Mary Webb, an English writer of the early 20th century was an acute observer of nature and its multi-dimensional splendor. Diagnosed with Graves’ disease at the age of 20, Webb soon discovered that nature played a powerful role in her periods of recovery. The Spring of Joy compiles a series of essays on nature, penned by Webb with the aim of bringing comfort to ‘the weary and wounded in the battle of life.’ They are a testament to Webb's capacity to bear witness to the record of nature and to draw nourishment from it in a way that continues to benefit readers far beyond her lifetime. The following is an excerpt from The Spring of Joy: A Little Book of Healing.
The story of any flower is not one of stillness, but of faint gradations of movement that we cannot see. The widening and lengthening of petals, the furling and unfurling of leaves, are too gentle for our uneducated eyes. The white convolvulus that flowers only for a day meets the early light folded as if with careful fingers, and dusk finds it folded in almost the same way. You would think that the stillness had never been broken; yet between dawn and twilight the flower's lifework has been completed in one series of smooth, delicate motions. The hour of the pointed bud has been followed by hours of change, until the time of the open blossom and the feeding bee; and even in that triumphant moment a faint tremor shook the spread corolla, and the final silent furling had begun. During the whole drama the flower has seemed stationary – like many spirits that grow from sheath to bud, open golden treasure and close again before our eyes – and we never see.
Watch a bank of periwinkle on an early summer morning. The fresh blue flowers are poised high on delicate stalks, and seem aloof from the leaves. Absolute stillness broods over them; no tremor is discernible in leaf or petal; the wide blue flowers gaze up intently into the wide blue sky. Suddenly, without any breath of wind, without so much stir as a passing gnat makes, one flower has left her stem. No decay touched her; it was just that in her gently progressive existence the time for erect receiving was over. Some faint vibration told her that the moment had come for her to leave off gazing stilly at the sky; and so, in silence and beauty, with soft precipitation, she buried her face in the enfolding evergreen leaves. This pale shadow of a gesture is as lovely, as inevitable, as the flight of wild swans beating up the sky.
In a glade carpeted with wood-sorrel, just before rain, you will be aware of something going on down among the frail companies of leaves. Returning after an absence of half an hour, you will see a difference in the look of every plant. Each triplet of leaflets has softly crinkled toward the stalk, umbrella-wise, and in another half-hour they will be all tightly clasped round it. It is startling to see such steady purpose in so small a plant.
Evening after evening, in the summer, I have gone to see the white clover fall asleep in the meadows. Kneeling and looking very closely, as the dew begins to gather, one sees a slight change in the leaves; all round the green is paler than by day – when the dark upper surfaces of the leaves are flat beneath the flowers – because the pale undersides are now visible. As the light fails, the two lower leaves on each stalk gently approach one another – like little hands that were going to clap, but thought better of it – and at last lie folded quietly, as if for prayer. Then the upper leaf droops, as a child's face might, until it rests on the others. Everywhere in the dusk the white clover leaves are sleeping in an attitude of worship; those who are early enough may see them wake and rise in the morning – multitudes moving in slow, unfaltering unity.
Unlike the clover, the wood-sorrel and the ivy-leaved toadflax move with sudden violence. The capsule of wood-sorrel opens with a jerk, flinging the seeds a long way in a seemingly erratic manner. The toadflax gives an impression of deliberate thought by the way its seed-vessel turns round on the stalk, seeking a suitable crevice on the wall where it grows, and then dropping the seeds in: it is difficult to distinguish the separate movements, because the flowers are small and crowded, and do not ripen all together.
The thought of this underlying agitation gives mystery to the more perceptible motions caused by the elements. One of the most captivating of these is the ripple of corn. It is so swift, so elusive, that the eye cannot follow it; it is a sea-dream to stand on a little hill and watch the whole countryside in delicious motion, furrowed by the invisible racing shallops of the breezes. The waves wash and break upon the flowery hedges and the remote horizon, and seem ready to submerge everything in their foamless flood. All solid things are made less solid by motion – so grass looks liquid, trees have an aerial magic when the wind is in them.
In summer the willows stroke the smooth water with their long fingers. The supple branches droop until they dip in the stream, and, as they sway, every thin leaf is followed by a vanishing hollow. One of the daintiest joys of spring is the falling of soft rain among blossoms. The shining and apparently weightless drops come pattering into the may-tree with a sound of soft laughter; one alights on a white petal with a little inaudible tap; then petal and raindrop fall together down the steeps of green and white, accompanied by troops of other petals, each with her attendant drop and her passing breath of scent. The leaves sit still and laugh, for they know that their time has not come, and the drops slide off shamefacedly and go elsewhere. The young buds laugh in their high places, strong in their immaturity; and all day the rain laughs among the thin, curved petals, till the descending drops are like silver wires from the treetop to the grass, and the petals slip down them like white beads.
Bees' wings moving give a sense of absolute ease, because the energy seems so great in proportion to the frail weight lifted. It is restful to watch these creatures, so ethereal of body, so abundantly gifted with vitality – young gnats, the daintiest of dancers, ephemeral and swift, with their tireless measure – hive bees, standing round their doors on a hot day, their thin, airy wings flickering fast, making a cool stir with their noiseless rhythm. Even the great dor-beetles and fluffy bumble-bees – those angry people of the fields – fling their stout bodies through the air with a careless ease that implies immense reserves of power. The dragon-fly, fiery with purposeful energy, flashes over the stream in some long quest, like Palomides. Those small electric-blue insects, that make a haze over water-meadows in June, continue their innumerable dartings briskly in the most swooning heat; but there is nothing brisk in the opening and folding of a butterfly's wings; they are softly and weightlessly sleepy. She comes along the golden day with her faint, continual flutter; her wings make a gentle vibration in the air; from far down the stretches of ripe, brown grass-meadow you watch her approach, and because of her the place becomes Elysium. The white moth's passing is a lullaby; her wings have the elusiveness of dreams as she flickers down the dusk and alights contentedly upon the opening campion.
Movements of which we become conscious through one sense alone bring a strange feeling of secrecy. Owls' flight and all other motions of which we should know nothing with our eyes shut, have an eeriness because of this purposeful quiet; it is uncanny that the strength of those swooping wings should be so utterly noiseless. In a lightning flash, coming in the deep hush after thunder, lies terror; such unthinkably swift and formless motion, instantaneously bridging the abyss of space without a sound, is like some fearful portent. Are our senses undeveloped, since the dramas of dawn and moonrise have for us no chorus; the wind steals by invisible; the stars go through their stately ritual with silent tread, weaving their radiant dances to no murmur of music?
Unseen activity hints of imminent, ungauged power. Isaiah's idea of communion with the Deity was clothed in terms expressing invisible motion. Any stir of life is ominous if we cannot see it, because we are left uncertain as to the strength behind it; rustling in a wood on a moonless night may be caused by slight or overwhelming forces. So it is with the wind – that bodiless voice crying in the great spaces of the air, shouting round our roofs and chimneys, sighing at our windows, yelling above the passion of a storm at sea, fluting in the summer treetops. It is like a whisper in the night, when you cannot tell whether a child or a man is speaking; like some creature flapping at our doors in the gloom. We never see the gates of its dark house swing open, nor watch it fall beyond the waters into its tomb beneath the yellow sunset. Every day since the earth was, the wind has sighed and sung around it, gathering up the laughter and tears of all creatures and taking them into its ageless liberty. More mysterious than the invisible wind is the wind that is simply felt, blowing where there are no trees in which to watch it, pressing upon one with tireless, invincible force. There are few things that bring such awe and delight; for it is stronger than a thousand strong horses, shadowless and secret as a god.
Nature sets her dances to every rhythm, from slow undulations to the swift, dangerous rushes that bring wild exhilaration. The long pendulum-swing of trees is restful, not in the unambitious manner of quiescence – that might mean death; nor with a sudden cessation of movement – that might mean injury; but with the content of a return after swaying out from a fixed place, which implies balance and vitality. In the same way a poised mind sweeps out to all new ideas, but is not torn from its place because of its roots.
In this world of swinging, swaying, cleaving, fluttering motion, what is the part of the man who is obliged to be still? It is in his eager mind. Looking from the drowsy room, which is the world of his body, into the stirring life outside, he who longs for the gay kindliness of comradely exertion can project himself into the glad errantries of nature. He can gallop on the wild horses of wave and wind, outspanning his team in the caravanserai of night. He can pass with the stars on their long marches. He can peer through the soil with growing grass and slip in and out of wet spring coverts with nesting birds. As the doors into physical busyness are shut, more may be opened into the lusty activities of the spirit; and through these doors are vistas of fresh joy – it overflows the very sills like ground ivy. Those who have complete bodily freedom will probably never enter fully into the deep happiness brought by waving grass and running water: but he who has time and who cares to use his imagination, can see in all natural things the bowing down of the creature before the Creator. Perhaps a young larch grows near his window, and he loves the strong, elastic swing of the branches. Or he may have a company of Lombardy poplars to watch, and can see them, when he lies awake on a windy night, catching the stars in their green meshes with a sweep like that of a butterfly net. Possibly he can see nothing but sky. Then he can observe uninterruptedly the speed of grey March clouds before their sheep-dog, the gale; the shepherding of white midsummer flocks toward evening; the massing of them for thunder. The advent of the first star, the swimming rose of dawn passing up the sky, the sun's progress in lonely majesty through the great hollow heaven of summer, will mean more to him than to other people. A watcher of the melodic ritual of earth cannot know stagnation of soul; his ideas are fresh and vigorous. Although the healthy quickening of the pulse after exertion, the joy of hard work, may be denied to a man, adventures of the soul are his, along "the way that no fowl knoweth." Who can say that such enterprises of an eager spirit may not be nearer to real life – the life of the unknown forces that hold the wandering star and guide the travelling moon – than are the more comprehensible adventures of the body?
For more inspiration, join this Saturday's Awakin Call with Grayson Sword, an 18-year-old high school senior and open-heart surgery survivor, whose healing work is creating ripples far and wide. More details and RSVP info here.