The Things of Nature Do Not Really Belong To Us. We Should Leave Them To Our Children As We Have Received Them

Oscar Wilde? Lloyd Lewis? Henry Justin Smith? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous wit Oscar Wilde apparently expressed some forward thinking ideas about the environment. He believed that the natural world should be preserved so that it can be conveyed to our children in the condition it was received. Would you please help me to find a citation.

Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in the 1936 book “Oscar Wilde Discovers America” by Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith. The quotation appeared in a section of the book about Wilde’s visit to Canada in 1882. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

At Ottawa, where he spoke next, Wilde realized how completely Canada had followed America into industrialism and business . . . And in that very April he had read complaints of the American Forestry Congress, which was organizing in Cincinnati against the rapid waste of forests.

As a Socialist, the poet opposed such exploitation of natural resources. “The things of nature do not really belong to us,” he said; “we should leave them to our children as we have received them.”

How this philosophy, if put into action, would have delayed the settlement of the West, was a question he did not face.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1939 Rita Wellmann published the non-fiction book “Victoria Royal: The Flowering of a Style”, and she attributed the quotation to Wilde. In the following passage “Magdalen” referred to Magdalen College of the University of Oxford: 2

To a people who were tunneling into the earth, blindly hacking down forests, panting and pushing and falling over each other to destroy everything that stood in the way of riches, Wilde, remembering the doctrine he had learned back at Magdalen, said: “The things of nature do not belong to us. We should leave them to our children as we have received them.”

The Quote Investigator has also explored a family of thematically related remarks. The following instance was employed by a member of the World Wildlife Fund International in 1980: 3

‘We have not inherited the earth from our parents, we have borrowed it from our children’.

To learn more about the saying above please visit the QI article available here.

In 1996 “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde” edited by Ralph Keyes included the quotation under examination. The supporting citation pointed to “Oscar Wilde Discovers America”: 4

The things of nature do not really belong to us; we should leave them to our children as we have received them.

In 2006 the collection “Oscar Wilde in Quotation” edited by Tweed Conrad included the quotation and also pointed to “Oscar Wilde Discovers America”. 5

Also, in 2006 “The Yale Book of Quotations” edited by Fred R. Shapiro included the quotation and stated that Wilde delivered the remark during a speech in 1882: 6

Oscar Wilde
Irish playwright and poet, 1854–1900

The things of nature do not really belong to us; we should leave them to our children as we have received them.
Speech, Ottawa, 12 May 1882

In conclusion, Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and the quotation appeared in the 1936 book “Oscar Wilde Discovers America”. The notes section at the end of the book did not specify the documentation the authors used to verify the quotation. Thus, QI is uncertain how to evaluate the credibility of the attribution to Wilde.

Image Notes: Public domain image of the painting “The Equatorial Jungle” by Henri Rousseau circa 1909. The image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1936, Oscar Wilde Discovers America [1882] by Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith, Book 4: Eastward, Southward, Northward, Chapter 2: Adds a New Horror To Death, Quote Page 350, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1939, Victoria Royal: The Flowering of a Style by Rita Wellmann, Part 3: U.S.A., Chapter 4: The Plush-Draped Frontier, Quote Page 293, C. Scribner’s sons, New York, (Verified with scans)
  3. 1980 July, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Volume 128, Number 5288, A World Conservation Strategy by Lee M. Talbot, Director of Conservation and Special Scientific Advisor, World Wildlife Fund International, (Speech delivered to the Society on March 19, 1980), Start Page 493, Quote Page 495, Published by Royal Society of Arts, London, Great Britain. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, Topic: Nature, Quote Page 104, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  5. 2006, Oscar Wilde in Quotation: 3,100 Insults, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms, Topically Arranged with Attributions, Compiled and edited by Tweed Conrad, Chapter 47: Nature and the Country, Quote Page 150, McFarland & Company Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. (Verified with scans)
  6. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations, Edited by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 817, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified with hardcopy)