A Chaos of Delight: Darwin on the Sublimity and Transcendence of Nature

“No one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.”

A Chaos of Delight: Darwin on the Sublimity and Transcendence of Nature

Something about time with ancient trees and shimmering waters, time under star-salted skies and by sunlit horizons, takes us as far beyond ourselves as we can go in this world and at the same time returns us to ourselves clarified, magnified, more awake to the native poetry of reality between the bookends of life and death — perhaps because time in nature resets the brain’s Default Mode Network that ordinarily trammels our thinking, or perhaps simply because we are nature and it is amid the rest of the natural world that we most openly commune with ourselves, with the “cosmic consciousness” of which ours is but a fractal and contact with which is our readiest portal to transcendence. Rachel Carson saw this in her vision of the meaning of life as a rising tide, and Emily Dickinson understood this in her view of the web of existence in one flower.

Dickinson’s peak powers were at their highest a century prior to Carson Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) captured his universal awareness in some uncommonly poetic passages from his memoir A Naturalist’s Voyage Round the World (public library | free ebook), published a year after The Origin of SpeciesThe radicalization of human comprehension and belonging to the natural world.

Charles Darwin during his last years. Julia Margaret Cameron, a pioneering photographer.

Darwin writes:

I am deeply influenced by these scenes. They include the untrodden primeval forests, whether they are from Brazil where the power of Life is dominant or Tierra del Fuego where death and devastation reign. Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature: — no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.

A true scientist is humble in his approach to science. He refuses to be a prophet as great minds often are inclined to, but instead adopts the role of poet. This shares the same art as wonder with scientists:

Although I am unable to fully understand these emotions, it may partly be due to the unlimited scope of the imagination. Patagonia’s plains are unreachable. They are difficult to pass and therefore unknown. However, they have the mark of being enduring for centuries and will continue to do so into the future. If, as the ancients supposed, the flat earth was surrounded by an impassable breadth of water, or by deserts heated to an intolerable excess, who would not look at these last boundaries to man’s knowledge with deep but ill-defined sensations?

“View of Nature in Ascending Regions” by Levi Walter Yaggy from Geographical Portfolio, 1893. This print is also available as stationery card and a paper version.

The young Darwin, half a life earlier and in the middle his own voyage, had found the answer to this open question. He captured it in his journal. Two weeks after his thirty-third birthday, while reading Humboldt — who had invented nature as we now understand it a generation earlier and whose “rare union of poetry with science” Darwin thought “will for ever be unparalleled,” even as he himself came to surpass it: the mark of genuine humility — he writes:

It is hard to comprehend the delight that one can experience in these times. The eye is distracted by a strange fruit or tree, if it tries to follow a flight of gaudy butterflies, then it becomes disoriented. If an insect is being watched, one loses sight of it under a stranger flower. Or, if one looks at the beautiful scenery and notices the character of the background. It is an explosion of joy in the mind.

Couple with Darwin’s deathbed reflection on what makes life worth living, then revisit his contemporaries Florence Nightingale on the healing power of nature and beauty, Mary Shelley on the transcendence of mountains, and Nathaniel Hawthorne on how to look at nature and truly see.

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