Friday, October 9, 2020

Reading Emerson's Essay "Nature" While Camping

"Landscape and Transcendence," Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900)
In his essay "Nature," Ralph Waldo Emerson says this about being outside during times "wherein the world reaches its perfection," speaking specifically about October: "These halcyons [days of peace and tranquillity] may be looked for with a little more assurance in that pure October weather, which we distinguish by the name of Indian Summer. The day, immeasurably long, sleeps over the broad hills and warm wide fields. To have lived through all its sunny hours, seems longevity enough. The solitary places do not seem quite lonely. At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he makes into these precincts."

As Emerson's description of the beauty of the New England autumn unfolds, we are led from an  individual perspective, creeping out of our "close and crowded houses," to the cosmic perspective of the laws of nature. "The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles," to live beyond history, church, or state, in unity with "the divine sky and the immortal year." Nature, he says, is medicinal; it sobers and heals us. It is our first home, feeding our senses with with "room enough," to be whole. If we could be "rapt away" into the fullness of nature, he says, "the upper sky would be all that would remain of our furniture."

The purpose of Emerson's essay is to remind us of and inspire us to our essential nature, that the fullness of nature is also our fullness. He seeks to move us from the everyday "profane" to the eternities of sacred nature, describing "the innumerable florets" of the flower houstonia, glassy lakes, and the south wind that "converts all trees to wind-harps." He seeks to expand our mind through his description--senses, intellect, and emotions--and to lead us to that place within where boundaries fade and even as we sit inside our homes, reading his essay, listening to the "crackling and spurting of hemlock in the flames" of the fireplace and gazing at the patterned grain of the wood-paneled walls, we see "the music and pictures of the most ancient religion." And we are changed, transformed.

"I leave the village politics and personalities, yes, and the world of villages and personalities behind, and pass into the delicate realm of sunset and moonlight, too bright almost for spotted man to enter without novitiate and probation. We penetrate bodily this incredible beauty; we dip our hands in this painted element: our eyes are bathed in these lights and forms."

Is it nature that transforms us, or we that transform nature? Does our perception perceive or create? What is the sequence, the process? The question will betray the unity of the moment. There is no sequence, no creator and creation, only the experience of unity, transcending time, place, and causality. "The difference between landscape and landscape is small, but there is great difference in the beholders." Emerson says that "nature cannot be surprised in undress. Beauty breaks in everywhere." Nature need not be fenced and called a park; it is equally present in a woodlot or planted field. "Compound it how she will, star, sand, fire, water, tree, man, it is still one stuff, and betrays the same properties."

Honey Creek State Park, my home for two weeks
And that is how I come to be spending two weeks in mid-October, camping in a state park in Iowa. Given the opportunity, I choose to bathe "in these lights and forms," to give myself the opportunity to let beauty "break in," to enliven within myself the "same properties" that exist in cosmic reality, to transcend our "petty omnipresence," where "flowers jilt us, and we are old bachelors with our ridiculous tenderness."

Reading all of the essay "Nature" beyond Emerson's introductory laudations that are giddy with transcendental epiphanies, a more somber explication of his ideas--obviously based on his personal experience--is developed. The matter of the universe is all one "stuff," and the motion of the universe is all one energy. Living this unity, though, is not an intellectual construct, nor is it an abandonment of the intellect or mind. The primal essence of existence compels us, even though we cannot fully embrace that essence with our reason. Therefore, "no man is quite sane," seeking to know that essence, and coming up esteeming our "hat and shoes sacred." 

The unified oneness of the perceiver, that which is perceived, and the process of perceiving is an elusive oneness, even for Emerson. He admits the frustration at his fleeting glimpses of that which he does not eternally own. "A man can only speak, so long as he does not feel his speech to be partial and inadequate." We intuit the whole within the part, yet lose the wholeness within the boundaries. This fleeting, intuitive, deja vu-like experience of knowing wholeness is our experience with nature. We have been one with nature before, haven't we? We almost remember it. "There is throughout nature, something that leads us on and on, but arrives nowhere, keeps no faith with us." Our hunger, even when we eat, is for something greater than the physical food. All thoughts and exertions fall short because they are expressions of boundaries which limit the unboundedness that teases us with reminisces with every hard line and definitive action. "This disappointment is felt in every landscape." We cannot come "near enough" to the objects of our perception. "The pine tree, the river, the bank of flowers before [the poet], does not seem to be nature. Nature is elsewhere."

What is fickle is not nature, not matter and motion; nature is not petulant, nor are we "tickled trout." It is our individual consciousness that is fickle and variable. "We cannot bandy words with nature, or deal with her as we deal with persons." There is no personal or individual relationship with nature, only a cosmic relationship. If we wish to see nature in its wholeness, then we must be whole. Our knowledge of existence is structured in our own consciousness. We cannot experience unboundedness while being bound by our own individual limitations. "Nature cannot be cheated," or tricked into revelation, Emerson writes. "Man's life is but seventy salads long, grow they swift or grow they slow." What we perceive through unenlightened eyes is only a glimmer of full sunlight. "The reality is more excellent than the report."

Emerson provides us with hope, though, even though he provides us with no clear technique for transcendence. Transcendence is our nature, after all. "The world is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping again into the state of free thought." Consciousness makes "the whole and the particle its equal channel." Since nature is in every particle of our existence and in all of existence, we should hope and live for that transcendental unity. "Every moment instructs and every object: for wisdom is infused into every form." We must strive for unity with nature, no matter how many days it takes.

"It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure; it enveloped us in dull, melancholy days, or in days of cheerful labor; we did not guess its essence, until after a long time."

The irony of Emerson's conclusion is that being nature, we yearn to know our nature, to live fully our unbounded nature, even if our individual, bound selves are too busy or preoccupied to remember. Being out among the trees can help us remember, though. That's why I'm camping right now, surrounding myself with nature, with trees and sky and lake. Ideas of enlightenment and unity reside in our mind, but also "stand around us in nature forever embodied, a present sanity to expose and cure the insanity of men." I'm here for the cure, even if it doesn't happen until after a long time.

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner


Post a Comment