Liberty Hyde Bailey


I read the following passage today from Liberty Hyde Bailey’s Outlook to Nature.  It’s bit anachronistic to use the term “Entertainment culture,” as I did above, but Bailey’s words seem to ring as true today (if not truer) than when he wrote them in the days before television, computers and the internet!

Some of us do not enjoy nature because there is not enough sheer excitement in it. It has not enough dash and go for this uneasy age; and this is the very reason why we need the solace and resource of nature so much. On looking over the lists of Christmas books I was surprised to find how often the word ” sensation” occurs. In the announcement of the forthcoming number of a magazine, I find twenty articles, of which at least nineteen are to be ” tragic,” “thrilling,” “mystery-laden,” or otherwise unusual. The twentieth one I hope to read. One would think that a piece of writing is valuable in proportion as it is racy, exciting, startling, astounding, striking, sensational. In these days of sensational sales, to have a book sell phenomenally well is almost a condemnation of it. An article or book that merely tells a plain story directly and well is too tame; so even when we write of nature we must pick out the unusual, then magnify and galvanize it. From this literature the reader goes out to nature and finds it slow and uninteresting; he must have a faster pace and a giddier whirl of events. He has little power to entertain himself; and, his eyes never having been trained to see what he looks at, he discovers nothing and the world is vacuous and void. He may find temporary relief in some entertainment provided for him out of hand, as the so-called news of the newspapers or some witless frippery on the stage. Yet, unless all poets and philosophers have misled us, the keenest and most resourceful delights that men have found have been the still small voices of the open fields.

There is another objection to much of the nature writing,—the fact that it is unrepresentative of nature. It exploits the unusual and exceptional, and therefore does not give the reader a truthful picture of common and average conditions. …  The best nature writing, as I conceive of it, is that which portrays the commonplace so truthfully and so clearly that the reader forthwith goes out to see for himself. Some day we shall care less for the marvelous beasts of some far-off country than for the mice and squirrels and wood-chucks of our own fields. (12-14)

(Emphases mine.)

Indianapolis weather this afternoon:
Clear, sunny and bitter cold!
+2°F
(Feels like -17°F with wind chill)

Here’s a thought on the coldest day of the winter to-date, a day when I’m inside at my desk pounding away on my keyboard.  The is a part deep inside me that wishes I could agree with Liberty Hyde Bailey’s views on the weather: e.g.,

No man is efficient who is at cross-purposes with the main currents of his life; no man is content and happy who is out of sympathy with the environment in which he is born to live: so the habit of grumbling at the weather is the most senseless and futile of all expenditures of human effort. Day by day we complain and fret at the weather, and when we are done with it we have—the weather. There is no other effort at which human beings are so persistent, and none at which they are so universally unsuccessful. [Outlook to Nature 42]

Generally, I agree with Bailey and since Bailey first bludgeoned me with this point three months ago, I’ve been trying to live more contentedly with the weather as it comes, but the exception to this rule is bitter cold days like today.  I tried to go exploring last week on a day when it was almost this cold and I lasted about 15 minutes.  Maybe I am such a creature of comfort that I just can’t handle the cold, and certainly people like my friends in Minneapolis brave much colder weather than we do here in Indy.

Bailey later emphasizes this point further:

The person who has never been caught in rain and enjoyed it has missed a privilege and a blessing. I never want to live in one of those featureless climates that cannot get up spunk enough to raise a storm. Give us the rain and the hail and the snow, the mist, the crashing thunder, and the cold biting wind!  Let us be men enough to face it, and poets enough to enjoy it. In “bad” weather is the time to go abroad in field and wood. You are fellow then with bird and stream and tree; and you are escaped from the crowd that is forever crying and clanging at your heels. [Outlook to Nature 47]

Maybe after work today, I will muster up the courage at least to get out and shovel the snow off our sidewalk!

A couple of days ago, I started re-reading Liberty Hyde Bailey’s book Outlook to Nature, and I was struck by how well these essays struck at the heart of what we are trying to do with this experiment in urban naturalism.

[ Outlook to Nature is available for for free through GOOGLE BOOKS: CLICK HERE.  Although as a bibliophile, I have concerns about the scope and intention of the GOOGLE BOOKS project, I am quite thankful that they have made this gem of a book available again.]

I invite you to read this excellent book along with me.  As a starter, here is his plea at the outset of the book to recover the beauty and splendor of the “commonplaces”; the places that become so familiar that we take them for granted.

So great has been the extension of knowledge, and so many the physical appliances that multiply our capabilities, that we are verily burdened with riches. We are so eager to enter all the strange and ambitious avenues that open before us that we overlook the soil at our feet. We live in an age of superlatives, I had almost said of super-superlatives, so much so that even the superlatives now begin to pall. The reach for something new has become so much a part of our lives that we cease to recognize the fact and accept novelty as a matter of course. If we shall fail to satisfy ourselves with the new, the strange, and the eccentric, perhaps we shall find ourselves returning to the old commonplace and the familiar, and perhaps we shall be able to extract new delights from them because of the flights we have taken. Perhaps in their turn the commonplaces will be again the superlatives, and we shall be content with the things that come naturally and in due order. Certain it is that every sensitive soul feels this longing for something simple and elemental in the midst of the voluminous and intricate, something free and natural that shall lie close to the heart and really satisfy our best desires. [3-4]

The essence of the city is the heaping up of “the strange and ambitious avenues that open before us.”  The city — Indianapolis or any other city — runs on the power of the new, the fashionable, the avant garde.  The French social critic Jacques Ellul notes in The Meaning of the City that since Babel, the mythological first city, the spirit of the city has been marked by a rejection of tradition, the “making of a (new) name for ourselves” — to borrow the biblical language.  Thus, where better to start to reclaim the commonplaces than in the heart of the city?  It is compelling to me that Ellul reminds us that arc of human history — according to the Judeo-Christian tradition — ends in a city, the so-called New Jerusalem, but this city is marked by the recovery of natural spaces — and indeed Bailey would likely call them commonplaces — of rivers, and fruit-bearing trees and gardens.