An excerpt from
. . . Would you see Nature in all her savage grandeur? Then follow me to her wildest solitudesthe home of the yâk, and the wild deer, the land of the citron, and the orange, the arctic lichen, and the pinewhere, in deep Alpine valley, rivers cradled in gigantic precipices, and fed by icy peaks, either thunder over tempest-shattered rock, or sleep to the music of their own lullabyeven to the far East, amongst the Indian Alps. . . .
It has been said that nothing can be more grand and majestic than the Alps of Switzerland, and that size is a phantom of the brain, an optical illusion, grandeur consisting rather in form than size. As a rule it may be so; but they are 'minute philosophers' who sometimes argue thus. Not that I would disparage the Swiss Alps, which were my first loves, and which, it must be acknowledged, do possess more of picturesque beauty than the greater, vaster mountains of the East; but the stupendous Himalayain their great loneliness and vast magnificence, impossible alike to pen and pencil adequately to portray, their height, and depth, and length, and breadth of snow appealing to the emotionsimpress one as nothing else can, and seem to expand one's very soul.
We were sitting at dinner one evening beneath a punkah in one of the cities of the plains of India, feeling languid and flabby and miserable, the thermometer standing at anything you like to mention, when the 'khansamah' (butler) presented F with a letter, the envelope of which bore the words, 'On Her Majesty's Service'; and on opening it he found himself under orders for two years' service at Darjeeling, one of the lovely settlements in the Himalaya, the 'Abode of Snow'Him, in Sanscrit, signifying 'Snow,' and alaya 'Abode'the Imaus of the ancients.
Were the 'Powers that be' ever so transcendently gracious? Imagine, if you can, what such an announcement conveyed to our minds. Emancipation from the depleting influences of heat almost unbearable, for the bracing and life-giving breezes which blow over regions of eternal ice and snow.
But even in these days it is wonderful to what an extent ignorance prevails about the more unfrequented parts of India; for it is not generally known, except as a mere abstract truth, that in this vast continentassociated as it is in the purely English mind with scorching heat and arid plains, stretching from horizon to horizon, relieved by naught save belts of palm-girt jungle, the habitat of the elephant, the tiger, and the deadly snakeevery variety of climate may be found, from the sultry heat and miasma of the tropical valley, to the temperature of the Poles.
Is not India, indeed, almost exclusively regarded as a land of songless birds arrayed in brightest plumage; of gorgeous butterflies and 'atlas' moths; of cacao-nuts, and dates, and pines more luscious than anything of which the classic Pomona could boast?a land also where snakes sit corkscrew-like at the foot of one's bed, and wild beasts take shelter in one's 'bungalow'; and where her Majesty's liege subjects, whose fate it is to be exiled there, are exposed to the alternate processes of roasting under a tropical sun, and melting beneath a punkah?
To the feminine mind, again, is it not a land of Cashmere shawls'such loves'and fans, and sandalwood boxes, and diaphanous muslins?presents sent over at too infrequent intervals from uncles and cousins, about whom, vegetating in that far-off land, there is always a halo of pleasant mystery, and arriving, redolent of 'cuscus' and spicy odours and a whole bouquet of Indian fragrance, which wafts one away in spirit across the desert and the sunlit ocean to that wonderland in an instant.
A region there is, however, of countless bright oases in these vast plains, where the cuckoo's plaintive note recalls sweet memories of our island home, and mingles with the soft melody of other birds; where the stately oakmonarch of our English woodsspreading its branches, blends them with those of the chestnut, the walnut, and the birch; where in mossy slopes the 'nodding violet blows,' and wild strawberries deck the green bank's side, like rubies set in emerald. I allude of course to the noble snow-capped Himalaya, the loftiest mountains in the world, with whose existence everyone is acquainted, but about which brains even saturated with geographical knowledge are yet as ignorant, so far as their topographical aspect and wondrous hidden beauty are concerned, as they are about the mountains in the moon.
At half-past ten o'clock, peeping forth from my tent, the moon was still shining brilliantly, but clouds that almost appeared to touch me were scurrying past. The snows too were veiled by a semi-transparent mist which half hid them, so that, my ardour somewhat abating, I subsided beneath the canvas, and sat on the foot of my little camp bed reading. At length extinguishing the light, I threw myself down without undressing, and was soon fast asleep, and the moonlight and the snows and my hoped-for picture were alike forgotten. But the evening's impressions must have been strong upon me still, causing my sleep to be uneasy and intermittent, for two hours later I awoke, and a little moonbeam was shining on my bed through a crack in the canvas. This induced me to get up to see how all was looking outside.
Noiselessly untying the flaps which enclosed the entrance, I crept out. The moon was shining so brightly that I could have read the smallest print by its aid, and the snows were positively dazzling. The sky was of that exquisite violet blue, or rather, what I think describes it better, sapphire, which one sees on clear moonlight nights in Italythat land so favoured by heaven with tender beauteous skies.
Now I have no wish to make myself out to be a heroine, being on the contrary the veriest coward; never, entre nous, having yet been able to go into a dark room alone, or pass an open doorway at night, without seeing faces peering at me out of the darkness; but somehow I can go through a great deal for a picture.
It was the thought of a moment; I never dreamt of possibilities. Once more groping my way under the 'kernaughts,' I felt for my block and chalks, which I had prepared in readiness early in the evening, knowing that I could not use colours on this occasion, and throwing a cloak over my shoulders and a fur hood over my head, I sallied forth, closing the aperture as well as I could from the outside, and then pausing, held my breath to listen whether F was stirring; but no! he still breathed heavily. Passing C's tent, I could hear that he too was fast asleep.
I had now to make my way past the camp, under the lee of the rhododendron bushes. The fires still burnt brightly, and the poor tired fellows were lying prostrate around them, wrapped in deepest slumber, their gay-coloured gaberdines paled in the moonlight, except here and there, when a fire, gleaming forth with a sudden flash, lighted up patches of red and amber, which stood out prominently where all else was colourless.
No one observed me, or, if they did, probably mistook me for some erratic member of their own fraternity. Amongst the number I recognised the Herculean form of Hatti, lying with his face upwards, and I could not help thinking, as I passed close to him with stealthy footsteps, how easy it would have been to drive a nail into his head, had I been Jael the wife of Heber, and he Sisera! (1)
I dared not arouse him; to have awakened one, would have been to awaken all. Otherwise I should have done so, as I needed someone to carry my block, which, though no encumbrance to me at present, I knew would be so further on, when I should require both hands free to help myself along.
The ground, which had thawed in the vicinity of the fires, was here thickly coated with frost, which crunched beneath each footfall; yet no one moved. Nor was there even a breath of air stirring, to bear me company as I walked onwards, and it was not long before I found myself starting at my own shadow. The very beauty of the scene made me afraid, it was all so supernatural, so pale, so still, so passionless, so spectral. I grew cowardly, and, stopping short, I felt I could not face it alone. Retracing my steps as far as Fanchyng's sleeping-place on the outskirts of the camp, I stooped till my lips almost touched the covering of the tilt.
"Fanchyng," I whispered"Fanchyng, I want you,come out!"
But there was no answer, though I waited long; she was sleeping too heavily to be awakened by a call so gentle, yet I dare not speak more loudly.
At last, despising myself for my cowardice, I determined to be brave, and go on alone. I was soon under the shelter of the copse, having taken care to enter it by the way which F and I had previously taken together, as a pathway had already been made for me there; whilst the moon shining through the branches afforded quite sufficient light to enable me to trace it by the fallen trees, that had been cut down as we passed early in the evening. I was about halfway through, when something rose at my feet with a whr-r-r, which startled me greatly. I had no doubt flushed a bird, a moonal (hill pheasant), probably. On I went, the thick rhododendron leaves through which I brushed covering me with a shower of hoar frost. Then arriving at the rock I before mentioned, which I climbed on hands and knees, throwing my block before me at every few steps, I succeeded in reaching the top.
What a spectacle now presented itself to my view! In the valley lay a white lake of transparent mist, and rising out of it, the snows, shrouded in unearthly vapour, looked mysterious and ghost-like. To the right, rocky mountains, shattered and riven, appeared like battlements for giant soldiery, whilst to the left were the beetling crags and swelling buttresses of the Singaleelah range. Dotted about the lesser and unsnow-clad mountains, where the moonlight fell, were portions of 'mica schist,' which, sparkling brilliantly, looked like stars fallen to earth. Stars seemed not only twinkling above, but below me, and this glittering 'mica' produced the most extraordinary effect imaginable; whilst the dead pines standing with their trunks blanched, looked like phantom guardians of the whole.
It was altogether such a spectral and unearthly scene, that I realised in an instant how utterly hopeless it would be to attempt to portray it, and simply stood entranced, losing for awhile even my own individuality, feeling that I had almost entered some new world.
I do not know how long I had been standing there, when a sensation came over me as though some one behind were softly enveloping me in a wet sheet. Looking over my shoulder, I found that the rhododendron copse had vanished; the gleam of the many camp-fires was visible no longer, and the rock at my feet, with every other object, was shut out by a white ocean of mist.
My position was by no means a dangerous one. I knew that I had only to remain quietly where I stood, till the cloud had passed over, and all would be well; but my heart beat fast and thick notwithstanding. My limbs were getting numb and frozen, and I knew not how long I could hold out. My first impulse was to call for help; but trying to reason calmly with myself, I saw how futile that would be, for no one could possibly find his way through the copse in the mist, even if he tried, while I should be exposing many to the risk of falling over the ridge into the abyss beneath.
As I reasoned thus with myself, the vapour grew gradually more dense, while the thickest part of the cloud passed over me, and I was surrounded by almost total darkness. A death-like stillness prevailed, the only thing audible being the thumping of my own heart.
Drawing my cloak more closely round me, I struggled to be brave. After a short time the mist became thinner, shining vapour succeeded in darkness, and the moon asserting its supremacy gradually shone out brightly as before, whilst a stratum of vapour which had just arisen from the valley seemed floating beneath my very feet. In stooping to pick up my block, I became conscious of the appearance of a dark shadow or figure opposite; and on standing erect, a phantom of gigantic dimensions was before me. Terribly frightened, my heart this time stopped beating altogether, and a deadly faintness crept over me. I had grown nervous and superstitious. But summoning up all my courage, which rarely forsakes me utterly in times of need, I felt sure it must be only one of those phenomena, which I had heard of as occasionally to be met with in these altitudes.
The moon was shining obliquely behind me, and what I saw might be nothing more than my own shadow, greatly exaggerated, thrown upon the lake of white mist at my feet. Without tarrying to convince myself of the truth or otherwise of this hypothesis, I descended the rock as quickly as I could, and retraced my steps; nor did I stop even to take breath till I reached the tent, when, for an instant pressing my ear to the canvas to ascertain whether F slept, I softly entered.
For one moment only I thought he was waking, as the open 'kernaughts' admitted a flood of light; in addition to which I must, forsooth, catch my foot in the dhurrie, (2) and overturn one of the baggage baskets leaning against the wall of the tent; but he only turned over on the other side, and I could hear by his stertorous breathing that he was sleeping soundly as before.
From the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century, hundreds of British women wrote about and drew from nature. Somelike Beatrix Potter, who wrote natural history about hedgehogs as well as stories about rabbitsare still familiar today. But others have all but disappeared from view. Barbara Gates recovers these lost works in this anthology. Here online are just a few of the riches of In Nature's Name.
To the left is an excerpt from The Indian Alps and How We Crossed Them by Nina Mazuchelli. You may also read a poem by Emily Brontë "High Waving Heather" and a satiric drama "Science in Excelsis: A New Vision of Judgement" by Frances Power Cobbe.
"Gates's splendid new anthology, is packed with treasures and discoveries. Learned, lavishly illustrated and meticulously annotated, the book is bound to appeal to a range of readers, from feminist scholars to historians of science, from students of Romanticism, Victorianism and modernism to lovers of what one of the nineteenth-century authors represented here described as that 'charming beautifier Dame Nature."Sandra M. Gilbert, coeditor of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women
Copyright notice: ©2002 Excerpted from pages 371-77 of In Nature's Name: An Anthology of Women's Writing and Illustration, 1780-1930 edited by Barbara T. Gates, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2002 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of University of Chicago Press.