Coleridge once wrote in a letter to his friend, Thomas Poole, 'Those who have been led to the same truths step by step thro' the constant testimony of their senses, seem to me to want a sense which I possess - They contemplate nothing but parts - and all parts are necessarily little - and the Universe to them is but a mass of little things.'
Connection. It’s what it’s all about. It’s why I run.
I was running in Devon last year when something struck me. It had been raining for a solid fortnight and I had hardly run. I was still a little tired from the marathon so the break was a welcome one.
|A Devon field, so warm it felt like it was breathing.|
I was in Great Torrington, an old Cavalier town. The pavements were glassy with rain and then the sun came out, and so did I. As an old fortress town, Great Torrington is high up on a hill, so the beginning of any run is easy, quick and light (although I am fully aware of what will happen when my circle is complete and I will have to clamber back up the ramparts). Nearby, there is a disused railway - one of the many casualties of the demon Dr Beeching’s cuts in the 60s. Now, the area is overgrown. There is a narrow concrete path, but it is being besieged by the life of the embankments on both sides. The maze of green is made of wild clematis, euphorbia, and hundreds of different grasses of such varied air. Ferns, swaying elder, wild strawberries, clambering roses, and fingers of pollarded hazels all roll back to disappear into the darkness of a forest. The ground cover and the spears of grass pointing skyward look crosshatched. The River Torridge is in torrent from all the rain, making thick silken curls of muddy caramel by its banks. Darting goldfinches and copper-blue dragonflies zip to and from my vision. I keep my shoes on because it is impossible to see what lies beneath the surface of the squelching earth. And there is something very strange about the heat. As I run past one of the low-lying fields it pulsates warmth. Like it is exhaling a long hot breath in the sunshine, the heat comes and it goes. After the rains, the land is alive, the lilac bells of foxglove grow like hooks out of the hillside to catch the sunshine that they’ve not seen for weeks. And the thought hits me: it is not profound. This is why I love late Monet. He does this. He ‘gets’ this.
John Fowles, in his wonderful paean to The Tree, explained why he so despised Linnaeus. He thought that the system of classification took a chisel to the world and divided it (there is a wonderful Borges skit about taxonomy, too). He thought that damage was done to nature in the act of naming, of separating things from one another, and failing to see the tender skeins of connection that lie between.
Hardy explains in The Woodlanders “In her present beholder's mind the scene formed by the girlish spar-maker composed itself into a post-Raffaelite picture of extremest quality, wherein the girl's hair alone, as the focus of observation, was depicted with intensity and distinctness, and her face, shoulders, hands, and figure in general, being a blurred mass of unimportant detail lost in haze and obscurity.” Hardy here is trying to achieve the same effect: one of impressionism. Unlike John Everett Millais’ Ophelia where every blade of grass is lovingly recorded, Monet and Hardy are interested in the links between the things. Look again at the Millais painting and you will see that although Ophelia first appears to be in nature, not a single leaf of grass or flower is touching her - she is quite separate from her surroundings. Monet’s late work was a response to this form of representation - unlike Canaletto who wished to the world atomistically, Monet bounds headlong at the canvas to record its connections because nature itself is sublime, and unrecordable. In a diary entry Hardy recorded this: 'Nature', he wrote in December 1885, 'is an arch-dissembler... nothing is as it appears.'
How can it be? There is only ever impression and connection. It’s why I run.