Places of Retirement
( Originally Published 1934 )
"Good God! how sweet are all things here !
CHARLES COTTON (a friend of Izaak Walton)
HAVE been spending a Sunday of retire in the woods. I came out with strange, deep sense of depression, and though I knew it was myself and not the world that was sad, yet I could not put it away from me. As I, write, the wood seems full of voices, the little rustling of leaves, the minute sounds of twigs chafing together, the cry of frogs from the swamp so steady and monotonous that it scarcely arrests attention. Of odours, a plenty ! Just behind me, so that by turning my head can see into their cool green depths, are a number of hemlock trees, breath of which is incalculably sweet. And the earth—the very earth itself---has a good rich growing odour, pleasant to smell.
These things have been here a thousand years—a million years—and yet they are not stale, but are ever fresh, ever serene, ever here to loosen one's crabbed spirit and make one quietly happy. It seems to me I could not live if it were not possible often to come thus alone to the woods.
On later walking I discover that here and there on warm southern slopes the dog-tooth violet is really in bloom, and worlds of hepatica, both lavender and white, among the brown leaves. One of the notable sights of the hillsides at this time of the year is the striped maple, the long wands rising straight and chaste among thickets of less-striking young birches and chestnuts, and having a bud of a delicate pink—a marvel of minute beauty. A little trailing arbutus I found and renewed my joy with one of the most exquisite odours of all the spring; Solomon's seal thrusting up vivid green cornucopias from the lifeless earth, and often near a root or stone the red partridge berries among their bright leaves. The laurel on the hills is sharply visible, especially when among deciduous trees, and along the old brown roads are patches of fresh winter-green. In a cleft of the hills near the top of Norwottuck, though the day is warm, I found a huge snowbank—the last held trench of old winter, the last guerilla of the cold, driven to the fastnesses. I have enjoyed this day without trying. After the first hour or so of it all the worries dropped away, all the ambitions, all the twisted thoughts
It is strange how much thrilling joy there is in the discovery of the ages-old miracle of returning life in the woods: each green adventurer, each fragrant joy, each bird-call—and the feel of the soft, warm sunshine upon one's back after months of winter. On any terms life is good. The only woe, the only Great Woe, is the woe of never having been born. Sorrow, yes; failure, yes; weakness, yes; the sad loss of dear friends—yes! But oh, the good God: I still live!
Being alone without feeling alone is one of the great experiences of life, and he who practises it has acquired an infinitely valuable possession. People fly to crowds for happiness, not knowing that all the happiness they find there they must take with them. Thus they divert and distract that within them which creates power and joy, until by flying always away from themselves, seeking satisfaction from without rather than from within, they become infinitely boresome to themselves, so that they can scarcely bear a moment of their own society.
But if once a man have a taste of true and happy retirement, though it be but a short hour or day, now and then, he has found, or is begining to find, a sure place of refuge, of blessed renewal, toward which in the busiest hours he will find his thoughts wistfully stealing. How stoutly will he meet the buffets of the world if he knows he has such a place of retirement where all is well-ordered and full of beauty, and right counsels prevail, and true things are noted.
As a man grows older, if he cultivate the art of retirement, not indeed as an end in itself, but as a means of developing a richer and freer life, he will find his reward growing surer and greater until in time none of the storms or shocks of life any longer disturbs him. He might in time even reach the height attained by Diogenes, of whom Epictetus said, "It was not possible for any man to approach him, nor had any man the means of laying hold upon him to enslave him. He had everything easily loosed, everything only hanging to him. If you laid hold of his property, he would rather have let it go and be yours than he would have followed you for it if you laid hold of his kg be would have let go his leg: if all of his body, all his poor body; his intimates, friends, country, just the same. For he knew from whence he had them, and from whom and on what conditions."
The best partners of solitude are books. I like to take a book with me in my pocket, although find the world so full of interesting things—sights, sounds, odours—that often I never read a word in it. It is like having a valued friend with you, though you walk for miles without saying a word to him or he to you: but if you really know your friend, it is a curious thing how, subconsciously, you are aware of what he is thinking and feeling about this hillside or that distant view. And so it is with books. It is enough to have this writer in your pocket, for the very thought of him and what he would say to these old fields and pleasant trees is ever freshly delightful. And he never interrupts at inconvenient moments, nor intrudes his thoughts upon yours unless you desire it.
I do not want long books and least of all story books in the woods—these are for the library— , but rather scraps and extracts and condensations from which thoughts can be plucked like flowers and carried for a while in the buttonhole. So it is that I am fond of all kinds of anthologies. I have one entitled "Traveller's joy," another, "Songs of Nature," and I have lately found the best one I know called "The Spirit of Man" by Robert Bridges, the English laureate. Other little books that fit well in the pocket on a tramp, be. cause they are truly companionable, are Ben Jonson's "Timber," one of the very best, and William Penn's "Fruits of Solitude," An anthology of Elizabethan verse, given me by a friend, is also a good companion.
It is not a discourse or a narrative we want as we walk abroad, but conversation. Neither do we want people or facts or stories, but a person. So open one of these little books and read therein the thoughtful remark of a wise companion. This I may reply to, or merely enjoy, as please. am in no hurry, as might be with a living companion, for my book friend, being long dead, is not impatient and gives me time to reply, and is not resentful if make no reply at all. Submitted to such a test as this few writers, old or new, give continued profit or delight. To be considered in the presence of the great and simple things of nature, or worn long in the warm places of the spirit, a writer must have supreme qualities of sense or humour, a great sensitiveness to beauty, or a genuine love of goodness—but above all he must somehow give us the flavour of personality. He must be a true companion of the spirit.
There is an exercise given to young soldiers which consists in raising the hands slowly above the head, taking in a full breath at the same time, and then letting them down in such a way as to square the shoulders. This leaves the body erect, the head high, the eyes straight ahead, the lungs full of good air. It is the attitude that every man at arms should wish to take. After a day in the woods l feel some such erectness of spirit, a lift of the head, and a clearer and calmer vision, for have raised up my hands to the heavens, and drawn in the odours and sights and of the good earth.