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Thoreau on Nature and Human Nature, the Tonic of Wildness, and the Value of the Unexplored

“At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable.”

“We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too,” Denise Levertov wrote in her revelation of a poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World” a generation after history’s most poetic piece of legislature termed that parallel world “wilderness” and defined it as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man* himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Those of us who visit wild places the way others visit churches and concert halls visit because we return transfigured, recomposed, exalted and humbled at the same time, enlarged and dissolved in something larger at the same time. We visit because there we undergo some essential self-composition in the poetry of existence, though its essence rarely lends itself to words.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young. (Available as a print.)

That ineffable essence is what Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) — who saw nature as a form of prayer — articulated with uncommon lucidity and splendor of sentiment in the final pages of Walden (public library | public domain), the record of the radical experiment in living he undertook a week before he turned twenty-eight.

He writes:

We need the tonic of wildness, — to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. 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 infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach — one of Japanese artist Hasui Kawase’s vintage woodblock prints. (Available as a print.)

A century before Rachel Carson observed that because “our origins are of the earth… there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Thoreau adds:

We can never have enough of Nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.

We can never have enough of Nature because Nature is not something to have — it is something we are. Epochs after Thoreau, when we wade into the wilderness with our bodies and our minds, with a walking stick or a poem, we witness more than our limits transgressed. We witness our boundaries dissolved, in turn dissolving that most limited and damaging foundational falsehood upon which the whole of the consumerist-extractionist complex is built: that the rest of the living world is a parallel world, a place to visit and mine for experiences and resources with which to adorn and enrich our separate human world.

Praise Song for Dawn by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

It is naïve and impracticable to insist that course-correcting our presently catastrophic trajectory of nature-destruction — that is, of self-destruction — requires reverting to the rugged naturalistic self-reliance that even Thoreau himself could not sustain beyond his short-lived experiment at Walden Pond, a life without consumption or companionship. Whatever it does require must begin with the elemental recognition that these are not separate worlds existing in parallel, that there is no “environment” surrounding the centrality of the human animal in nature, that there is nothing that can be bad for nature yet good for us — an elemental fact rendered achingly countercultural every time I walk into my local grocery store and see the organic produce, the good-for-us stuff, plastic-wrapped over styrofoam trays that will take tens of thousands of years to decompose in the landfill, leeching unfathomable toxicity in the process. It is a small act of resistance to contact store management with an appeal for change — small but not negligible, and certainly not naïve. As Thoreau himself put it in the conclusion of Walden:

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Complement with Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s lyrical illustrated rewilding of our relationship to nature, ornithologist and wildlife ecologist J. Drew Lanham on the spirituality of science, and poet Diane Ackerman’s lovely notion of the “Earth ecstatic,” then revisit Thoreau on the true value of a tree, the long cycles of social change, and how to use civil disobedience as an instrument of change.

BP

The Spirituality of Science and the Wonder of the Wilderness: Ornithologist and Wildlife Ecologist J. Drew Lanham on Nature as Worship

“As I wander into the predawn dark of an autumn wood, I feel the presence of things beyond flesh, bone, and blood. My being expands to fit the limitlessness of the wild world.”

The Spirituality of Science and the Wonder of the Wilderness: Ornithologist and Wildlife Ecologist J. Drew Lanham on Nature as Worship

“Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Rachel Carson wrote as she reflected on science and our spiritual bond with nature a decade before she interleaved her training as a scientist and her poetic reverence of nature, nowhere deeper than in her tender love of birds, to compose Silent Spring — the epoch-making book that catalyzed the modern environmental movement and inspired the creation of Earth Day.

Two generations later, ornithologist and wildlife ecologist J. Drew Lanham — another scientist with a poet’s soul and the courage to fully inhabit both worlds — explores the abiding relationship between knowledge and mystery, between scientific truth and human meaning, throughout The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (public library).

J. Drew Lanham (Photograph: Clemson University)

Lanham — a self-described “man in love with nature,” “a seeker and a noticer,” “a wildling, born of forests and fields” who worships every bird he sees — was raised in large part by his grandmother, a woman of ample wisdom and ample superstition, whose ravishing love of nature inspired Lanham’s own and whose sometimes comical, sometimes concerning antiscientific beliefs inspirited him to get closer to the truth of things through science. His love of nature never left him but, in a testament to Richard Feynman’s timeless Ode to a Flower, was only magnified by the lucidity of his scientific training.

In consonance with poet Diane Ackerman’s lovely notion of living as an “Earth ecstatic” where others might subscribe to a particular religion, Lanham writes:

Evolution, gravity, change, and the dynamic transformation of field into forest move me. A warbler migrating over hundreds of miles of land and ocean to sing in the same tree once again is as miraculous to me as any dividing sea.

Praise Song for Dawn by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

A century after quantum theory originator and Nobel laureate Max Planck argued that “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature [because] we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve” — a sentiment Carl Sagan would later echo in his own singular poetics — Lanham adds:

For all those years of running from anything resembling religion and all the scientific training that tells me to doubt anything outside of the prescribed confidence limits, I find myself defined these days more by what I cannot see than by what I can. As I wander into the predawn dark of an autumn wood, I feel the presence of things beyond flesh, bone, and blood. My being expands to fit the limitlessness of the wild world. My senses flush to full and my heartbeat quickens with the knowledge that I am not alone.

Art from The Blue Hour by Isabelle Simler

One of the wonders of being human is that as much as we may be creatures among creatures, never alone in the web of life, there lives within each of us a parallel wilderness of presences and possible identities comprising the ecology of being we call personhood. Walt Whitman — a poet with a scientist’s soul — knew this when he described himself as a “kosmos” containing a multitude of identities and inheritances, creaturely, cosmic, and cultural. Lanham knows this in taxonomizing the Linnaean poetics of his own personhood:

My being finds its foundation in open places.

I’m a man of color — African American by politically correct convention — mostly black by virtue of ancestors who trod ground in central and west Africa before being brought to foreign shores. In me there’s additionally an inkling of Irish, a bit of Brit, a smidgen of Scandinavian, and some American Indian, Asian, and Neanderthal tossed in, too. But that’s only a part of the whole: There is also the red of miry clay, plowed up and planted to pass a legacy forward. There is the brown of spring floods rushing over a Savannah River shoal. There is the gold of ripening tobacco drying in the heat of summer’s last breath. There are endless rows of cotton’s cloudy white. My plumage is a kaleidoscopic rainbow of an eternal hope and the deepest blue of despair and darkness. All of these hues are me; I am, in the deepest sense, colored.

I am as much a scientist as I am a black man; my skin defines me no more than my heart does.

This integrated view of his interior ecology informs his integrated view of human society and our relationship with nature:

To save wildlife and wild places the traction has to come not from the regurgitation of bad-news data but from the poets, prophets, preachers, professors, and presidents who have always dared to inspire. Heart and mind cannot be exclusive of one another in the fight to save anything.

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane — a visual dictionary of poetic spells resisting the erasure of nature’s language from our cultural lexicon.

Complement with Thoreau on nature as prayer, his modern-day counterpart Sy Montgomery on what a lifetime of working with nonhuman animals taught her about the living holiness of nature, and astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge, then savor this marvelous illustrating rewilding of the human spirit.

BP

Calculating the Incalculable: Thoreau on the True Value of a Tree

“What would human life be without forests, those natural cities?”

Calculating the Incalculable: Thoreau on the True Value of a Tree

More than two years after a fire started by a teenage boy destroyed 47,000 acres of old-growth forest in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, having just resolved to face the new year like a tree, I found myself on the brink of tears before the blackened trunk of an ancient ponderosa pine as I walked the sylvan scar tissue of the tragedy. A conversation with my hiking companion — a dear friend currently working with the Navajo Nation on preserving and learning from their own ecological inheritance — led to the impossible question of how we can even begin to measure the loss: What is a tree worth? Not its timber, not its carbon offset value, but its treeness — the source of the existential wisdom Whitman celebrated, the mirror Blake believed it holds up to a person’s character, its silent teachings about how to love and how to live and what optimism really means.

The teenager who decimated this green tapestry of belonging was ordered to pay $36.6 million in restitution — a number that staggers at first, but only until one considers the nearly 4,000,000 leaved and rooted victims of the crime, and the many more millions of creatures for whom the forest was home, and even the occasional insignificant human animals who, like my friend and I, bathed in these ancient trees to wash away the sorrows of living.

The contemplation of this impossible question called to mind a fragment from the diaries of Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) — he who saw nature as a form of prayer, who once mourned a tree like one mourns a friend, and who asked: “What would human life be without forests, those natural cities?”

Stone pine by Rebecca Hey from the world’s first tree encyclopedia. Available as a print.

Noting the disappearance of Maine’s white pines, Thoreau laments how these majestic trees, each endowed with a living spirit as immortal as his own, are vanishing because the men who cut them down for lumber have failed to see their true value. In a passage included in the altogether revitalizing Thoreau and the Language of Trees (public library), he writes:

Can he who has discovered only some of the values of whalebone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale? Can he who slays the elephant for his ivory be said to have “seen the elephant”? These are petty and accidental uses; just as if a stronger race were to kill us in order to make buttons and flageolets of our bones; for everything may serve a lower as well as a higher use.

[…]

I have been into the lumber-yard, and the carpenter’s shop, and the tannery, and the lampblack factory, and the turpentine clearing; but when at length I saw the tops of the pines waving and reflecting the light at a distance high over all the rest of the forest, I realized that the former were not the highest use of the pine. It is not their bones or hide or tallow that I love most. It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize, and which heals my cuts. It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.

Art from Trees at Night — Art Young’s tree silhouettes from the 1920s. Available as a print

Thoreau cherished trees not only in the forest but also in the city. In a journal entry penned at the vibrant height of autumn and included in the indispensable Excursions (free ebook | public library) — the volume that gave us Thoreau on finding inner warmth in the cold season — he considers the democratizing value of the maples hemming his local Main Street:

Little did the fathers of the town anticipate this brilliant success, when they caused to be imported from farther in the country some straight poles with their tops cut off, which they called Sugar-Maples; and, as I remember, after they were set out, a neighboring merchant’s clerk, by way of jest, planted beans about them. Those which were then jestingly called bean-poles are to-day far the most beautiful objects noticeable in our streets. They are worth all and more than they have cost, — though one of the selectmen, while setting them out, took the cold which occasioned his death, — if only because they have filled the open eyes of children with their rich color unstintedly so many Octobers. We will not ask them to yield us sugar in the spring, while they afford us so fair a prospect in the autumn. Wealth in-doors may be the inheritance of few, but it is equally distributed on the Common. All children alike can revel in this golden harvest.

Common maple by Rebecca Hey from the world’s first tree encyclopedia. Available as a print.

Complement with philosopher Martin Buber on what trees teach us about seeing one another and the emboldening illustrated story of Wangari Maathai’s movement to plant trees as resistance and empowerment, which made her the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, then revisit Thoreau on the long cycles of social change and the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius.

BP

Thoreau on the Long Cycles of Social Change and the Importance of Not Mistaking Politics for Progress

“The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion… The hero then will know how to wait, as well as to make haste. All good abides with him who waiteth wisely.”

Thoreau on the Long Cycles of Social Change and the Importance of Not Mistaking Politics for Progress

“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin insisted in examining the building blocks of a juster future. “The present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote across the Atlantic as she was advancing the era’s other great human rights cause.

A century before Baldwin and De Beauvoir, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) explored this question of how the choices we make in the present liberate the future from the past and make the world over in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (public library) — his first book, published when he was only thirty-two, a disaffected public school teacher who had become one of the country’s most promising young writers with the stern yet generous guidance of his first and best editor, Margaret Fuller.

Henry David Thoreau (Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856)

This was an era of immense cultural upheaval, in which the air of revolution was saturated with the urgencies of abolition and women’s emancipation. Ensconced in the woods of Concord, attuned to the elements that far predated and would far outlive the turmoils of the present — the trees, the rivers, the cycles of the seasons — Thoreau spent his days contemplating the most elemental questions of human existence and our civilizational conscience. It was with this widest possible perspective that he focused his precocious wisdom on the pressing issues of social change, using this long lever of insight to make the present a fulcrum for elevating the future.

Bedeviled by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican-American War, having just modeled for his country how to use civil disobedience to advance justice — a model that would come to influence Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. — he considers the tectonics of change on the scale of society and civilization:

As in geology, so in social institutions, we may discover the causes of all past change in the present invariable order of society. The greatest appreciable physical revolutions are the work of the light-footed air, the stealthy-paced water, and the subterranean fire… We are independent of the change we detect. The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion. It is the slowest pulsation which is the most vital. The hero then will know how to wait, as well as to make haste. All good abides with him who waiteth wisely.

If history teaches us one thing about the origins and originators of the greatest social change — an animating question in Figuring — it is that those who ignite the profoundest revolutions are themselves often blind to their own spark. Thoreau’s contemporary and kindred revolutionary spirit Elizabeth Barrett Browning would articulate this with stunning succinctness in her groundbreaking 1856 book-length poem Aurora Leigh:

The best men, doing their best,
Know peradventure least of what they do…

The young Thoreau channels this sentiment in his own lyrical prose, suspended as always between the buoyant and the melancholy:

A man is not his hope, nor his despair, nor yet his past deed. We know not yet what we have done, still less what we are doing. Wait till evening, and other parts of our day’s work will shine than we had thought at noon, and we shall discover the real purport of our toil. As when the farmer has reached the end of the furrow and looks back, he can tell best where the pressed earth shines most.

Illustration from Henry Hikes to Fitchburg — a children’s book about Thoreau’s philosophy.

One of Thoreau’s most countercultural yet incisive points is that true social reform has little to do with politics, for genuine cultural change operates on cycles far longer and more invisible than the perpetual churning of immediacies with which the political state and the political conscience are occupied. Rather than dueling with petty surface facts, as politics is apt to, the true revolutionary and reformer dwells in humanity’s largest truths, aiming to transfigure the deepest strata of reality. In consonance with the need for a telescopic perspective, Thoreau writes:

To one who habitually endeavors to contemplate the true state of things, the political state can hardly be said to have any existence whatever. It is unreal, incredible, and insignificant to him, and for him to endeavor to extract the truth from such lean material is like making sugar from linen rags, when sugar-cane may be had. Generally speaking, the political news, whether domestic or foreign, might be written to-day for the next ten years, with sufficient accuracy. Most revolutions in society have not power to interest, still less alarm us; but tell me that our rivers are drying up, or the genus pine dying out in the country, and I might attend. Most events recorded in history are more remarkable than important, like eclipses of the sun and moon, by which all are attracted, but whose effects no one takes the trouble to calculate.

Change, Thoreau reminds us, begins when we finally choose to critically examine and then recalibrate the ill-serving codes and conventions handed down to us, often unquestioned, by the past and its power structures. It is essentially an act of the imagination first. Long before Ursula K. Le Guin asserted that “we will not be free if we do not imagine freedom,” Thoreau calls for imagining nobler alternatives to the dicta and mindsets we have inherited:

In my short experience of human life, the outward obstacles, if there were any such, have not been living men, but the institutions of the dead. It is grateful to make one’s way through this latest generation as through dewy grass. Men are as innocent as the morning to the unsuspicious… I love man-kind, but I hate the institutions of the dead un-kind. Men execute nothing so faithfully as the wills of the dead, to the last codicil and letter. They rule this world, and the living are but their executors.

Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

A century before Hannah Arendt considered the most extreme and gruesome manifestation of this tendency in her classic treatise on the normalization of evil, informed by the Holocaust and its incomprehensible phenomenon of ordinary people “just following orders” to murder, Thoreau writes:

Herein is the tragedy; that men doing outrage to their proper natures, even those called wise and good, lend themselves to perform the office of inferior and brutal ones. Hence come war and slavery in; and what else may not come in by this opening? But certainly there are modes by which a man may put bread into his mouth which will not prejudice him as a companion and neighbor.

Most of our errors, Thoreau observes, stem not from being unwitting of the right choice but from being unwise in the willingness or unwillingness to choose it:

Men do not fail commonly for want of knowledge, but for want of prudence to give wisdom the preference. What we need to know in any case is very simple.

To unmoor ourselves from the burdens of the past, he reminds us, we must be engaged in an act of continual and conscious self-renewal:

All men are partially buried in the grave of custom, and of some we see only the crown of the head above ground. Better are the physically dead, for they more lively rot. Even virtue is no longer such if it be stagnant. A man’s life should be constantly as fresh as this river. It should be the same channel, but a new water every instant.

A century later, Bertrand Russell — himself a humanist of the highest order and a rare seer of elemental truth — would liken the optimal human existence to a river.

Couple this particular fragment of Thoreau’s abidingly insightful A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers — which also gave us his wisdom on the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius — with his contemporary Frederick Douglass on art as a tool of social change, then revisit Thoreau on nature as prayer, the myth of productivity, knowing vs. seeing, and defining your own success.

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