Nature as Muse: Landscapes that Inspired Literature

I am not an organised writer. I envy those who rise dutifully at seven, sit for the day at a tidy writing desk and by nightfall hold a polished draft in their hands. My process is much more chaotic, scattered and untidy. I strive to begin at a regular hour, but I’m more likely to pour out a sentence or two and then escape to the garden to collect my thoughts for the next one. Pruning the roses, feeding our orphaned calves, walking laps of the paddocks with the dogs – these are all acts of writing to me. By nightfall, long after sleep should have arrived, the words suddenly appear, complete paragraphs as clear in my mind as the stars in the sky outside, demanding to be captured or risk disappearing for good. Nature is both my muse and my distraction.

I should be more diligent, and sometimes I try to be. But I’m drawn to the mystery of what’s outside – do the flowers smell differently today? How many colours make up the farmlands that wrap around the house? Do the tree-lines of the National Park frame the distance differently if I look from this angle of the garden, or that? Even as I write this, I’m stretched out on a hilltop overlooking the countryside below, my back against a fallen tree-trunk and a sleeping lapdog beside me.

Though a search for internet reception has brought me up here, I feel at peace in my solitude – lone, but not alone in this place. Thoughts and phrases I’d tussled with for hours at the kitchen table tumble out quickly onto the page, scribbled illegibly into the margins of a newspaper after the battery of th computer I’ve lugged up here goes flat. The words are all about the landscape, even when they’re not. The valleys and the skies, the cattle who dare to venture ever closer and the hills that change from brown to green to brown again are what I write from, but also what I’m writing for.

The relationship between the landscape and the story is nothing new. For as long as the written word has existed, and even before, when myths and legends were passed from clan to clan, whispered from ear to ear, nature has been at the centre of it all. The tales I loved reading growing up were set firmly within the setting of a place that came alive through the magic of words – Little Women, Ann of Green Gables, the Man from Snowy River. Even before I was old enough to grasp the ideas woven into the tales, the descriptions of where the stories played out were enough to enrapture me. I’ve felt myself pulled closer to voices from the earth ever since, an influence of growing up in a place as ancient as the Australian countryside, I’m sure.

What is it about the natural world that awakens our creative soul, beckoning us to draw closer and ponder what it means to be?”

It’s a question that has captivated thinkers across the ages, and a theme that traverses through art, literature and cultural works both old and new. “It is strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you alone,” John O’Donohue penned in the opening lines of Anam Cara, a book written from the heart of the ancient limestone shorelines of his home in County Clare, West Ireland. Nature is an extension of us, or we of it; the places we come from and the landscapes where we’ve been are wound into the stories we tell.

Some places that have captivated authors and inspired great works of literature:

Walden Pond. Image from Expedia

Walden Pond State Reservation, Concord, Massachusetts, USA.
Oh, Walden Pond. How changed so many lives would be if a collection of glaciers had never retreated thousands of years ago to form the kettle bell that came to be the home, for a time, of the writer and transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau.

Waldenor Life in the Woods, is a record of his two-year experiment of living simply amongst nature, in search of his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘Self-reliance’. Thoreau experienced the landscape mostly in isolation, in a small cabin on the northern edge of the Pond. Here he rejected ideas of progress, modernity and material wealth, desiring instead to live as fiercely independent as many of the local slaves he came into contact with in the woods, like Zilpah White who lived alone, spun flax and made broomsticks to survive the harshness of her circumstances, and her brother, Brister Freeman, who had been forced onto the barren farmlands around Walden Pond.

Walden is both a record of Thoreau’s practical observations – of economics, natural scenery, animal life, water clarity – and at the same time a work of big ideas, particularly what it means to live truthfully, in solitude and close to nature.”

Many of the words penned by Thoreau at the edge of Walden Pond have influenced the lives of those who read them, some of them venturing from all over the world to whisper the lines back to the woods in gratitude.

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or Life in the Woods, 1854.

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or Life in the Woods, 1854.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or Life in the Woods, 1854.

The garden at Monk's House. Image by M.A and G.S Linton from Medieval Mosaic

Monk’s House, Rodmell, East Sussex, England.
The country retreat of Virginia and Leonard Woolf was the backdrop to the life and workings of the creative pair and many of their Bloomsbury Group peers, including Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Henry Lamb. For Virginia, Monk’s House offered a place of escape and respite, a sanctuary away from the busyness and stress of London.

In the house and garden, the pair devoted themselves to creating – adding onto the 17th Century cottage and expanding the garden to include an orchard, ponds, greenhouses and cottage style plantings that Virginia described in a letter to a friend as: ‘a perfect variegated chintz: asters, plumasters, zinnias, geums, nasturtiums and so on.’ Whilst Leonard became a passionate gardener, grafting fruit and vegetables, propagating succulent and cacti and later founding the Rodmell and District Horticultural Society, Virginia enjoyed the garden for the pleasure of her daily walks and the inspiration she drew from its beauty, describing its activities to her friends from her writing studio that Leonard had built in the orchard. ‘The first pure joy of the garden … weeding all day to finish the beds in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness.’ 

Many of Virginia’s greatest works were written from this spot, including Mrs DallowayTo the Lighthouse and Orlando, a novel inspired by her sometime lover and great friend, the grand English gardener, Vita Sackville-West. Monk’s House remained the home of the Woolfs until Virginia drowned in the nearby River Ouse in 1941, her pockets full of stones and her heart heavy.

‘[Tomorrow I] shall smell a red rose; shall gently surge across the lawn (I move as if I carried a basket of eggs on my head) light a cigarette, take my writing board on my knee; and let myself down, like a diver, very cautiously into the last sentence I wrote yesterday.’ – Virginia Woolf in a letter to Ethel Smyth, September 1930.

The village of Glenridding and Ullswater in the Lake District, Cumbria, England. Photo by Dilsiff. Sourced from Wikimedia

The Lakes District, North West England.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

– Daffodils, by William Wordsworth, 1807.

These famous lines by the celebrated Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, were penned after he and his sister, Dorothy, arrived upon a long stretch of daffodils growing wild amongst the dramatic fells and lush green valleys of England’s Lakes district, an area that has drawn artists, writers and poets to its landscape for centuries. It’s easy to see the attraction – the rolling fields of emerald expand as far as the eye can see, broken only by ancient dry-stone walls, small villages and flocks of sheep.

John Ruskin, the poet, philosopher and art critic, often noted for his championing of the Pre-Rapaelite brotherhood, also felt a deep connection to the area, retiring to Coniston Water to live out his days as a social revolutionary and conservationist.

The stories and illustrations of the beloved Beatrix Potter were alive with the landscape of the Lakes, and the adventures of her woodland characters, Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck, took place against this happy setting. Interestingly, Potter is considered one of the great farming figures of the region as she embraced traditional rural practices and bred Herdwick sheep on her property at a time when the native breed was under threat of extinction.

The heath of the Yorkshire Moors

Yorkshire Moors, England.
If ever there was a broken love story so richly set against the drama of a harsh landscape, it is that of Cathy and Heathcliffe, and the real-life Yorkshire Moors that Wuthering Heights was drawn from. Once home to the sisters and authors, Emily, Charlotte and Anne Brontë, the massive expanse of heather, pastureland, woodland and coast that makes up the Yorkshire Moorlands was alive within many of their works. Emily, in particular was drawn to the wild and gothic landscape.

My sister Emily loved the moors,’ wrote Charlotte. ‘Flowers brighter than the rose bloomed from the blackest heath for her. Out of a sudden hollow in the hillside, her mind could make an Eden. She found in the bleak solitude many and dear delights, and best loved was liberty.”

Ted and Sylvia Plath were also drawn to the Moors. Ted, who was born in the nearby Calder Valley, and Sylvia, who would eventually be buried in the cemetery at West Yorkshire, visited the landscape often throughout their marriage, intrigued by the moody skies and the changing weather patterns of the heath, reflected in the bleak sorrow often conveyed in the works of the poets.

Warned her to keep
Indoors with politic goodwill, not haste
Into a landscape

Of stark wind-harrowed hills and weltering mist;
But from the house
She stalked intractable as a driven ghost

Across moor snows
Pocked by rock-claw and rabbit-track: she must yet win
Him to his knees—

— Excerpt from The Snowman on the Moor, Syliva Plath, 1957.

But it is in the classic story of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett that the Moorlands may best be captured, as Mary Lennox makes her journey through the heath to Mistlethwaite Hall:

“It’s – it’s not the sea, is it?” said Mary, looking round at her companion.

“No, not it,” answered Mrs. Medlock. “Nor it isn’t fields nor mountains, it’s just miles and miles and miles of wild land that nothing grows on but heather and gorse and broom, and nothing lives on but wild ponies and sheep.”

“I feel as if it might be the sea, if there were water on it,” said Mary. “It sounds like the sea just now.”

Header image of writer Trisha Dixon’s garden at Bobundara, in southern NSW. It is a landscape that clearly nurtures Trisha’s soul and creative process.

Sylvia Plath with her typewriter in the Moors of Yorkshire, September 1956. Image by Elinor Friedman Klein/Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts