Emerson and Thoreau as American Prophets of Eco-wisdom
Ann Woodlief, Virginia Commonwealth University
Paper presented to Virginia Humanities Conference, 1990
The major premise of transcendental eco-wisdom is that connection with nature is essential for a person's intellectual, aesthetic, and moral health and growth. One must see and experience nature intimately, whether defined as the "not-me" or as landscape, to participate in the unity of Spirit underlying its visible processes. This connectedness is the basis of the self-reliance which determines how a person lives with integrity in nature and society. Granted, the concept of self-reliance apparently devalues social concerns, including the global commitment and cooperation needed to bring about the kinds of changes that would reverse the climatic greenhouse effect, for example. Indeed, Emerson's ideas have been unfairly appropriated to justify the capitalistic exploitative excesses and insensitivity to social problems and long-term consequences that lie at the root of many of our environmental problems. However, we cannot fault Emerson and Thoreau for not imagining our current dependence on technology, the complexity of a largely urban economy or the ties of a global community. Yet even the notion of a self-contained Concord or Walden Pond, which might seem naive and outdated, is reflected in current ideas about eco- regionalism. By accounting for what they could not have known of our present condition, we can still find fruitful ways of understanding where humans, singly and as a species, should fit into nature.
Emerson's greatest gift was lessons in seeing in and through nature and extracting symbolic meaning, yet his own intimate encounters with the nature around him were relatively rare and indirect, with few concrete traces in his writings except as occasional metaphors. He wanted his revelations from nature to be abstract and come by surprise, as did the famed mystical encounter at the beginning of his book Nature: "Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear." In such an experience, even the self is absorbed by a greater power: "I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me." The metaphor may be unfortunate, but not his faith that a single person could perceive unspeakable meanings through experiencing nature, even if only indirectly. Such possibilities impelled Thoreau and countless others since to mine the details and processes of nature that Emerson had generalized, looking for embedded revelations and sharing in nature's "ecstasy."
In Nature Emerson takes an unabashedly anthropocentric view, seeing nature as a great and holy teacher of the self-reliant man who will look beyond its uses as mere commodity and see it as infused with spirit, with a wonder known to few adults. Nature's purpose was clear to Emerson: "All the parts incessantly work into each other's hands for the profit of man" and "the endless circulations of divine charity nourish man." Nature's beauty and accompanying tonic of delight come through "the plastic power of the human eye" which lets us appreciate natural things "in and for themselves" yet it also finds "correspondences" which translate the landscape into human meaning; "Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts". Nature provides the alert man with fresh images and metaphors for language, giving the man with the discipline to devote himself to its study ultimate power: "One after another, his victorious thought comes up with and reduces all things, until all the world becomes, at last, only a realized will,--the double of the man". Power and self-revelation come only when one can see each particle of nature as a microcosm, which "faithfully renders the likeness of the world."
Yet there are moments, particularly in the last half of Nature and some lectures, when Emerson modifies his exuberant anthropocentrism. Though he never put humans on the same moral level as animals or trees, for example, he does see them all linked as the expression of Spirit, which may only be described in terms of natural laws and unified fluid processes. The self is both humbled and empowered in its cosmic perspective. By knowing the harmony of nature's laws, the poet or philosopher can see through it, making "the refractory world...ductile and flexible," yet he also recognizes that Nature is "inviolable" and "serene", not "subjected to human will." Any reforming or changing of nature, then, must come from "redemption of the human soul." The true naturalist must "satisfy all the demands of the spirit. Love is as much its demand, as perception"; only then can he obey the Orphic poet's injunction to "Build, therefore, your own world."
An early Emerson lecture on "Humanity and Science" reasons that since "Nature proceeds from a mind congenial with ours" that it is "overflowed and saturated with humanity" In his lecture on "Water," he describes the unseen cosmic processes of water which operate far beyond man's puny direction, yet water always serves us, not just physically but also by exalting "our highest sentiments" so that we see each drop "in every step of this ceaseless revolution serving the life, the order, the happiness of the Universe." This cosmic view of man's place in the universe is elaborated in a later lecture on "The Method of Nature," when nature speaks to insist that, unlike the gardner who "aims to produce a fine peach," her "aim is the health of the whole tree,--root, stem, leaf, flower, and seed,--and by no means the pampering of a monstrous pericarp at the expense of all the other functions." So let humans be appropriately warned that in the "rapid metamorphoses" of nature "there is in it no private will, no rebel leaf or limb, but the whole is oppressed by one superincumbent tendency which obeys that redundance or excess of life which in conscious beings we call ecstasy." In the 1844 essay on "Nature," Emerson acknowledges that nature "will not be rashly explained. Her secret is untold," yet he also asserts total identity of nature with man that makes him the "prophet and discoverer of her secrets."
Emerson, then, manages to combine the contraries of his vision of a self-reliant man re-forming nature by seeing it and thus using its many services for his language, moral stature, and spiritual insight, and the notion of man being a "monstrous pericarp" whose private will can only block his sharing of ecstasy and whose intellect can never penetrate her secrets. I believe that the true power of transcendental thought lies in its ability to see the liberating potential of both apparently contradictory ideas without having to reconcile them. If humans do not perceive nature as serving them in spiritual as well as material ways, they are likely to disregard and abuse it, and so would never reach the point of transcending their private and human concerns to learn respect for the non-human nature that is truly the not-me.
Emerson was evidently more comfortable with the idea of anthropocentrism, as was Thoreau at moments in Walden and his early Journal. However, Thoreau went on to explore the more recalcitrant facets of Nature's otherness, that wildness, as he called it, which had little or no correspondence with human needs or desires. His understanding of self-reliance enabled him to appreciate the resisting independence and integrity of nature. Only recently have literary critics learned to value the work which truly challenges both its readers and the anthropocentric stance, especially his later Journal. Here Thoreau rejected Emerson's more transcendental rhapsodizing about perceiving nature as symbol of the human mind for a rigorous exploration of his natural world which was constantly--and productively-- frustrated in its search for personal and human meaning in an almost alien world of nature. As Sharon Cameron demonstrates, readers who assume connections of meaning between nature and man are troubled by his efforts in the Journal to speak in nature's voice, putting human concerns on the margin of "nature's infinite self-referentiality". That effort to speak about what is, by Thoreau's definition, humanly unspeakable may be doomed, but that is part of its transcendental reach as well as his unique literary accomplishment.
Thoreau has become the prophet of wilderness for modern environmentalists who have adopted as motto his assertion that "in Wildness is the preservation of the World." Although he did advocate that each town should set aside extensive acreage in its natural state as "a common possession forever for instruction and recreation," and he traveled through the Maine wilderness, he was more comfortable in a semi-domesticated Concord than in true wilderness, such as the untamed ocean depths which had Herman Melville questioning God. His limit for handling wildness seems to have been reached on Mt. Katahdin, where nature's unresponsive materiality made him feel his humanity and spirit slipping away. Though he recognized nature's separateness, he continued to try to "redeem" it, to give it some human order and meaning with his observations. Paradoxically, he thought nature needs man to make it significant yet nature must also remain essentially separate from humans. In no way is nature robbed or diminished by becoming a medium for greater self-understanding and spiritual insight, but we should not yield to the hubris of thinking that nature exists simply to satisfy human needs, not even literary ones.
What were the practical consequences of his belief in nature's separate independence, aside from the torrent of observations and unanswered questions which fill his later journals? Paradoxically, it expanded rather than curtailed his own sense of humanity. He felt one must behave as morally toward nature as toward men, and considered the wasteful cutting of the forests, for example, to be inhumane. In 1855 he wrote about his decision not to hit the chestnut tree with a stone to bring down nuts, saying "It is not innocent, it is not just, so to maltreat the tree that feeds us." Yet his motive was not just self-serving, fearing that if he "shortens its life I shall not enjoy its fruit as long" but "motives purely of humanity." He suggests that he would be murdering a "sentient being--with a duller sense than my own, but yet a distant relation" and advises that "If you would learn the secrets of Nature, you must practice more humanity than others." He ends sharply by asking "Behold a man cutting down a tree to come at the fruit! What is the moral of such an act?"
Economy was also a crucial aspect of his response to nature, especially at Walden. Although he uses the word in Walden as a quasi- or anti-business metaphor, it is also an early ecological term. Thoreau copied long extracts from Linnaeus' work on "The Oeconomy of Nature," adopting his phrase to describe interdependent relationships within nature. His effort to live in harmony with nature at Walden required the literal economy of using as few resources as necessary. Not only did he find time and freedom to read, write, and think by reducing his consumption to a minimum, but he could live with more integrity in nature by adapting to its seasons, not interfering with its processes, and honoring its own "oeconomy." He built his cabin by recycling boards, cutting only the wood necessary to frame it, and heated his stone fireplace with driftwood. He grew beans without fertilizer, pesticides, or weed killer, ate little meat, owned few clothes, bathed in the pond, and walked everywhere he wanted to go. Reducing life to its simplest terms left him free to observe and appreciate the natural economy around him. His economic self-sufficiency may not transfer easily to an urbanized people enslaved to petroleum, but he had the right idea--to think, before you consume, of the consequences to your mental and spiritual health which depends so much on an intimate and moral, even "human," connection with nature.
There are other transcendental strains in Thoreau which ring true today. As we try to rescue vanishing species, he lamented the loss of "nobler animals," regretting that his ancestors have "torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages" of the poem of primitive nature, thwarting his desire "to know an entire heaven and an entire earth." He was fascinated with the Indian, whose "intercourse with Nature is at least such as admits of the greatest independence of each," envying his "rare and peculiar society with nature," one denied even to himself. Though an inventive person himself, he distrusted the technology of the railroad and machines, wondering about the American obsession with speed. Science, he feared, is "inhuman. Things seen with a microscope begin to be insignificant . . . With our prying instruments we disturb the balance and harmony of nature." On the most transcendental level, though, he turned to nature for a beauty and harmony, even a civilized humanity, which he often found lacking in ordinary life, cherishing nature's "eternal health" and "perfect confidence." Yet even in these moments he noted that he "had seen into paradisaic regions" where he had "hardly a foothold."
Feeling an intimate part of nature yet also aware of its separate integrity, Thoreau found there the very roots of his vitality, his art, and his religion. Both he and Emerson pointed the way for us, who live in a more diminished and often polluted nature, to discard our false sense of dominion and superiority and discover our proper ethical and spiritual place in nature. We must remember that we are not essential to nature's health, yet our capacity to destroy her is growing. The best of our human possibilities, though, depends on our nurturing close, caring and respectful relationships with her. We must serve nature's ends for her to serve our lives. That is transcendental eco-wisdom, both timeless and timely.