WHY MILLER STILL MATTERS
Hugh Miller is revered by those who know of him for the example he set of what aspiration and application can achieve, starting from positions of social disadvantage and remote location. Beset in his youth by personal tragedy, surrounded by poverty, and lacking much in formal education, he yet possessed the courage and gifts which caused him to be hailed as one of the great Scotsmen of the 19th Century.
What were these gifts? Curiosity and wonder and deep natural intellect. The curiosity that led him to read very widely from a very early age. The wonder which led him to collect in their thousands, fragments of fossilised fish, and attempt to reconstruct them as they would have appeared in life; which prompted him to dive to the bottom of the sea with weights on his legs, the longer to stay down and study marine organisms; to dissect while still a child a cuttlefish to discern its structure. He was a pioneer in the comparison of ancient and modern forms of life. (Right, a figure of Miller's 'winged fish' Pterichthyodes milleri )
One of our favourite maxims of his is: “Life itself is a school, and nature always a fresh study.” We print that on our membership card, because it embodies a spirit of perpetual inquiry. A second saying is: “Learn to make a right use of your eyes,” which encouraged the young in particular to enhance their powers of observation. This advice is inscribed in a plaque in a wall of the “Garden of Wonders” behind Miller House. Both these comments are just as pertinent today, if not more so, especially for the young.
Great rewards are still to be gained for those who single-mindedly pursue new knowledge in the as yet unrecorded tree of life, on land, at sea, in outer space. Miller deserves to be emulated by our own strivings in the fields of science and literature.
Many of his books are still very worth reading for their eloquence and powers of evocation. All those mentioned on the Brief History page, and a brilliant travelogue, First Impressions of England and Its People (1845), are available either through the Museum, good bookshops, or online. They contain within them close observation of geology, beside which, in a fashion unique to him, sit human history, legends, and contemporary social commentary. Such panoramic views did he paint of the natural world and its history, that he has worthily been called “the David Attenborough of his day.”
We close with a quote on Miller’s legacy from Richard Owen, renowned founder of the Natural History Museum in Kensington, London, which testifies to the lasting worth of Miller the man, the scientist, and unrivalled writer.
“there is a spirit...about the work that reminds one of the characteristics of the conversation of a genuine man: very different from the smooth placidity of your accomplished artificial man that believes in little more than he cares for, which is himself....”
Bust of Hugh Miller in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, being admired by Frieda Gostwick
Hugh Miller and Geopoetics
Talk by Norrie Bissell at "We are Cromarty" festival, 25th September 2014
When You Go Out
When you go out into the world
try to use all your senses
touch and taste wild thyme
smell hawthorn and kelp
watch herring gulls soar
listen to the sound of the sea
above all open your mind
and who knows what you will find.
When I wrote that poem I was unaware of the Hugh Miller maxims: “Life itself is a school, and nature always a fresh study.” And “Learn to make a right use of your eyes.” His first publication at the age of 27 when he was working as a stonemason was Poems, written in the leisure hours of a Journeyman and in his subsequent prose writings there is a strong poetic element.
Because of his enquiring spirit he saw no separation between arts and science and wrote passionately and with clarity for his readers. His emphasis on life, nature, enquiry and close observation, in his case through his geological outgoing and study, indicates an approach to the world and to living in it which has much in common with geopoetics.
“Geopoetics is concerned, fundamentally, with a relationship to the earth and with the opening of a world.” Kenneth White, Geopoetics: place, culture, world.
The concept of geopoetics was originated by the Scots poet and essayist Kenneth White who has lived in France for the last 47 years. But it is a new synthesis of earlier ideas and approaches by scientists, thinkers and poets.
The richest poetics come from contact with the earth, from an attempt to read the lines of the world. By developing a heightened awareness of the earth or cosmos, and our relationship to it, we can nourish our creative expression in many different ways and live healthier lives.
To be truly creative I think we need to adopt this approach of sensitive awareness and openness to the world, and work at it regularly and consciously in our various fields of endeavour whether in music, writing, visual arts or sciences or in combinations of all the arts, thinking and sciences. Geopoetics tries to overcome artificial boundaries between disciplines of knowledge and unify them. This sits well with the approach of Hugh Miller who rejected the view that there was an arts and science divide in life.
This world outlook and approach has the potential to bring about a new or renewed sense of world amongst those who practise it, both intellectually through knowledge and study, and sensitively using all our senses.
Having undertaken some initial research, if we go out with our senses attuned and our minds open we can come back with some notes and short poems and images as food for our creative imagination. This is sometimes called haiku walking.
You can find evidence of this approach in a number of writers and thinkers who have laid the groundwork for geopoetics. The American naturalist and writer Henry Thoreau and the Scots polymath Patrick Geddes are two examples along with Thomas Muir and, in some respects, Hugh Miller. They could be called ‘outgoers’ or ‘intellectual nomads’ since their work was based on going out into the natural world of which we are a part and responding creatively to it in a variety of ways. As an aside, I was interested to learn that John Muir named a glacier in Alaska after Miller.
As editor of The Witness from January 1840 until his death at the end of 1856, Miller built it up from a weekly to a twice-weekly newspaper, which quickly rivalled The Scotsman in readership. It placed the battles of the Free Church and of evangelicals everywhere alongside national and world events. Its distinction was in the range, vision and passion of Hugh Miller's column-length leaders. His descriptions of the events of Thursday 18th May 1843, the opening day of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland when the Disruption took place, contain these gems:
‘benches of rosy-cheeked "moderates" looked like 'a bed of full-blown peony-roses glistening after a shower.' And he has a dig at a rival geologist: 'on the one side, we saw Moderate science personified in Dr Anderson of Newburgh - a dabbler in geology, who found a fish in the Old Red Sandstone, and described it as a beetle.’
Here are some other examples of Miller’s vivid style of writing:
"Their humble dwellings were of their own rearing; it was they themselves who had broken in their little fields; from time immemorial, far beyond the reach of history, had they possessed their mountain holdings."
"The moon, at full, had just risen, but there was a silvery mist sleeping on the lower grounds that obscured the light, and the dell in all its extent was so overcharged by the vapour, that it seemed an immense overflooded river winding through the landscape. Donald had reached its further edge, and could hear the rush of the stream from the deep obscurity of the abyss below, when there rose from the opposite side a strain of the most delightful music he had ever heard. He stood and listened: the words of a song of such simple beauty, that they seemed, without effort on his part, to stamp themselves on his memory, came wafted on the music, and the chorus, in which a tiny thousand voices seemed to join, was a familiar address to himself. 'He! Donald Calder! ho! Donald Calder!'"
Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland, p443
"The Cleopatra, as she swept past the town of Cromarty, was greeted with three cheers by crowds of the inhabitants, and the emigrants returned the salute, but, mingled with the dash of the waves and the murmurs of the breeze, their faint huzzas seemed rather sounds of wailing and lamentation, than of a congratulatory farewell."
Inverness Courier, 22nd June 1831
republished in A Noble Smuggler and Other Stories, p44
What later became books like the Old Red Sandstone and the Voyage of the Betsey were first serialised in The Witness. Miller was also an environmentalist, arguing successfully against the proposed carriage drive through the Meadows in 1855. Very interestingly, he also expressed concern at the way in which advances in technology and communications were speeding up contemporary life.
An article entitled 'What Next and What Now,' printed on 5 and 19 November 1856 just weeks before his death (23/24 December), declared the dominant characteristic of the age to be 'unusually rapid change.' In the previous fifty years there had been wonderful 'inventions in art' and 'discoveries in science,' and the development of a 'facility and rapidity of transit' which allowed the inhabitants of the most distant parts to visit and revisit the remotest places 'without even pausing to wonder at the fact.'
Above all the electric telegraph was girdling the globe with a new zone, so that 'friendly salutations or hostile messages may soon be transmitted at a moment's notice...between the citizens of Edinburgh and those of Pekin, or between those of New York and the men of Patagonia.' Shades of social media.
'All the powers in society' were 'working with a force and velocity unprecedented.' The 'social, commercial, and military movements of the world' were all affected, and 'haste, haste, haste' drove 'opinions, literature and actions.' 'Men generally are living fast, too fast....The fever of the brain and the sweat of the brow bear witness to the pressure.' A metaphor for modern life was the description of 'the manners and business habits of the citizens of New York,' where people are 'restless and feverish' and 'never done working,' and buildings are 'thrown up six floors towards heaven in as many weeks' and as ruthlessly demolished.’
Miller wrote about 10,000 words a week, a huge amount, which may have contributed to his illness and suicide. One of our Scottish Centre for Geopoetics members, Christian McEwen, who lives in USA, has written a wonderful book World Enough & Time, On Creativity & Slowing Down which outlines how serious this problem has become today and sets out various strategies for dealing with it such as walking, reading, conversation, drawing, dreaming and writing. It’s a handbook of geopoetics without even using the word.
Of course, there are major differences between geopoetics and Miller. He was a man of his time and a major religious figure, whereas geopoetics is deeply critical of Western thinking and practice over the last 2500 years and its separation of mind and body and of human beings from the rest of the natural world. It proposes instead that the universe is a potentially integral whole, and that the various domains into which knowledge has been separated can be unified by a poetics i.e. a world outlook which places the Earth at the centre of experience. But Miller’s achievements in geology are well established and geology is a fundamental element of geopoetics.
I’ve only been able to skim the surface of this subject in this talk but it seems to me that there is much more could be done to develop this analysis further. The Isle of Luing Community Trust, of which I’m Vice-Chairman, intends to develop a geology trail into the slate quarries in Cullipool on Luing where I live, and it could be that there would be room for further collaboration related to this and other projects.