“Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation: relation is mutual.”
By Maria Popova
When Walt Whitman contemplated the wisdom of trees, he saw in them qualities “almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic,” and found in their resolute being a counterpoint to the human charade of seeming. “When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse rhapsodized in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.” A century and a half earlier, William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.”
But to truly see and listen to a tree — or to any being beyond ourselves — as more than a teaching, more than an object of envy or worship or desire, more than a metaphor for our own lives, requires a special kind of regard — the kind to which Ursula K. Le Guin alluded in contemplating the difference between objectifying and subjectifying the universe.
I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background.
I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air—and the obscure growth itself.
I can classify it in a species and study it as a type in its structure and mode of life.
I can subdue its actual presence and form so sternly that I recognise it only as an expression of law — of the laws in accordance with which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or of those in accordance with which the component substances mingle and separate.
I can dissipate it and perpetuate it in number, in pure numerical relation.
In all this the tree remains my object, occupies space and time, and has its nature and constitution.
It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is now no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness.
To effect this it is not necessary for me to give up any of the ways in which I consider the tree. There is nothing from which I would have to turn my eyes away in order to see, and no knowledge that I would have to forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and type, law and number, indivisibly united in this event.
Everything belonging to the tree is in this: its form and structure, its colours and chemical composition, its intercourse with the elements and with the stars, are all present in a single whole.
The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no value depending on my mood; but it is bodied over against me and has to do with me, as I with it — only in a different way.
Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation: relation is mutual.
The tree will have a consciousness, then, similar to our own? Of that I have no experience. But do you wish, through seeming to succeed in it with yourself, once again to disintegrate that which cannot be disintegrated? I encounter no soul or dryad of the tree, but the tree itself.
Nearly a century later Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) — another titan of insight at the nexus of nature and human nature — explored how trees root us in deep time and absolute presence. In his superb 1997 book The Island of the Colorblind (public library), Sacks recounts to Micronesia on a journey “not part of any program or agenda, not intended to prove or disprove any thesis, but simply to observe.”
Wandering the rain forest of Rota in a state of reverence, Sacks echoes Thoreau’s ideas about nature as a form of prayer and writes:
I find myself walking softly on the rich undergrowth beneath the trees, not wanting to crack a twig, to crush or disturb anything in the least — for there is such a sense of stillness and peace that the wrong sort of movement, even one’s very presence, might be felt as an intrusion… The beauty of the forest is extraordinary — but “beauty” is too simple a word, for being here is not just an esthetic experience, but one steeped with mystery, and awe.
Sacks traces this sense of awe in nature to his most formative memories. He felt it first as a child, lying beneath the ferns — a lifelong love of his; he felt it again upon entering the iconic Kew Gardens as a young man — a place he found to be not only of botanical fascination but endowed with “an element of the mystical, the religious too.” More than a century after the great nature writer Richard Jefferies — a compatriot of Sacks’s and a peer in the small group of writers who enchant the reader with the science of the natural world — considered how nature’s beauty dissolves the boundary between us and the rest of the natural world, Sacks considers the smallness of the word beauty in holding this expansive sense of awe in nature:
The primeval, the sublime, are much better words here — for they indicate realms remote from the moral or the human, realms which force us to gaze into immense vistas of space and time, where the beginnings and originations of all things lie hidden. Now, as I wandered in the cycad forest on Rota, it seemed as if my senses were actually enlarging, as if a new sense, a time sense, was opening within me, something which might allow me to appreciate millennia or eons as directly as I had experienced seconds or minutes.
He finds a parallel of this awe-induced fathoming of deep time in the mating rituals of horseshoe crabs near his home on City Island, New York — something he would later revisit in his sublime memoir. Every June for the past 400 million years, the horseshoe crabs emerge from the water, mate, deposit their eggs onto the sandy shores, then quietly return to the sea in which life began on the primordial Earth. In sharing a beach and a moment in time with these “rugged models, great survivors which have endured,” Sacks finds the same sublime consolation found in an ancient forest — a sense of deep time and an awareness of the interconnectedness of life consonant with the pioneering naturalist John Muir’s insistence that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Standing amid the rainforest — a place governed by the beauty of interrelation — Sacks reflects:
The sense of deep time brings a deep peace with it, a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies, of daily life. Seeing these volcanic islands and coral atolls, and wandering, above all, through this cycad forest on Rota, has given me an intimate feeling of the antiquity of the earth, and the slow, continuous processes by which different forms of life evolve and come into being. Standing here in the jungle, I feel part of a larger, calmer identity; I feel a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth.
“There can be occasions when we suddenly and involuntarily find ourselves loving the natural world with a startling intensity, in a burst of emotion which we may not fully understand, and the only word that seems to me to be appropriate for this feeling is joy.”
The rewards and redemptions of that elemental yet endangered response is what British naturalist and environmental writer Michael McCarthy, a modern-day Carson, explores in The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy (public library) — part memoir and part manifesto, a work of philosophy rooted in environmental science and buoyed by a soaring poetic imagination.
The natural world can offer us more than the means to survive, on the one hand, or mortal risks to be avoided, on the other: it can offer us joy.
There can be occasions when we suddenly and involuntarily find ourselves loving the natural world with a startling intensity, in a burst of emotion which we may not fully understand, and the only word that seems to me to be appropriate for this feeling is joy.
Referring to it as joy may not facilitate its immediate comprehension either, not least because joy is not a concept, nor indeed a word, that we are entirely comfortable with, in the present age. The idea seems out of step with a time whose characteristic notes are mordant and mocking, and whose preferred emotion is irony. Joy hints at an unrestrained enthusiasm which may be thought uncool… It reeks of the Romantic movement. Yet it is there. Being unfashionable has no effect on its existence… What it denotes is a happiness with an overtone of something more, which we might term an elevated or, indeed, a spiritual quality.
A century and a half after Thoreau extolled nature as a form of prayer and an antidote to the smallening of spirit amid the ego-maelstrom we call society — “In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean,” he lamented in his journal — McCarthy considers the role of the transcendent feelings nature can stir in us in a secular world:
They are surely very old, these feelings. They are lodged deep in our tissues and emerge to surprise us. For we forget our origins; in our towns and cities, staring into our screens, we need constantly reminding that we have been operators of computers for a single generation and workers in neon-lit offices for three or four, but we were farmers for five hundred generations, and before that hunter-gatherers for perhaps fifty thousand or more, living with the natural world as part of it as we evolved, and the legacy cannot be done away with.
At this moment, for the first time, we saw ourselves from a distance, and the earth in its surrounding dark emptiness not only seemed impossibly beautiful but also impossibly fragile. Most of all, we could see clearly that it was finite. This does not appear to us on the earth’s surface; the land or the sea stretches to the horizon, but there is always something beyond. However many horizons we cross, there’s always another one waiting. Yet on glimpsing the planet from deep space, we saw not only the true wonder of its shimmering blue beauty, but also the true nature of its limits.
It is time for a different, formal defence of nature. We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about it, which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.
I have long found the word environment disquieting. Embedded in it is residual Ptolemism that places us at the center of nature and casts the rest of the natural world as something that surrounds us and implicitly revolves around us. The notion of “natural resources” furthers this hubris by framing trees and rivers and meadows as entities and economic assets existing for the satisfaction of our human needs. McCarthy speaks to this civilizational hubris and how it bereaves us of the far greater “resource” which nature can offer us, and has long offered us, not as an exploitable asset but as an unbidden gift:
We can generalise or, indeed, monetise the value of nature’s services in satisfying our corporeal needs, since we all have broadly the same continuous requirement for food and shelter; but we have infinitely different longings for solace and understanding and delight. Their value is modulated, not through economic assessment, but through the personal experiences of individuals. So we cannot say — alas that we cannot — that birdsong, like coral reefs, is worth 375 billion dollars a year in economic terms, but we can say, each of us, that at this moment and at this place it was worth everything to me. Shelley did so with his skylark, and Keats with his nightingale, and Thomas Hardy with the skylark of Shelley, and Edward Thomas with his unknown bird, and Philip Larkin with his song thrush in a chilly spring garden, but we need to remake, remake, remake, not just rely on the poems of the past, we need to do it ourselves — proclaim these worths through our own experiences in the coming century of destruction, and proclaim them loudly, as the reason why nature must not go down.
That most unquantifiable, most precious value of nature to human life, McCarthy insists, is the gift nestled in the responsibility — the gift of joy. He writes:
Joy has a component, if not of morality, then at least of seriousness. It signifies a happiness which is a serious business. And it seems to me the wholly appropriate name for the sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us, which may well be the most serious business of all.
Echoing Denise Levertov’s stirring poem about our ambivalent relationship to nature — “We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too.” — McCarthy extends a promissory vision for reclaiming our joyous belonging to the natural world:
The natural world is not separate from us, it is part of us. It is as much a part of us as our capacity for language; we are bonded to it still, however hard it may be to perceive the union in the tumult of modern urban life. Yet the union can be found, the union of ourselves and nature, in the joy which nature can spark and fire in us.
“Awe is the moment when ego surrenders to wonder.”
By Maria Popova
In his stirring meditation on what makes life worth living, Walt Whitman asked: “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains?” He answered simply: “Nature remains.”
But between Whitman’s day and our own, as we have poured our business and politics onto nature, nature has ceased to be the inexhaustible constant Whitman took it to be. This is what marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson intuited when, a decade before she catalyzed the modern environmental movement, she quit her government job in a grey Washington office not far from where Whitman had once lived and cautioned in a prescient letter as she watched a heedless administration assault nature for commercial gain: “The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.”
The sanctity of that wealth and the urgency of its stewardship is what Terry Tempest Williams, a Carson of our time, explores from the singular intersection of the personal, the political, and the ecological in The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks (public library) — an elegy, in the proper dual sense of lamentation and celebration, for the wilderness; a lyrical clarion call for reexamining the complex interleaving of our ecological relationships and our responsibilities as politically wakeful citizens and creatures among creatures; an invitation to reckoning and a roadmap to redemption.
Contemplating what draws 300 million visitors a year to America’s national parks, Williams writes:
Perhaps it is not so much what we learn that matters in these moments of awe and wonder, but what we feel in relationship to a world beyond ourselves, even beyond our own species.
I see our national parks as our ongoing struggle as a diverse people to create circles of reverence in a time of collective cynicism where we are wary of being moved by anything but our own clever perspective… The nature of our national parks is bound to the nature of our own humility, our capacity to stay open and curious in a world that instead beckons closure through fear.
Our national parks are blood. They are more than scenery, they are portals and thresholds of wonder, an open door that swings back and forth from our past to our future.
As Williams visits a dozen of these precious boundary-worlds, as varied as the Gulf Islands seashore, Glacier National Park, and Alcatraz Island, she reflects on them as a kind of observatory for discovering the largest dimensions of existence in the splendid smallnesses that constellate it. From Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, she writes:
To watch spring arrive on the wings of a pair of red-tailed hawks as they circle each other in amorous display is not a small thing, but a source of amazement at how they find their way back to the same nest each year.
To see the yellow fritillaries burst forth after the deep snows of winter and know that the bears are soon to follow is to be attentive to wild nature’s seasonal fugue of infinite composition and succession. The great gray owl sitting on a snag near Sawmill Ponds is not simply a bird but a heightened intelligence with golden eyes behind a mask of feathers.
And yet, as shaped as these wild refuges may be by our intentions and policies, they remain — and must remain — wildly beyond our control. In a sentiment that calls to mind poet Jane Hirshfield’s insistence on the life-expanding value of threshold spaces, Williams writes:
No matter how much we try to manage and manipulate, orchestrate, or regulate our national parks, they will remain as the edge-scapes they are, existing on the boundaries between culture and wildness — improvisational spaces immune to the scripts of anyone. Wildlife in wildlands appear without notice. Awakened is what we become in their presence. Curiosity leads us forward on an unknown path, even if it is a path of well-placed steps made out of pink granite here in Acadia. For a precious moment we touch and taste life uninterrupted. Awe sneaks up on us like love. We surrender to the ecstatic outpouring of life before us.
To be situated in place is to be engaged in a reciprocity where survival, both physical and spiritual, depends on our understanding of gestures. I believe necessity drives us to improvisation where improbable and sustaining gestures create moments of grace that take care of us. We continue to evolve and transform who we are in relationship to where we are. We do not live in isolation from the physical world around us. Nature beckons our response. It is in the doing, the being, the becoming that meaning is made. What becomes sacred is the act itself — not what remains. Something inexplicable is set into motion.
Our fate, like the fate of all species, is determined by chance, by circumstance, and by grace.
One of the loveliest aspects of Williams’s prose and her orientation to ecological responsibility is the unflinching critical thinking with which she approaches the subject, at the same time refusing to perpetrate one of the great cultural crimes of our time — the tendency to mistake cynicism, that toxic calcification of the soul, for critical thinking. Her rhetoric is rigorously reasoned and passionately uncynical, precise yet poetic. Writing from Big Bend National Park in Texas, she reminds us that nature itself is our mightiest antidote to cynicism:
Big Bend is no place for cynics. There is too much at stake. A bedrock pragmatism refutes sentimentality through the beauty of the unexpected. What we mistake as sentimental is in fact a generosity, a willingness to stay open and acknowledge the miraculous.
Cynicism flourishes in air-conditioned rooms. Like any true place, the desert is a risk. Back into a barrel cactus and you may get hurt. But touch its yellow flowers with petals like wax and the pain from its needles lessens. Our fear of being touched removes us from a sensate world. The distant self becomes the detached self who no longer believes in anything. Awe is the moment when ego surrenders to wonder. This is our inheritance — the beauty before us. We cry. We cry out. There is nothing sentimental about facing the desert bare. It is a terrifying beauty.
Standing on the Atlantic shoreline of Acadia National Park, Williams echoes the biological and poetic truth Rachel Carson so memorably articulated nearly a century earlier in her pioneering essay on the life of the ocean — “Against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.” — and writes:
Each breaking wave, each rush of the sea on the slope of sand, reminds me why these places of pilgrimage matter. They matter to me because in the long view, I do not. I am driftwood. I am rockweed. I am osprey and the mackerel in the clutch of her feet. I am a woman standing on the edge of the continent looking out.
Just as we cope with the disorientation of living in a relative universe by grasping for artificial absolutes — a maladaptive coping mechanism that seems to be a bug of human consciousness — we cope with this awareness of our smallness and finitude by grasping for control and domination of the expansive natural world that lies beyond us. Decades after the theologian Thomas Merton wrote in his fan letter to Rachel Carson we suffer from a civilizational sickness leading us to believe that “in order to ‘survive’ we instinctively destroy that on which our survival depends,” Williams writes:
The irony of our existence is this: We are infinitesimal in the grand scheme of evolution, a tiny organism on Earth. And yet, personally, collectively, we are changing the planet through our voracity, the velocity of our reach, our desires, our ambitions, and our appetites. We multiply, our hunger multiplies, and our insatiable craving accelerates.
Consumption is a progressive disease.
We believe in more, more possessions, more power, more war. Anywhere, everywhere our advance of aggression continues.
My aggression toward myself is the first war.
Wilderness is an antidote to the war within ourselves.
How do we find our way back to a world interrelated and interconnected, whose priority is to thrive and evolve? What kind of belief systems are emerging now that reinforce and contribute to a world increasingly disconnected from nature? And what about the belief — my belief — in all that is wild?
I return to the wilderness to remember what I have forgotten, that the world can be wholesome and beautiful, that the harmony and integrity of ecosystems at peace is a mirror to what we have lost.
Williams considers the questions facing us — as individuals, as a nation, as a civilization — and the decisions we are called to make in the name of wholeness, beauty, harmony, and all that makes our Pale Blue Dot such a precious improbability of cosmic chance:
We are at a crossroads. We can continue on the path we have been on, in this nation that privileges profit over people and land; or we can unite as citizens with a common cause — the health and wealth of the Earth that sustains us. If we cannot commit to this kind of fundamental shift in our relationship to people and place, then democracy becomes another myth perpetuated by those in power who care only about themselves.
The time has come for acts of reverence and restraint on behalf of the Earth. We have arrived at the Hour of Land.