Nature and Transcendentalism--Our Nature Gene
On our Facebook site a new member recently wondered about the rationale/origin of the custom of “taking the summer off.” Let me offer a novel justification that I mused about this summer: we Unitarians carry the “transcendentalist gene” that leads us to derive much meaning from and inspiration in Nature. Summer is the season when we suspend services that we might go out into Nature and enjoy it--first hand and often as our human nature desires.
That’s a little facetious, but it’s also a recognition how much Nature marbles our outlook and attitudes. When it comes to Nature and Religion, our forebears infused it into an abiding religious naturalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1836 anonymously published an extended essay later called a book, simply titled Nature. Though Nature was as much about philosophical Idealism (soon to be called Transcendentalism) as it was about the natural world, the book had scant success at first but after a decade or so acquired considerable influence. Among those influenced by it was Harvard College student Henry David Thoreau, who would write the greatest American Nature book Walden. It was on a tract of land owned by Emerson near his Concord home that Thoreau tried out his two year experiment in living that has continued to influence Americans to seek Nature’s ministrations.
Allow me a Unitarian heresy. Emerson’s Nature is not an easy read. It’s a text well-suited to alleviate insomnia, a few paragraphs invariably leads me into a sleepy state as I try to keep Emerson’s argument in my consciousness.But there are a few memorable passages I can’t forget. I like the opening of Chapter I:
To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!
I also like a passage in which Emerson strived mightily to describe Nature’s affect on him.
The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.
My favorite passage led a fellow Transcendentalist, Christopher Cranch to draw one of the most famous cartoons of American history.
In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages.
One of the noteworthy aspects of our Unitarian forebears relates to their intuitive insight later verified by a more scientific understanding. For example, modern science has verified Theodore Parker’s poetic phrase c. 1850 that “we are enchanted stardust.” Indeed, the stuff of our bodies was birthed in the explosion of ancient stars. And the Transcendentalists of the antebellum era were fundamentally right in extolling the role of Nature generally regarding spiritual healthfulness.
What Emerson, Thoreau and generations of Nature-loving generations of Unitarians intuited about Nature’s many human benefits now has a growing body of scientifically guided evidence.
A few years ago author/activist Richard Louv published a book of considerable influence: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. While not a clinical term, at least not yet the author frequently relates, the descriptive Nature-Deficit Disorder is on target for many children specifically and society generally. Drawing on studies such as the one we’ve reviewed at the notorious Robert Taylor Homes, Louv has argued that many of the inflictions of contemporary children, such as hyperactivity disorder, stress, depression anxiety disorders, and of course childhood obesity, result from an alienation of nature.
Louv wrote of his boyhood spent in close relation with Nature. (He recalls pulling out hundreds of developer’s stakes planted to guide the bulldozers that would ravage the woods where he played.) Two generations later he describes children deprived of free roaming in relatively wild spaces.
Fear reigns—a pedophile lurking outside every front door, the media has led us to imagine. So parents send children out the back door to free-play, at best. Instead, great chunks of outdoor time for children are regulated by formally supervised sports activities in very carefully managed landscapes. Carefully managed landscapes in large part have been sanitized by civic entities to avoid lawsuits for unsafe conditions. Louv points out that a child is statistically more likely to be hit by a car than to encounter a child predator. He also maintains that children are drawn to the edges of carefully landscapes, the craggy areas leading into trees, where rocks and tree limbs and such “dangerous” debris. He suggests that a kid’s nature draws her or him into the more adventuresome unknown, which includes a hypersensitive wariness and a sense of independence.
In a Salon interview he said:
[I]t's true that not only nature can give the feeling of autonomy. But then when you think about where could kids be getting that instinctual self-confidence and independence -- where could they go -- it's hard to think of a lot of positive places. Nature often provides an atmosphere you can't get anywhere else, a sensation of being solitary. And again, I think there are mysterious things that happen, a lot of which have to do with the full use of our senses. I can't think of many places, other than maybe the New York subways, in which we have our senses going full cylinder. And I make the case in the book -- though I am very careful to say that I am speculating about this -- that letting your kids have some independence in nature, where they can use all their senses, in the long run makes them safer.
Usually hyper-vigilance -- behavior manifested by always being on guard and ready to fight or flee -- is associated with trauma in childhood. But the hyper-awareness gained from early experience in nature may be the flip side of hyper-vigilance a positive way to pay attention, and, when it's appropriate, to be on guard. We're familiar with the term "street smart." Perhaps another, wider, adaptive intelligence is available to the young? Call it "nature smart." One father I spoke to said he believes that a child in nature is required to make decisions not often encountered in a more constricted, planned environment -- ones that not only present danger, but opportunity. Organized sports, with its finite set of rules, is said to build character. If that is true, and of course it can be, nature experience must do the same, in ways we do not fully understand. A natural environment is far more complex than any playing field. Nature does offer rules and risk, and subtly informs all the senses.
And certainly, [other aspects] give a child self-confidence, independence and the sense that they can exist in the world and are somewhere bigger than their parents and their problems -- are all a part of the healing possibilities of nature that I hope people will explore.
Parents, I’ve come to believe, have a moral obligation ensure that their children grow up nurtured by Nature. And though an intellectual understanding, such as acquired in school, or via natural history museums, or books and videos has value in this regard, yet none not approach what’s acquired by getting down and dirty and maybe holding an earthworm, grasshopper, snake, or even a lifeless bird. (Anecdotally, contemporary parents loathe their children being “contaminated” by direct contact with Nature.)
One of the greatest biologists of our age, Edward O. Wilson, the so-called father of socio-biology, authority on ants, and recent novelist--he has a new novel Anthill with plenty of ant lore in it, spoke of humankind’s relationship with Nature in the broadest evolutionary understanding. In 1984 he published a series of essays somewhat memoirish, while introducing and furthering a notion he called biophilia, also the name of the book.Wilson posited, that as a result of evolution, human beings have a deep affiliation with living things and the systems that maintain life. Simply put Wilson argued that we have an innate love of Nature in all aspects. While scientifically controversial, biophilia has a cachet similar to nature deficit disorder. I like it, even more than the trendier notion of “nature deficit disorder.” (Remember that evolutionary psychologists and biologists have determined than one of the five instinctive moral colors relates to an innate respect for life, that we recognize as similar, less or more, to our own.)
The old Transcendentalist emphasis on the influence and effect of Nature were essentially right. My counsel nine years ago, following 9/11 had much wisdom—to go out into Nature and experience, in the Midwest’s great harvest season, the regions of permanence that center and sustain us, especially when we need such ministrations the most. And I think I got it figuratively right in proposing that we UUs have a Nature-gene passed on by our forebears who intuited what we’re now scientifically proving.