Love all the earth, every ray of God’s light, every grain of sand or blade of grass, every living thing. If you love the earth enough, you will know the divine mystery. – Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
In Walden Henry David Thoreau writes, “I went to the woods to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and if not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” At the time of that writing, the 1840s, America was predominantly an agricultural, rural society. It was, though, beginning to morph into an industrialized and urbanized society. Today, less than two percent of Americans live in bucolic settings.
What most consider today as essential is vastly different than what Thoreau did. But in a way, it isn’t; many don’t realize it. In the transition from agriculture to industry, from rural to urban, and now to our current 21st-century highly complex, technological society, we have lost something vital in our spirit, that which Thoreau calls essential.
Recently, I posted on my Facebook page a photo of bighorn sheep grazing in my yard like the one above. I accompanied it with no commentary or description. At last count, over seventy individuals “liked” or “loved” the picture. One nephew asked in amazement, “You have bighorn sheep in your yard?”
I also posted a link to a story about wild animals moving back into towns in Europe and Asia as humans stay sequestered in their homes. About twenty responded with likes, loves, or haha’s.
The godfather of the Transcendentalist movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson, posits in his essay Nature that “Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us. Certain mechanical changes, a small alteration in our local position apprizes us of a dualism. We are strangely affected by seeing the shore from a moving ship, from a balloon, or through the tints of an unusual sky. The least change in our point of view, gives the whole world a pictorial air.”
In a way, so do those Facebook postings. They help others see the world through my lens as well as from those who live in the towns “going feral.” While not a controlled statistical study, anecdotally the responses are an indicator of something intuitively felt: Love and awe for nature along with the boundless mysteries and joys she offers.
As you can imagine, the Transcendentalists’ and their Romantic cousins’ writings resonate and echo in my psyche. They write about what is important. I recall reading and studying them in high school or college or both. After a half century, even Mnemosyne hasn’t been able to jar the exact time and place from the recesses of my memory. No matter. I’ve always had a love for Nature.
As a boy, I would play for hours in the western Pennsylvania woods and never get bored. As a young man, I could get lost in those same woods, retracing trails my sisters, friends, and I had created in our youth that over time reverted to their natural state. I also checked on an old tree with a bull rope around a lower branch that served in our imaginations as a hangman’s noose. He was doing fine last I saw.
One of my most memorable moments occurred during a storm-brewing early afternoon while, as an early twenty-something, helping my sister and brother-in-law cut, bale, and pick up hay. My job was to stack the bales onto a flatbed wagon highly and, more importantly, to pack them tightly. It paid off when, as the rain began, my brother-in-law put the pedal to the metal, as it were, and barreled across an uneven, bumpity field to get the rocking load into the barn before the rain burst into a serious downpour. The load held tight as drum. Not one bale lost. Such a simple act, yet it resonates nearly a half-century later about what is important and a reminder of what I could do.
It might’ve been my older brother Bill who first brought Henry David Thoreau to my serious attention. We would have dastardly long bull sessions well into the night when, as a heady college student, I would visit him in Arizona. I thought I was pretty smart until he showed me what deep, complex thinking truly is.
Still, it wasn’t until I taught Thoreau that I came to fully – if I have as yet – understand and appreciate his writing. He reduces life’s complexity to a simple equation: “Simplify, simplify,” he exhorts us in Walden. That’s all. Got it? Maybe, maybe not.
My students loved his words until I suggested that meant tossing their cell phones. “What!?!” they protested. Their protestations invariably would launch us into a deeper discussion on the difference between simplicity and convenience. One of the great ironies of modern life is the more we make life convenient – think of directing Siri or Alexa to do whatever – the more complex it becomes.
In a thoughtful commentary, which I also posted on my Facebook page, titled “Walden may be the most famous act of social distancing. It’s also a lesson on the importance of community,” the Washington Post book critic Ron Charles writes, “It’s become customary to read Walden as an inspirational guide to nature or, less charitably, as a series of self-righteous pronouncements. Try, instead, reading it as a memoir of grieving. Its affirmations speak so powerfully in this time of mourning — not just for the loss of loved ones but for the loss of life as we knew it.”
“Walden,” he continues, “is the record of a man struggling to pray his way back to daylight the only way he knew how. The cabin by the pond was not an arrogant rejection of society so much as a cell and sanctuary, a place of torture and relief.”
Wow! Pray one’s way back to daylight. A place of torture and relief.
As if that weren’t enough, Charles’s insight gives me additional perspective on the Transcendentalists. Their writings – novels, essays, poetry – now serve as an elegy for a way of life lost.
But, then, not to be dismayed. Within their words: Hope. In the Introduction to Nature, Emerson writes,
A subtle chain of countless rings
The next unto the farthest brings;
The eye reads omens where it goes,
And speaks all languages the rose;
And, striving to be man, the worm
Mounts through all the spires of form.
Ah, the rose speaking universally and the worm striving to become human. Worms, however, can neither aspire nor imagine. Nor does any other non-human being. Only us. I am aching for one last bull session with Bill, but it’s too late.
But it’s not too late for you. Take time to read a few Transcendentalists’ works before it is. Perhaps, turn off the angst-filled, violence-ladened human dramas and turn on or mix in Planet Earth, Night on Earth, or Nova and treat yourself to a world it’s not likely you have ever visited but is right beside, above, or below you.
Footnote on Thoreau: As he lay dying, his aunt asked him if he had made his peace with God. “Why, Aunt,” he replied, “I did not know we had quarreled.”