“It was not exactly a story,” said the Elder-mother; “but the story is coming now, and it is a true one. For out of the truth grow the most wonderful stories, just as my beautiful elder-bush has sprung out of the teapot.”
—Hans Christian Andersen, “The Elder-Tree Mother”
For people of millennia past everything crackled with meaning. The fire that burned in the soul was “of the same essential nature as the stars,” the twentieth-century Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács wrote, for the world was for those living then “new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own.” Even plants were rich in significance. The humblest weeds had indwelling spirits both familiar and strange.
“Nature, thou ever budding one,
Thou formats each for life’s enjoyments,
And, like a mother, all thy children dear,
Blessed with that sweet heritage, — a home!”
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The Wanderer”
There are sometimes born into this world people of singular goodness. American naturalist William Bartram was one such person. (Kaspar Hauser, I would argue, is another.) I came across Bartram while researching staghorn sumac. From the tree’s crimson seed clusters — or drupes, more accurately — comes the lemony seasoning often used in Mediterranean cuisine. Sumac grows just as readily along the Eastern seaboard, as well, and it was one of the many plants Bartram painstakingly classified. He had a great love for plants and animals, a love which he worked tirelessly to impart to the wider world.
And night wears on; the village murmurs cease;
The earth seems dozing in the lap of peace;
The loiterers stroll home; with fond adieus
The lovers part as lovers fondly use;
And they that in the morning’s laughing eye
Went trooping forth, now tranced in slumber lie,
Or, gone with Mab and all her goblin band,
Partake a picnic in the faery land.
—Thomas Durfee, “The Village Picnic” (1915)
Much of what made life pleasurable is now gone. We must seek out what remains. The study of history and the arts, the cultivation of friendship and love (to the extent that the current situation permits it) — such solaces can keep despair at bay, or at least pass the hours until more normal conditions return. So too can prosaic solitary activities, like collecting wildflowers, swimming in ponds or the sea, and marking the shapes of scudding clouds. “Who do you love best,” Charles Baudelaire’s enigmatic man is asked. “I love the clouds, the clouds that pass, eternally, the marvelous clouds,” he answers. Even small pleasures fortify us against hardship ahead.