Thoreau on Nature and Human Nature, the Tonic of Wildness, and the Value of the Unexplored
By Maria Popova
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Published May 25, 2021