Nature Study With Milosz

I remember my first encounters with particular birds. For example, the golden oriole seemed like an absolute miracle to me, with its unity of color and its flute like voice. And it was precisely birds, it seems, that I looked for in nature books as soon as I learned to read – books that would soon become my cult objects.

from Milosz’s ABC

Well, my great hero was Linnaeus; I loved the idea that he had invented a system for naming creatures, that he had captured nature that way. My wonder at nature was in large part a fascination with names and naming. . . Eventually I turned away from Darwinism because of its cruelty, though at first I embraced it. Nature is much more beautiful in painting, in my opinion.

– Milosz, Paris Review Interview 

In keeping a nature journal, we do both: naming and painting (or drawing). Through the mediation of painting, we have a deeper encounter with beauty. Through the identification by name of the things we see around us, we begin to perceive and intuit order within the jumble that meets our senses. The nature journal may be essentially more poetic than scientific. But Milosz implies in one of his interviews that poetic truth is a higher good than the knowledge aimed at by modern science.

In a 1991 poem, Milosz pays tribute to Linneaus, who rejoices to pick up the task of naming the creatures where Adam left off. Milosz sees this work of naming as a great accomplishment of the human race: a liberal art. He associates the classification of natural phenomena with the singing of Psalms: “How manifold are thy works, O Jehovah!”

In the poem, Milosz invokes clavecin and violin, Latin hexameter. Nature paintings, atlases, like colorful lexicons give us a “language of marvel.” The world manifested in nature paintings is deeply related here to the worlds of music, poetry, the Classical languages.

In particular to Latin. If Latin is the eternal language of the Church, it is also the language in which the creatures find their official Adam-bestowed names. When we make our own nature sketches, we engage in a spiritual exercise: doing for ourselves, as we must, what greater than us have done far better. Our souls grow, with a combination of humility and audacity. When we make our nature sketches, it might be fruitful to label them with both their local, vernacular name and their full multi-part Latin title of nobility. These old names. . . are like prayers.

– Mrs. Aldertree

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