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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.

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Love and Symmetry: Poet A. Van Jordan Imagines the Undelivered Feynman Lecture About the Mystery Lying Between Scientific Truth and Human Meaning

“Mysteries inside mysteries in our own bodies of which we can’t make sense, another world waiting for a religion or calculus to explain.”

Love and Symmetry: Poet A. Van Jordan Imagines the Undelivered Feynman Lecture About the Mystery Lying Between Scientific Truth and Human Meaning

It is dazzling enough to live with the knowledge that everything around us — the fiery cardinal that evolved from the T-rex, the blooming daffodil that traded its sallow brown-green for blazing yellow to attract the primordial pollinators, the human eye millennia in the lensing, the eye that now beholds these wonders and inhales them into a consciousness endowed with the triumphal capacity for being wonder-smitten — is a living record of manifest possibility 13.8 billion years in the making.

Now consider living with the knowledge that all of it is not only the change log of the past, but also the pre-composed code of the future.

I consider this one April afternoon, sitting in a Brooklyn garden just coming alive with bud and bee, as I listen to a physicist-saxophonist friend electric with enthusiasm about his research exploring the radical mathematical implication that the universe might be autodidactic — that the fundamental forces, rather than abiding by the static and predictable laws we have so far discerned, might be the evolving self-perpetuating algorithms of the ultimate learning machine, algorithms that began as simple principles and went on to continually revise and elaborate on themselves, not unlike biological evolution is continually revising and elaborating on life. The fundamental poem, composing itself.

Brooklyn Cartesian Poem by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In detailing the physics behind this model, Stephon skips no beat honoring one of his great heroes, on whose shoulders this theory stands: Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988), whose Nobel-winning work on quantum electrodynamics laid the foundation of quantum computing and its promise of enlisting phenomena like entanglement and superposition in computing the previously incomputable.

Feynman — physicist, philosopher, painter, bongo-drummer and safe-cracker — belonged to that rare species of scientist who reverenced the elemental poetics of reality in lyrical prose, who composed what may be the world’s most poetic footnote and loved as deeply as he thought and saw the poetic I of his human self as “a universe of atoms… an atom in the universe.” His science and his spirit come alive afresh in a stunning prose poem titled “Richard P. Feynman Lecture: Intro to Symmetry” from the slender and splendid Quantum Lyrics (public library) by A. Van Jordan — a rare poet who reverences the elemental science of reality.

Jordan writes:

Love begins in the streets with vibration and ends behind closed doors in jealousy. Creation and destruction. What do we pray for but the equation that helps us make sense of what happens in our daily lives? What do we believe in if not that which tells us we’re alive? Sex, laughter, sweat, and equations elegant enough to figure on our fingers. Math is spirit and spirit is faith in numbers; both take us to the edge but no further than we can imagine. You don’t believe in math? Try to figure the velocity of Earth’s orbit around the Sun to land a man on the Moon without it. You don’t believe in God? Try to use math to calculate what the eye does every second of any given moment. If Big Blue tried to work that differential equation in our lifetime, it couldn’t. Mysteries inside mysteries in our own bodies of which we can’t make sense, another world waiting for a religion or calculus to explain. Look into any mirror; it’s like sitting in a theater watching a silent movie, but you’re the one pantomiming your story. You think you have this world figured out, but you can’t tell which hand you’re using and using and using. And why do we try?

We try, of course, because curiosity is the true triumph of consciousness; because what Einstein called “the passion for comprehension” is the hallmark of our species. We comprehend by parsing the world into categories and classes, constantly computing the distances and differences between them. This, it bears repeating, is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos, to construct a foothold so we may climb toward higher truth — but it is also a limiting one, a dangerous one, nowhere more so than in the artificial binaries we create in trying to orient ourselves by differentiation.

With an eye to the limiting binaries of our Cartesian inheritance, and perhaps with an eye to his own experience of love — which every artist cannot but factor into their cosmogony — Jordan writes:

You cannot solve for the use of one side of the body over the other, so there is no single voice that emits from it. You cannot solve for the harmonics of a dual body, facing each other, both inquisitive. You cannot solve for the marriage of opposites, their fit, their match, their endlessness. You cannot solve for the morning stretch that calls to both sides, first this one, then that one, aligning the day. You cannot solve for the bass of one hand and the treble of the other, both keeping rhythm hostage under the skin of the bongo. You cannot solve for the balance of a locked door and a safe cracker’s ear against it and the move X number of clicks to the left and Y number of clicks back to the right and back past and back past till the latch clicks open in your mind.

Complement this fragment of Jordan’s thoroughly wonderful Quantum Lyrics — which imagines the inner lives and animating forces of Einstein, Schrödinger, and other titanic scientific minds who have revolutionized our understanding of external reality — with Feynman on why uncertainty is essential for morality and his touching effort to reconcile what he knows about science with what he knows of love after the death of his young wife, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin on the complementarity of poetry and science.

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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.

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The Tree in Me: A Tender Painted Poem About Growing Our Capacity for Joy, Strength, and Love

What trees can teach us about more closely and loving ourselves, each other, and the world more deeply.

The Tree in Me: A Tender Painted Poem About Growing Our Capacity for Joy, Strength, and Love

Walt Whitman, who considered trees the profoundest teachers in how to best be human, remembered the woman he loved and respected above all others as that rare person who was “entirely herself; as simple as nature; true, honest; beautiful as a tree is tall, leafy, rich, full, free — is a tree.”

At the outset of what was to become the most challenging year of my life, and the most challenging for the totality of the world in our shared lifetime, I resolved to face it like a tree — a resolution blind to that unfathomable future, as all resolutions and all futures tend to be, but one that made it infinitely more survivable. I was not the only one. Humans, after all, have a long history of learning resilience from trees and fathoming our own nature through theirs: Hesse saw in them the paragon of self-actualization, Thoreau reverenced them as cathedrals that consecrate our lives, Dylan Thomas entrusted them with humbling us into the essence of our humanity, ancient mythology placed them at its spiritual center, and science used them as an organizing principle for knowledge.

Artist and author Corinna Luyken draws on this intimate connection between the sylvan and the human in The Tree in Me (public library) — a lyrical meditation on the root of creativity, strength, and connection, with a spirit and sensibility kindred to her earlier emotional intelligence primer in the form of a painted poem.

Inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s timeless and transformative mindfulness teachings, which she first encountered long ago in the character-kiln of adolescence and which profoundly influenced her worldview as she matured, Luyken considers the book “a seedling off the tree” from the great Zen teacher’s classic tangerine meditation — the fruition of her longtime desire to make something beautiful and tender that invites the young (and not only the young) to look more deeply into the nature of the world, into their own nature and its magnificent interconnectedness to all of nature. After years of incubation, after many trials that landed far from her vision, a spare poem came to her. Paintings grew out of the words. A book blossomed.

The tree in me
is seed and blossom,
bark and stump…
part shade,
and part sun.

The singsong verses follow the protagonist — an everychild of ambiguous age, gender, and ethnicity — along a joyful journey of self-discovery, self-understanding, and self-appreciation through warm identification with various aspects of a tree: its irrepressible lushness, the effortless grace with which it bends without breaking, how it is constantly negotiating darkness and light, how it exists in exquisite interdependence with the rest of the living world.

There is a lovely visual nod to one of the most revelatory and paradigm-shifting scientific discoveries in our lifetime — the astonishing mycelial web by which trees communicate with each other underground, a discovery that may be nature’s loveliest metaphor for the secret of love.

As the child looks up to face a young woman — who could be a mother or a sister or a first love or the school janitor or the Vice President — the book ends with a subtle affirmation of William Blake’s timeless tree-tinted insistence that we see not what we look at but what we are.

Because there is
a tree,
and a sky,
and a sun
in me,
I can see
that there is also
a tree
in you.

Couple The Tree in Me with The Day I Became a Bird — a kindred illustrated meditation on learning to let ourselves be seen — then revisit D.H. Lawrence on trees, solitude, and how we root ourselves when relationships collapse and Mary Oliver’s short, shimmering poem “When I Am Among the Trees.”

Illustrations by Corinna Luyken; book photographs by Maria Popova

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