A Short Meditation for Ruskin's Birthday, 2021

Ruskin mineral Chalcedony on quartz
Chalcedony on quartz, from Ruskin's collection*

By Howard Hull

During the Ruskin bicentenary in 2019 I was invited to deliver a wide range of lectures about Ruskin. Although the audiences and contexts were very different, I soon found that they had a common theme, namely the perception of an impending storm – both in Ruskin’s time and our own. I chose, as Ruskin did, to adopt a meteorological metaphor for the advancing catastrophe with which the air felt charged, imagining it, with limited prophetic powers at my command, to presage the disaggregation of social order and moral values which threatens in every epoch to overtake the cohesive forces that hold us together. The storm was a metaphor, certainly, but not just a metaphor. It was also very real in meteorological terms, both for Ruskin, and for us today. Exiting 2019 and entering the 2020’s, global climate change was – and is – pre-eminent among the threats to humanity. But on February 6, 2020, as I stood by the exit door ready to disembark at South Bend Airport, an announcement held us in check. The aircraft door opened and two heavily masked Law Enforcement officers and a World Health Organization representative told us to stand back while a member of the cabin crew was summoned, masked and led away. It was my first inkling of the very real Storm Cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic that was soon to engulf us.

In my lecture at the Ruskin birthday conference at Notre Dame I made no reference to COVID-19 because it was not even a word we had heard of at the time. Seeing my talk as a summing of the many I had given in the preceding year, I chose to explore the relations of Ruskin’s fragile mental health and his perceptions of sickness in the natural world with Brantwood, Ruskin’s home, as a place of natural healing in a world of pain. When, on my return to England, I sat down with the staff at Brantwood to decide our strategy in the face of the developing disaster I knew that our role, indeed Ruskin’s place, in these times would be a healing one. In the year that has followed, in so far as we have been able to operate, that has been our mission, but most of all it is our forthcoming challenge. The pandemic asks more of us than we have been willing in any of our lifetimes to ask of ourselves. For those of us to whom scholarship is important and to those for whom Ruskin has value, the pandemic requires of us the targeting of things of vital worth – vital, life-giving worth. Ruskin can all too easily become an absorbing journey in the labyrinth, scholarship of him too easily an indulgence.

Brantwood has been largely closed by restrictions of one sort or another for much of the intervening year, but like a chrysalis metamorphosing under-ground, we have been rethinking and reshaping ourselves. When we re-open we will also be opening a new Environment Centre, aimed at presenting Ruskin’s reading of nature and our relationship to it, with an emphasis on our environmental responsibilities. It is the start of a journey.

By way of preparation, the gardens and wooded hills that Ruskin landscaped have been open to the public whenever our laws have allowed. A special display has also been open. In 2019 we acquired Ruskin’s personal geological collection, comprising over 2,000 minerals. To display it we created a permanent exhibition in an outbuilding, now called the Treasury. It was due to open on March 20, 2020, the day Britain went into lockdown. Eventually we were able to open it to small visitor numbers over the summer, but the bulk of the collection has remained in its cabinets in Ruskin’s study. For many months, therefore, I have had solitary access to this wonderful mineralogical treasure trove, sitting in the room in which Ruskin studied it. The privilege does not stop there because I have been able to sit of an evening with the minerals and Ruskin’s manuscript catalogues and his writings about geology in Deucalion. And think.

Geology, above all, asked Ruskin questions, and I found myself being asked questions. Different ones from Ruskin, for sure, but searching questions nonetheless. Ruskin had a particular fascination for agates and for crystals with intrusions, he liked to explore minutely the internal motions of a mineral that were revealed in its markings, its transparencies, its interactions of different forms, colours and structure. He seems to have been intent upon understanding the inner workings of stones as a mix of minerals continually forming and reforming, on different pathways and timescales. The building blocks of life in flux.

It has always puzzled me that Ruskin, who had such a keen appreciation of the life of things should have been at his surest studying rocks, what we tellingly call inanimate things. As a young boy, although I shared every child’s interest in crystals, I found fossils more interesting, and as I have grown up, I have been more inspired by the flora and fauna of the earth than its geology. Initially, although I could gaze in wonder at the beauty of Ruskin’s collection, I found it only went so far for me. I needed something living. But as I looked closer and more intently I began to see an extraordinary variety and subtlety, so vast in the smallest mineral, that if I could step outside of my own sense of time the sheer scale and complexity of the earth beneath our feet took on staggering vitality, something so colourful and awesome that Ruskin called it The Iris of the Earth. The world, in such a context, is an animated kaleidoscope of matter that embodies all the possibilities of a seemingly infinite variety. That we can carve it, cut it, crush it and cement it Ruskin knew, but he also saw that it had infinitely more delicate spiritual possibilities. We could and should use our power as magicians of metamorphosis, to cherish the potential of things and enrich the planet with kindness, creativity and generosity. 

In Chapter VII of The Laws of Fesole Ruskin binds the beauty of flowers to the beauty of the earth from which they spring. He places both as guardians of our creativity, giving his students the tools that enable them to move matter in life-offering transformations and to build, in the profoundest sense, something beautiful from the dust. Too many of us, in too many ways, have been reduced to dust this year but Ruskin, himself beaten down by the forces of the storm, reached out and taught us how best to create: with our hearts.

Brantwood, January 20th 2021

* Image kindly provided by Brantwood House, from Ruskin's mineral collection.