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Old Sunlight Post by :pkahan Category :Essays Author :Henry Major Tomlinson Date :October 2011 Read :2082

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Old Sunlight

APRIL 5, 1919. I find the first signs of this spring, now the War is over, almost unbelievable. I have watched this advent with astonishment, as though it were a phantom. The feeling is the same as when waking from an ugly dream, and seeing in doubt the familiar objects in a morning light. They seem steadfast. Are they real, or is the dream? The morning works slowly through the mind to take the place of the night. Its brightness and tranquillity do not seem right. And is it not surprising to find the spring has come again to this world? The almond tree might be an untimely, thoughtless, and happy stranger. What does it want with us? That spiritual and tinted fire with which its life burns touches and kindles no responsive and volatile essence in us. I passed a hedge-bank which looked south and was reviving. There were crumbs and nuggets of chalk in it, and they were as remarkable to me this year as though I had once seen those flecks of white showing through the herbage of another planet. That crumbling earth with the grey matting of old grass was as warm to the touch as though some inner virtue had grown, all unsuspected by us, in the heart of this glacial ball. I picked up a lump of chalk with its cold greenish shadows, and powdered it in my fingers, wondering why it looked so suddenly bright. It confirmed my existence. Its smell was better than any news I have heard of late.

I saw suddenly the gleaming coast of a continent of dark cloud, and the blue ocean into which it jutted its headlands; memory had suddenly returned. At that moment the sun touched my hand. All this was what we used to know in a previous life. When I got home I took down Selborne. Two photographs fell out of it, and when I picked them up--they were those of a young amateur and were yellow with age--spring really began to penetrate the bark. But it was not the spring of this year.

How often, like another tortoise, has the mind come out of its winter to sun itself in the new warmth of a long-gone Selborne April? Did Gilbert White imagine he was bequeathing light to us? Of course not. He lived quietly in the obscure place where he was born, and did not try to improve or influence anybody. It seems he had no wish to be a great leader, or a great thinker, or a great orator. The example of Chatham did not fire him. He was friendly with his neighbours, but went about his business. When he died there did not appear to be any reason whatever to keep him in memory. He had harmed no man. He left us without having improved gunpowder. Could a man have done less?

Think of the events which were stirring men while he was noting the coming and going of swallows. While he lived, Clive began the conquest of India, and Canada was taken from the French. White heard the news that our American colonists had turned Bolshevik because of the traditional skill of the administrators of other people's affairs at Whitehall. The world appears to have been as full then of important uproar as it is to-day. I suppose the younger Pitt, "the youngest man ever appointed Prime Minister," had never heard of White. But Gilbert does not seem to have heard of him; nor of Hargreaves' spinning jenny, nor of the inventor of the steam engine. "But I can show you some specimens of my new mice," he remarks on March 30, 1768. That was the year in which the great Pitt resigned. His new mice!

Yet for all the stirring affairs and inventions of his exciting time, with war making and breaking empires, and the foundations of this country's wealth and power being nobly laid, it would not be easy to show that we to-day are any the happier. Our own War was inherent in the inventions of mechanical cotton-spinning and the steam-engine--the need to compel foreign markets to buy the goods we made beyond our own needs. We know now what were the seeds the active and clever fellows of Gilbert's day were sowing for us. We were present at the harvesting. Why did not those august people, absorbed in the momentous deeds which have made history so sonorous, the powder shaking out of their wigs with the awful gravity of their labours (while all the world wondered), just stop doing such consequential things, and accept Gilbert's invitation to go and listen to him about those new mice? The mice might have saved us, and the opportunity was lost.

Looking back at those times, of all the thunderous events which then loosened excited tongues, caused by high-minded men of action expertly conjuring crisis after crisis while their docile followers scrambled out of one sublime trouble into another, heated and exhausted, but still gaping with obedience and respect, we can see that nothing remains but the burial parties, whose work is yet uncompleted in France. What good does persist out of those days is the light in which Gilbert's tortoise sunned itself. It is a light which has not gone out. And it makes us wonder, not how much of our work in these years will survive to win the gratitude of those who will follow us, but just what it is they will be grateful for. Where is it, and what happy man is doing it? And what are we thinking of him? Do we even know his name?

(The end)
Henry Major Tomlinson's essay: Old Sunlight

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