Jane Wilson-Howarth

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Passive pleasures?

Sunday, 05 August 2018
Isn’t it odd how we who are fortunate enough to have material comforts (a home, clothing and enough to eat) are often less than happy?
We may actively pursue happiness but the philosopher Bertrand Russell warns those on this quest of the dangers of passive pleasures. When I read this warning in his book The Conquest of Happiness (1930) it made sense but I found myself pondering on what passive pleasure might be. Is reading a passive pleasure? Does it cease to be passive when it has you laughing out loud? Or makes you think?
I pedalled out to the Cam at Trumpington Meadows one morning this week. There was a slight breeze – deliciously cooling but, as always, against me. (Why is it that the wind is ALWAYS against you wherever you cycle?) It was a perfect summer day; robins and chaffinches and tits were in full voice. A fast-flying shape against a cloudless sky drew my attention to a long-tailed, pointy-winged raptor
I parked and wandered into the cool speckled greens and chestnuts of the riverine forest, soon pausing to establish the source of rings of ripples in the still water. The banks were peppered with water vole holes and I wondered if I might be lucky enough to spot one. But a fin told me that the disturbance had only been a fish. I love most wildlife, but fish don’t really do it for me.
Other small movements caught my eye. I had the impression of dancing jewels – sparkling sapphire pencils of reflected light dipped and gyrated above the blues and grey and greens in the river. Two male damsels faced each other and bobbed up and down. Another joined them and, with their reflections keeping perfect time, they flew figures of eight as co-ordinated as any barn-dance.
I was mesmerised. Was this a passive pleasure? The beauty was certainly uplifting.
My head is full of wildlife snapshots. Many are the merest glimpse but even so these sustain me and bring pleasure sometimes for years. Even close to home in East Anglia, I often encounter hares, or maybe the ears of a hunting fox; even the beautiful gatekeeper butterfly drinking from a purple thistle is a profoundly cheering experience. Spending time with wildlife is always wonderful. Read Michael McCarthy’s writing in the excellent Moth Snowstorm: nature and joy if you wonder what I’m on about. Attenborough too has spoken of how the natural world lifts the human spirit and Richard Mabey (Nature Cure) on how it cures and brings hope.
We need the natural world so let’s advocate for less plastic, less littering, less waste and less intensive farming so we can continue to enjoy and find comfort in wild places.
 
Skipper butterflies on a thistle in Cley-next-the-sea