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Ruskin & the Language of Nature

[Dr Sara Atwood's 'THE EARTH-VEIL': RUSKIN AND ENVIRONMENT (a lecture given at Brantwood in 2014) is available from our Shop.]

You can read an account of the seminar at which this paper was given on this blog by Belinda Gordon.

'The secret of sympathy’: Ruskin and the Language of Nature
The Guild of St. George and CPRE, London, 14 July, 2016 – Dr. Sara Atwood

I’d like to thank Neil Sinden and the Guild of St George for inviting me to speak at this event and CPRE for their generosity in hosting it. I am honored to have the opportunity to address such an accomplished group of people. Your practical experience and knowledge of environmental issues far outweighs mine and I look forward to what I might learn from you later this afternoon during discussion. While my scope has been more limited, my interest in and concern for the natural world is considerable and I have spent a good deal of time these past several years immersing myself in the ongoing debates about nature, reading extensively and writing about them, and asking my students to engage with the important questions they raise. I have also tried to put ideas into practice on a local level by founding and running a gardening program at my son’s primary school and working with the Center for Earth Leadership of Portland, Oregon to establish an Eco-Schools Network in my new hometown of West Linn, a suburb of Portland. As a Companion of the Guild of St George, I am fortunate to be part of a group of people committed to fostering stewardship, community, and a sustainable rural economy. As a student of Ruskin I have thought a great deal, while doing these things, about the vitality of his ideas about nature and about how much we might learn from him about our essential relationship to the natural world.

Ruskin’s feeling for the natural world was shaped by various influences. His evangelical upbringing taught him to see the Divine in nature, a perception he retained even after he had abandoned the religion of his childhood. His early exposure to Romantic art and literature informed his aesthetic response to the natural world; his study and practice of drawing taught him a different way of seeing it; while his interest in natural science, geology and mineralogy in particular, resulted in practical knowledge of scientific processes and developments. As a result, Ruskin’s ideas about nature reflect the “interwoven temper” (35.56) of his mind, refusing to slot neatly into established categories. He blurs the lines between neat divisions; as Robert Hewison observes, “He could see the Alps as a poet might, or in terms of the geological outlines in Saussure”.[1] In the same way, he could concede the facts of Darwin’s theory, while rejecting the cultural and spiritual implications; embrace both the power of myth and the evidence of physical law; employ the language of emblematic tradition and that of contemporary science. For Ruskin, there was nothing odd about describing clouds as “spherical hollow molecules and pure vapour” (7.138) in one breath and as the Graiae of Greek myth in another.[2]

Resisting a growing tendency toward intellectual compartmentalization, Ruskin understood things in relation rather than isolation. He stood for synthesis against separation, intent on the ways in which all things “bind and blend themselves together” (35.561).  He called this interconnectedness of all things the Law of Help. As his friend Henry Acland wrote in 1893, “The whole nature of Ruskin resists the limited study of Nature which takes a part for the whole, which studies the material structure of Man, forgetting the higher aspirations and properties for which that structure seems to exist on earth—to bring him into communion with the Infinite—and through the Infinite to the love of all things living with man or for him” (qtd. in Works 16.239). For Ruskin, things exist in entanglement, and at the core of these relations is the “keenness of sympathy which we feel in the happiness, real or apparent, of all organic beings” (4.147).

Most essential to Ruskin’s understanding of nature were his powers of close observation; vision is central to Ruskin’s work and sight was for Ruskin an essentially spiritual faculty, connected with wisdom and understanding. Ruskin believed that rightly caring for the natural world depends on seeing it clearly. We become capable of seeing the natural world, he tells us, “in exact proportion to our desire not to kill it; but to watch it in its life” for only “in the degree in which you delight in the life of any creature” can you see it (22.242). Seeing clearly, for Ruskin, means seeing things whole, so as to understand their interrelations and connections. This kind of seeing makes abstraction and separation impossible. Yet at the same time, Ruskin knew that seeing clearly did not mean seeing everything. As C.S. Lewis put it nearly a half-century after Ruskin’s death, “If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see”.[3]

Ruskin’s deep love of nature was nurtured by a childhood spent in a still largely rural corner of London and by visits to the Tayside home of his Scottish relations. But his strongest feelings were aroused by the sort of untamed nature experienced on the family’s many trips throughout Britain and abroad. In Praeterita, Ruskin makes it clear that his “pure childish love of nature” was not simply aesthetic, but elemental, not just a feeling, but a passion. Sketching an aspen in 1845, Ruskin had a sudden vision of its quiddity, which gave him “an insight into a new silvan world,” and transformed the woods from simple wilderness into a revelation of “the bond between the human mind and all visible things” (35.315).

From an early age, Ruskin engaged with the natural world directly and dynamically. He was an accomplished geologist and no mean naturalist. During travels in Great Britain and Europe he walked the countryside—and up and down his beloved Alps. He sketched, collected rocks, and studied the plants and flowers, looking closely at all he saw. He botanized, geologized and studied the weather, making careful records of his observations. He was not merely in the landscape, but of it.

Ruskin was particularly sensitive to the damaging disconnection wrought by industrialism and so-called progress. “Whenever I look or travel in England or abroad,” he wrote in 1860, “I see that men, wherever they can reach, destroy all beauty” (7.423). He railed against the changes he had witnessed in the landscape—encroaching railroads; the extension of cheap and ugly suburbs; the manufacturing waste discharged into streams, rivers, and air; the litter and carelessness of tourists and citizens alike. He vigorously opposed hunting, animal cruelty and vivisection. He spoke against the construction of railways in the Lake District, and the conversion of Thirlmere into a reservoir. He undertook various projects in land and water management and horticulture on the grounds of his home in Coniston and enlisted his Oxford students in a road improvement scheme. He founded the Guild of St. George as an agricultural community whose aim was to live self-sufficiently by cultivating the land and following principles of wise production and consumption. Many of his judgments might be taken for indictments of our own age, and so he has often been labeled a ‘proto-environmentalist.’ Yet he would have hated the clunky term (which didn’t exist in his day) and rejected the label. Ruskin was prescient in many ways, but he ultimately conceives of the natural world differently than do most people today. His primary concern is with the deeper moral and spiritual implications of material existence. Ruskin’s understanding of the natural world and our relationship with it is based on a distinct set of values and expressed in very different language.

Today, I would like to focus on this difference, and to propose that one of the most important, yet least explored, lessons we might learn from Ruskin has to do with the words we use to talk about the natural world. I would argue that part of the problem we face in dealing with environmental challenges is our dependence on the language of science, technology and business. After all, language doesn’t just express our thoughts, it helps to shape them. Language is essential to our understanding of and feeling for nature. We give names to the things we see in nature—after the seeing comes the saying—but at the same time, language also helps us to see nature, so that the saying and the seeing are inextricably linked. Ruskin, who knew better than anyone the importance of seeing clearly, also understood this connection between language and thought. “One of the chief uses, if not the chief use, of the study of letters,” he declared, “is to discern in the language of great nations the central ideas by which they lived” (20.19). The Oxford linguist Max Müller, whom Ruskin knew and admired, pointed out that we build our conceptual framework out of language. Words, Müller wrote, are “embodied thoughts . . . . All our words are conceptual, all our concepts are verbal” (90; 100).[4] Ruskin’s much-criticized rejection of Darwinism turned on what he considered Darwin’s reductive vision of the natural world, expressed in a language of struggle and conquest that seemed to validate nineteenth-century materialism. Similarly, Ruskin knew that the habit of using the word ‘value’ as a purely economic term helped to perpetuate and substantiate a narrow understanding of its meaning.  Persistent usage tends to establish meaning or, what is more often the case, diminish it.

Ruskin urged the importance of accurate, thoughtful language. “I tell you earnestly and authoritatively,” he declared, “(I know I am right in this) that you must get into the habit of looking intensely at words, and assuring yourself of their meaning syllable by syllable—nay, letter by letter” (18.64). Ruskin considered such accuracy essential to education; a well-educated person, he maintained, [has] a precise understanding of language—its etymology, usage, and the “deep vital meaning” (18.64) of words. Pointing to the connection between thought and language, Ruskin enjoined readers to “observe how all this bad English leads instantly to blunder in thought, prolonged indefinitely” (25.429) and noted that “mental defects in language indicate fatal flaws in thought” (34.60).

The natural history texts that Ruskin wrote in the 1870s challenged conventional  conceptions of nature via a shift in vocabulary. Frustrated by the exclusively scientific language of contemporary natural history books and the increasing narrowness of their scope, Ruskin set out, as he explains in his botany book, Proserpina, to make the meanings of flowers’ names and habits “vital and vivid” (25.201) to the understanding of young readers. His use of these two words is important, in that they point to those things that Ruskin valued most—vision and life. As Keith Thomas observes, beginning in the early modern period the old vocabulary of nature had been eroded by scientific advances, so that “in place of a natural world redolent with human analogy and symbolic meaning, and sensitive to man’s behaviour, [naturalists] constructed a detached natural scene to be viewed and studied by the observer from the outside, as if by peering through a window, in the secure knowledge that the objects of contemplation inhabited a separate realm, offering no omens or signs, without human meaning or significance”.[5] In both Proserpina and Love’s Meinie, his book about ornithology, Ruskin looks to the symbolism, history, and relationships of plants and animals – emphasizing their connections with one another and with humans and human life. This is not an exercise in simple nostalgia, but an attempt to use language to reconnect people with things; to reclaim the material world from abstraction and specialization and reinvest it with meaning. As Clive Wilmer has observed, Ruskin “foregrounds [the] ethical and spiritual implications” of words.[6] Ruskin recognizes that the mystery and the emotional power of nature arise from our connection with it. It is we who invest nature with myth, metaphor, and memory—and we who create (or vitiate) the language that might express this web of relations. Ruskin’s assessment of Gothic architecture might be taken to express his thinking about language as well: “It is not enough that it has the Form,” Ruskin declares, “if it have not also the power and the life” (10.183).

Ruskin was “engaged in an urgent dialectic in which life, in its full, imaginative sense, was pitted against a kind of death through spiritual and imaginative poverty” (Davis, “Journeys” 38)—a poverty that, by extension, also afflicted language. In a passage that anticipates Orwell’s analysis of slippery language, Ruskin warned that

words, if they are not watched, will do deadly work sometimes. There are masked words droning and skulking about us in Europe just now,—(there never were so many, owing to the spread of a shallow, blotching, blundering, infectious ―information, or rather deformation, everywhere, and to the teaching of catechisms and phrases at school instead of human meanings)—there are masked words abroad, I say, which nobody understands, but which everybody uses, and most people will also fight for, live for, or even die for, fancying they mean this or that, or the other, of things dear to them . . . . these masked words [are] the unjust stewards of all men‘s ideas: whatever fancy or favourite instinct a man most cherishes, he gives to his favourite masked word to take care of for him; the word at last comes to have an infinite power over him,—you cannot get at him but by its ministry (18.66).

The Industrial Revolution left its mark not only on communities and landscapes, but in our vocabulary, producing new words and meanings derived from economics, science, and business. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 observation that commodification “is the only use of nature which all men apprehend,” (Nature 11) is startlingly prescient. Unsurprisingly, as mechanical and technical words and metaphors proliferated they reinforced a mechanistic outlook, encouraging a conceptual shift that promoted a new and ominous attitude toward the natural world. As Blake observed in 1799, “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way.” Of course, nature has always been a resource for humans; from the first we have lived within it and shaped it to our needs, to varying degrees. But in the increasingly abstract, utilitarian thinking of the nineteenth-century, it came to be seen primarily as a repository of resources, handmaiden to the relentless march of progress. Growing urbanization meant that more and more people inhabited a de-natured environment, cut off from the rhythms of the natural world—a circumstance which encouraged the notion, persistent today, of nature as sanctuary or escape, something apart from our daily experience.[7] At the same time, industry cast nature as merely raw material. It is this ongoing process of conceptual and linguistic objectification that has turned ‘nature,’ a word that carries complex, layered meanings, into ‘the environment,’ which denotes science and system. Ruskin cites a kind of perverse syllogism expressed by the chemist Baron Liebig: “‘Civilisation’ says the Baron, ‘is the economy of power, and English power is coal’” (18.485). Civilisation, Ruskin counters, is “the making of civil persons” (18.485), a process dependent upon reverence for the natural world and a right understanding of our place in it. Notice that it is the Baron’s definition, rather than Ruskin’s, that sounds familiar to modern ears. 150 years on the instrumental attitude toward nature has become deeply engrained in our culture and institutions—and in our language.

The English language, transformed by the Industrial Revolution, became an engine which drove it forward and affirmed its ideals (Bragg 228).[8] Owen Barfield, tracing ‘History in English Words,’ observed that “Nineteenth-century science . . . deduced the inner from the outer; it had mapped and charted the mechanical part of Nature to a tenth of a millimeter, but it was wellnigh bankrupt as far as the inner world was concerned” (194). Huxley, for instance, describes nature as a “materialized logical process” and the pleasures to be derived from the natural world as “superfluities; bits of good which are to all appearances unnecessary as inducements to live”.[9] Ruskin knew that this kind of detached, sterile language tends to deaden the sympathy and affection necessary for a meaningful relationship to the natural world. “To teach the meaning of a word thoroughly,” he says, “is to teach the nature of the spirit that coined it; the secret of language is the secret of sympathy” (20.75). For example, he goes on to say, “when we are told that the leaves of a plant are occupied in decomposing carbonic acid, and preparing oxygen for us, we begin to look upon it with some such indifference as upon a gasometer. It has become a machine; some of our sense of its happiness is gone; its emanation of inherent life is no longer pure” (2.153).

Ruskin asserted the inability of man ever fully to understand the natural world; the mystery of life, for all our scientific knowledge, will remain “inviolable, inscrutable, and, so far as we know, eternal” (22.246). Describing Turner’s pictures in Modern Painters I, Ruskin exclaims “Now this is nature! It is exhaustless living energy with which the universe is filled” (3.383). Elsewhere he describes what he called the “earth-veil”:

The earth in its depths [he tells us] must remain dead and cold, incapable except of slow crystalline change; but at its surface, which human beings look upon and deal with, it ministers to them through a veil of strange intermediate being: which breathes, but has no voice; moves, but cannot leave its appointed place; passes through life without consciousness, to death without bitterness; wears the beauty of youth, without its passion; and declines to the weakness of age, without its regret. And in this mystery of intermediate being, entirely subordinate to us, with which we can deal as we choose . . . most of the pleasures which we need from the external world are gathered, and most of the lessons we need are written, all kinds of precious grace and teaching being united in this link between the Earth and Man (7.14-15).

Ruskin is concerned, above all, with integrating into life a deep and multifaceted way of understanding and engaging with the world. His language is not intended to sentimentalize nature. In fact, he criticized the sort of sweetness and light view of nature that resulted in a false sense of its benevolence. For him, mountain glory was ever balanced by mountain gloom, and fair and foul mingled in nature as in human life—because they are not separate but interdependent, halves of the same whole. Ruskin assures us that even minerals are not inert, but in their combination with oxygen—the “breath of life”— are instead “metals with breath put into them,” possessing “a kind of soul” (16.37-78). They are intimately connected to human life. “Things are not either wholly alive, or wholly dead,” he declares in The Ethics of the Dust, “They are more or less alive” (18.346).

Listen closely to Ruskin’s language. Today we have, as a culture, all but lost the language with which to speak of the natural world in Ruskin’s terms. There exist individuals and groups who speak it eloquently—many of them represented in our audience today—but it is not the common tongue and struggles to make headway against the dominant corporate-scientific language. The vocabulary of environmentalism itself increasingly conveys a narrowly scientific view of the natural world; we talk, abstractly and objectively, about ecosystems, sustainability, natural capital, and carbon footprints, avoiding words with uncomfortable emotional or spiritual associations—reverence, mystery, affection, compassion (one journalist dismissively calls this sort of language “weird, pseudo-Deism”.)[10] As the American writer Curtis White points out, we have adopted “the language of ‘system’ (nature as a kind of complicated machine)”.[11] This is a rationalist rhetoric, shaped by the logic of science and reason, which looks to science and reason for answers. Today, Ruskin’s passion for the natural world would likely be described as ‘biophilia,’ the result of biologically evolved preferences—a term that itself indicates the distance between our conception of man’s relation to nature and Ruskin’s.

This is not to say that understanding ecosystems and carbon footprints is unimportant—clearly it is necessary to grasp the scientific facts, particularly when devising environmental policy. But the language of science and policy is too often alienating, made up of worn out metaphors and potted phrases drained of meaning through overuse. Most people, I suspect, simply tune it out. ‘Global warming’ and ‘climate change’ exist for many as largely empty phrases rather than real and critical problems. I often hear ‘global warming’ used, with a ‘wink, wink-nudge, nudge,’ as shorthand for almost any sort of unexpected weather pattern. What’s more, the language of science and policy has been wedded to that of economics, giving birth to all sorts of masked words. Ruskin, who famously declared that “There is no wealth but life” warned about the corruptive result of mixing markets and morals, currency with the common good. “You must forget your money, and every other material interest,” he insisted “. . . or the very good which you try to bestow will become venomous, and that and your money will be lost together” (18.502). We feel very differently about commodities than we do about our common wealth, those essential ‘goods’ usually considered priceless—family life, community, nature, education, and so on. When our very language promotes an economic view of the natural world, our proper relationship with it is corrupted. Such language doesn’t just express our market-centered worldview, it perpetuates it, language conditioning practice. Reduce a tree to little more than a gasometer, or board feet of profit, and you’ve severed the delicate, vital threads of myth, metaphor, and memory that make nature more to us than raw matter (Schama).[12] Speak of the tree in human terms—remember Ruskin’s aspen—and you’ve woven those threads into a deeply meaningful pattern that tells us something about the world and our place in it. If I talk to my students about deforestation, they listen with weary dutifulness, familiar to the point of boredom with the story of environmental destruction. They know how to deploy the grammar of environmentalism and can write efficient, workmanlike essays about air pollution, ocean acidification, and habitat loss. They are fluent in the language of system, which is now spoken in our schools as well. Yet if I ask them to write about their favorite tree, they reach for the language of sympathy—describing trees they’ve climbed or picnicked under; the tree that stood on grandmother’s lawn or outside their bedroom window, the beloved tree felled by a storm, or by the developer’s excavator. The impulse to find human meaning in nature persists, but will fade without encouragement. As Robert Macfarlane observes, what we are losing is “a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place” (4).[13] At the same time, in reviving this sort of word magic, we must guard against cliché—what writer Ian Frazier has called the “magnificent outdoor cathedral” reflex—or smug coterie speech.

We apprehend the general by way of the particular and arrive at an apprehension of the whole by way of its parts. Ruskin’s aspen revealed his connection to the natural world in a way no botanical treatise could have done. This is not to devalue science, but to acknowledge its limits. Care and stewardship are not fostered, though they may be compelled, by economic incentive, legislation, or scientific reports, but by appealing to the imagination, sympathy and affection. Ultimately, it is these capacities that we must look to when confronting environmental challenges. Ruskin maintained that “all the power of nature depends on subjection to the human soul” (7.262), not on subjection to science, politics and technology. In fact, these disciplines are potentially damaging unless driven by the motive power of soul. Ruskin emphasizes our responsibility to the rest of creation, urging us to stand in “due relation to other creatures, and to inanimate things—know them all and love them” and pointing to the ruinous consequences of focusing narrowly on ourselves. “All the diseases of mind leading to fatalest ruin consist primarily in this isolation [Ruskin says]. They are the concentration of man upon himself” (7.263-4).

Even without the threat of climate change and myriad examples of environmental damage, it would be beneficial to learn to talk about nature in human terms, with sympathy and affection. As Fiona Reynolds argues in her powerful new book, such language “is capable of lifting our spirits and touching emotions that lie deeper and are more meaningful to us than almost anything else in life” (xi).[14] Her words, consciously or not, recall Ruskin’s defense of feeling. “Passion, or ‘sensation,’” he declared, “I am not afraid of the word; still less of the thing. You have heard many outcries against sensation lately; but, I can tell you, it is not less sensation we want, but more. The ennobling difference between one man and another,—between one animal and another,—is precisely in this, that one feels more than another . . . . we are only human in so far as we are sensitive, and our honour is precisely in proportion to our passion” (18.78-9).

Given the many threats to nature, it is vitally important that we find the words with which to stir these deep emotions and associations, for they are ultimately our best hope for creating transformative change. The modern environmental movement has been fighting the widespread and aggressive destruction of nature for decades. There have been both important successes and grave losses. Yet despite the movement’s diverse influence and the many thousands of nature and environmental groups that exist throughout the world, environmental devastation continues, because the instrumental worldview that so worried Ruskin has now been normalized. Changing our language will not solve the problem or magically restore nature, but it may allow for the conceptual shift necessary to alter our thinking and, by extension, our behavior. We have need of environmental policy and scientific research, but policy and research grounded in affection rather than calculation is far more likely to encourage wise and thoughtful practice. As Ruskin wrote in 1846: “There is now uttered to us a call for sympathy, now offered to us an image of moral purpose and achievement, which . . . cannot be heard without affection, not contemplated without worship, by any of us whose heart is rightly tuned, or whose mind is clearly and surely sighted” (4.147). That call is being uttered again today, but we will need to speak and understand the language of sympathy in order to answer it.



[1] Robert Hewison, The Argument of the Eye. (London: Thames & Hudson, 1976), p. 20.

[2] John Ruskin, The Works of John Ruskin (Library Edition), 39 vols., ed. E.T. Cook & Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1903-1912). Subsequent references are to this edition.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 81.

[4] Three Lectures on the Science of Language and Its Place in General Education. Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1890.

[5] Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (London: Allen Lane, 1983), 89.

[6] Wilmer, “Ruskin’s Language: How a Victorian Prophet Uses Words.” Ruskin Art Club, September 2015.

[7] Consider this sentence, from Wallace Stegner’s 1960 “Wilderness Letter,” which reveals a tension between the Ruskinian and modern understanding of the natural world: “. . . never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.” The adjectives Stegner uses in the first part of the sentence—single, separate, vertical, individual—are at odds with his subsequent evocation of connection and fellowship. Stegner’s letter, important and impressive as it is, nonetheless envisions wilderness as other; his “wilderness idea” is a treatment for modern angst. That preservationists invoke both the need to protect wilderness from man and simultaneously save it for him constitutes an interesting paradox. For the text of Stegner’s “Wilderness Letter” see

[8] Melvyn Bragg, The Adventure of English (Arcade Publishing, 2003).

[9] From Huxley, “The Struggle for Human Existence” in Broadview Anthology of Victorian Prose 1832-1901, edited by Mary Elizabeth Leighton, Lisa Surridge, 480

[10] Maggie Koerth-Baker, “The real problem with Curtis White’s The Science Delusion,” June 20, 2013.

[11] Curtis White, “The Idols of Environmentalism.” Orion (March/April 2007), 19.

[12] Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, 1995.

[13] Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton, 2015).

[14] The Fight for Beauty (Oneworld, 2016).

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