of scene, but I paid more attention to it this week thanks to fellow nature-lover Henry Ryecroft.  Ryecroft -- the fictional creation of late-1800s novelist George Gissing (apparently based largely on himself) -- is a struggling, sad-sack misanthropic writer confined by penury to the bleakness of his life in London. “For more than six years,” he writes in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, “I trod the pavement, never stepping once upon mother earth – for the parks are but pavement disguised with a growth of grass.”

 Until, late in life, he gets an amazing surprise. Someone bequeaths him an annuity, and for the first time, he can indulge his love for nature. He leases a rural home in Devon, hires a (very quiet) housekeeper, and thinks, reads, and -- most of all -- walks the countryside. He’s a conflicted, sad soul even in his newfound freedom, but his appreciation of nature has been sharpened by years of deprivation, and the intensity of his enjoyment and his observations rubs off on the reader.

How can you not see even thistledown differently after reading passages like these?

“All about my garden today the birds are loud. To say that the air is filled with their song gives no idea of the ceaseless piping, whistling, trilling, which at moments rings to heaven in a triumphant unison, a wild accord. Now and then I notice one of smaller songsters who seems to strain his throat in a madly joyous endeavour to out-carol all the rest.”

He finds interest in even the simplest sights: A resting place under a tree doesn’t have a great view, but it is “overflowered with poppies and charlock, on the edge of field of corn. The brilliant red and yellow harmonize with the glory of the day. Nearby, too, is a hedge covered with great white blooms of the bindweed. My eyes do not soon grow weary.”

Returning home after contact with the outside world, which always leaves him in a bad mood, he passes a valley with a farm and a blooming apple orchard. When the sun bursts through the clouds, “for what I then saw, I have no words; I can but dream of the still loveliness of that blossomed valley. Near me, a bee was buzzing; not far away, a cuckoo called; from the pasture of the farm below came a bleating of lambs.”

Weeds have their own charm; Ryecroft made it his mission to learn the common names of all the plants and flowers he came across in his walks in Devon, England.

The groomed part of Duck Creek Park. The grass has been cut; the path is visible.

Another look at the bee a friend and I saw on this thistle near Duck Creek Park.

It ignored us and went busily about extracting whatever it gets from thistle blooms. It seemed to do a very thorough job.

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