by Ted Currie
"Another effect, in troubled later years especially, was noticeable; its dwarfing effect on the events, whatever they might be, of daily life. So intense, so flooding, was the elation of joy nature brought, that after such moments even the gravest world matters, as well as the people concerned in these, seemed trivial and insignificant. Nature introduced a vaster scale of perspective against which a truer proportion appeared. There lay in the experience some cosmic touch of glory that, by contrast, left all else commonplace and unimportant. The great gods of wind and fire and earth and water swept by on flaming stars, and the ordinary life of the little planet seemed very small, man with his tiny passions and few years of struggle and vain longings, almost futile. One's own troubles, seen in this new perspective, disappeared, while at the same time, the heart filled with an immense understanding love and charity towards all the world - which, alas soon disappeared."
It can be stated with bluntness, that British writer, Algernon Blackwood, never anticipated, as a young man with typical dreams of success, questing awkwardly for a meaningful and profitable profession, that he would one day, make a lasting impression on the world of literature, as an author horror stories. It wasn't that he wasn't competent as a writer, because his work in the daily newspaper grind, in 1890's New York, showed clearly, his capabilities as a crime-beat reporter. As it turned out, handling the often gut-wrenching news stories, of murder and general mayhem, in the bowels of the old city, the grunt work in the field of filling a daily paper with readable editorial copy, and having to meet strict deadlines, worked to his benefit in later years as an author of copious books. He had endured what he described as a horror-filled routine of living, on a miserable wage, in a terribly inadequate rooming house, having very little money left each week to purchase food. It was his unyielding devotion to nature, and his frequent escapes to hinterland areas, within the city, where he built small campfires, ate modest picnic lunches, and slept out under the stars, that kept him sane; there always being a reason to endure more suffering knowing there would be a respite coming, that would serve to restore his faith in the possibilities of the future.
The opening passage was written by Algernon Blackwood in his 1923 biography, "Episodes Before Thirty," published as a first edition by Cassell and Company.
The author noted that, "It is difficult to put into intelligible, convincing words the irresistible character of this nature-spell that invades heart and brain like a drenching sea, and produces a sense of rapture, of ecstasy, compared to which the highest conceivable worldly joy becomes merely insipid. Heat from this magical source was always more or less present in my mind from a very early age, though, of course, no attempt to analyze or explain it was then possible; but, in bitter years to come, the joy and comfort nature gave became a real and only solace. When possession was at its full height, the ordinary world, and my particular little troubles with it, fell away like so much dust; the whole fabric of men and women, commerce and politics, even the destinies of nations, became a passing show of shadows, while the visible and tangible world showed itself as but a temporary and limited representation of a real world elsewhere, whose threshold I had for a moment touched.
"Others, of course, have known similar experiences, but, being better equipped, have understood how to correlate them to ordinary life," wrote Blackwood. "Richard Jefferies explained them. Whitman tasted expansion of consciousness in many ways; Fechner made a grandiose system of them; Edward Carpenter deliberately welcomed them; Jacob Boehme, Plotinus, and many others have tried to fix nature and essence in terms, respectively, of religion and philosophy; and William James has reviewed them with an insight as though he had had experienced them himself. Whatever their value, they remain authentic, the sense of oneness of life their common denominator, a conviction of consciousness pervading all forms everywhere their inseparable characteristic."
Recalling his youth, and exposure to compelling landscapes, Blackwood writes, "If Kentish gardens saw the birth of this delight, the Black Forest offered further opportunities for its enjoyment, and a year in a village of the Swiss Jura Mountains to learn French - I often wandered all night in the big pine forests without my tutor, a bee-keeping pasteur, at Bole, near Neuchatel, discovering my absence - intensified it. Without it something starved in me. It was a persistent craving, often a wasting nostalgia, that cried for satisfaction as the whole body cries for covering when cold, and nature provided a companionship, a joy, a bliss, that no human intercourse has ever approached, much less equalled. It remains the keenest, deepest sensation, of its kind I have known."
In his early experiences with failed business ventures in Ontario, he wrote of nature as his one true, honest and compassionate confidant. "Here, in Toronto, opportunities multiplied, and just when they were needed: in times of difficulty and trouble the call of nature became paramount; during the vicissitudes of dairy and hotel the wild hinterland behind the town, with its lakes and forests, were a haven often sought. Among my friends were many, of course, who enjoyed a day in the country, but one man only who understood a little the feelings I have tried to describe, even if he did not wholly share them. This was Aldon Haultain, a married man, tied to an office all day long, private secretary to Goldwin Smith (whose life, I think, he subsequently wrote), and editor of a weekly periodical called 'The Week'. He was my senior by many years. At three in the morning, sometimes, he would call me at the dairy in College Street, and we would tramp out miles to enjoy the magic sunrise in a wood north of the city. And such an effort was only possible to a soul to whom it was a necessity. The intensity of early dreams and aspirations, what energy lies in them?"
"At length the bitter, sparkling winter was over, the sleigh-bells silent, the covered skating-rinks all closed. The last remnants of the piled-up snow had melted, and the sweet spring winds were blowing freshly down the cedar-paved streets. On the lake shores boats were being repainted. Tents and camping kit were being overhauled. The talk everywhere was of picnics, expeditions, trips into the backwoods, and plans for summer holidays. Crystal sunlight flooded the world. The Canadian spring intoxicated the brain and sent the blood dancing to wild, happy measures."
Blackwood adds to his story that "The Hub (Toronto hotel) was now in the hands of a Receiver; Adams and Burns, the wholesale house, controlled it. Kay (his former business partner) and I had to pay cash for everything - the Hub Wine Company was 'bust'." "It was a hectic last week. Our friends came in crowds to sympathize, to offer advice, to suggest new plans, and all considered a liquid farewell necessary. The etiquette was strict. A private word with the Receiver brought us back our tea bottle. The Upper House did a fair business again, while Louis B. bursting with new schemes, new enterprises, that should restore our fortunes, was forever at the piano in the upstairs room. We played together while our little Rome was burning - Tchaikowsky, Chopin, Wagner, and the latest songs with choruses. Kay donned his Irving wig from time to time and roared his 'Bells,' and 'Suicide'. Our last days rattled by."
There was a more promising adventure ahead, and it involved a five month retreat to the north country. Join us next month as Algernon Blackwood is introduced to what would later become Wistowe Island, on Muskoka's picturesque Lake Rosseau, circa 1892.