Henry Beston on Happiness, Simplicity, and the Sacredness of Smallness
“The emotions have … their own sense of scale. In the emotional world a small thing can touch the heart and the imagination every bit as much as something impressively gigantic.”
By Maria Popova
Partway between Thoreau and Wendell Berry, Henry Beston (June 1, 1888–April 15, 1968) endures as a rare poet laureate of nature. Long before Annie Dillard came to write so beguilingly about the richness of pennies, even before E.F. Schumacher penned his memorable manifesto for the glory of smallness, Beston wrote beautifully about happiness, simplicity, and the sacredness of smallness in Northern Farm (public library) — the wondrous 1948 gem that gave us Beston on whimsicality and the limits of knowledge and his increasingly timely clarion call for reclaiming our humanity from the tyranny of technology.
When this twentieth century of ours became obsessed with a passion for mere size, what was lost sight of was the ancient wisdom that the emotions have their own standards of judgment and their own sense of scale. In the emotional world a small thing can touch the heart and the imagination every bit as much as something impressively gigantic; a fine phrase is as good as an epic, and a small brook in the quiet of a wood can have its say with a voice more profound than the thunder of any cataract. Who would live happily in the country must be wisely prepared to take great pleasure in little things.
Country living is a pageant of Nature and the year; it can no more stay fixed than a movement in music, and as the seasons pass, they enrich life far more with little things than with great, with remembered moments rather than the slower hours. A gold and scarlet leaf floating solitary on the clear, black water of the morning rain barrel can catch the emotion of a whole season, and chimney smoke blowing across the winter moon can be a symbol of all that is mysterious in human life.
Northern Farm is an immeasurably luminous read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with philosopher Martha Nussbaum on the intelligence of the emotions, then revisit Beston on how the beauty of darkness nourishes the human spirit.
Published July 26, 2016