Sunday, November 22, 2009

`The Quantity of Pleasure One Has Had'

Mike Gilleland shames me with a charming passage about moss he found in a John Ruskin volume I never knew existed -- Proserpina: Studies of Wayside Flowers (1886). Reading Chapter I, “Moss,” online I find this sample of Ruskinian whimsy, among others:

“Going out to the garden, I bring in a bit of old brick, emerald green on its rugged surface, and a thick piece of mossy turf.

“First, for the old brick: To think of the quantity of pleasure one has had in one’s life from the emerald green velvet,--and yet that for the first time to-day I am verily going to look at it! Doing so, through a pocket lens of no great power, I find the velvet to be composed of small star-like groups of smooth, strong, oval leaves,--intensely green, and much like the young leaves of any other plant, except in this;--they all have a long brown spike, like a sting, at their ends.”

Ruskin was by nature an enthusiast, a writer whose childlike qualities, when they don’t shade into weirdness, are delightful. “Moss” begins with Ruskin on the cusp of 50 vowing, at last, to learn about the Bryophyta. This is the sort of resolution I make and seldom keep, though I ought to with moss. The stuff is ubiquitous in the rain-rich Pacific Northwest, and the moss-removal industry thrives here. Ruskin turns to his book shelves, consults the botanists and dashes to the garden for a moss-covered brick. In this he reminds me of Thoreau, one of his most attentive students (Robert D. Richardson documents the debt in Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind), though the author of Walden was dead 25 years when Ruskin published Proserpina.

Moss seems not to have seized Thoreau’s imagination the way apples and huckleberries did. Perhaps two dozen references are scattered throughout the 2 million words of his journal. On May 20, 1853, he notes:

“What is that pretty, transparent moss in the brooks, which hold the rain or dewdrops so beautifully on the under sides of the leaflets, through which they sparkle crystallinely [a rare Thoreau contribution to the reservoir of adverbs]?”

[An intermission: On the same day in his journal Thoreau writes of the beech: “It is an interesting tree to me, with its neat, close, tight-looking bark, like the dress which athletes wear, its bare instep, and roots beginning to branch like bird’s feet, showing how it is planted and holds by the ground. Not merely stuck in the ground like a stick. It gives the beholder the same pleasure that it does to see the timbers of a house above and around.”]

In a journal entry from March 4, 1859, Thoreau writes:

“I find near Hosmer Spring in the wettest ground, which has melted the snow as it fell, little flat beds of light-green moss, soft as velvet, which have recently pushed up, and which lie just above the surface of the water. They are scattered about in the old decayed trough…They are like little rugs or mats and are very obviously of fresh growth, such a green as has not been dulled by winter, and very fresh and living, perhaps slightly glaucous, green.”

Glaucous itself is an education. It's from the Greek by way of Latin and means “bluish-grey or green," and refers to that pale gray or bluish-green sheen on the skin of blueberries, plums and grapes.

Mike beat me to Proserpina but I hope I can be excused. The Library Edition of Ruskin’s works, edited between 1903 and 1912 by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, numbers 39 volumes, and that doesn't count his multi-voluminous correspondence. Was Mike answering my post on Persephone/Proserpina?

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