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To Some It's just a Wall

The other night I initially thought we’d practice some enchantment by reading some passages by Thoreau. Then we’d collectively say, “Wow.” And then would say Goodbye and go back to our cellphones.

Then I realized that this whole thing we’re talking about today—finding enchantment in nature is unnatural in a couple of ways.

1.)Thoreau hated secondary / reactionary sources. He was about experiencing / writing our own narrative with primary sources. We cannot experience enchantment artificially or through a surrogate. Enchanted living has to be done first hand. So reading a snip it of Thoreau and saying, “Wow!” isn’t enough. This might be why literature classes fail to move and transform people.

2.)To even talk about nature like this is un-natural. For our ancestors, nature was their living room. They didn’t say stuff like, “Wow look that landscape. Looks like an Ansel Adams photo.” That would be like us saying, “Wow look at that couch! It is so soft and so well made for sitting.” A lot of the enchantment we find in nature may simply happen because we are so removed from nature. Nature is now a novel thing we go to on our terms.

So anyway I realized that while Thoreau’s work embodies a spirit of enchantment as good as any writer I can think of, but the writings themselves are not necessarily the ultimate expression of enchantment. Thoreau’s example of how he re-encounters nature, leaves us with a mental framework that helps us to set up the conditions for living more enchanted lives. This to me is the ultimate expression in his work. We will forget his exact words, but we might not forget Thoreau’s approach to experiencing life.

If there are two giants in American Literature, at least in my mind, from the 19th century, they are Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. One of my favorite lines from Whitman is, “The earth—that is enough.” I love that line because too often we try to adorn the beautiful with kitsch. I believe Whitman was saying, that the way the earth is, just as it is, is beautiful. And what is beautiful doesn’t need adornment to make it beautiful. I also think Whitman was saying that the earth doesn’t need to be anthropomorphized. It doesn’t have to be put into our image to be appreciated. The earth just as it is, is enough.

But when we compare Whitman’s line, “The earth—that is enough” with a journal entry by Thoreau from October 10, 1858, we see Thoreau doing something seemingly different. He wrote:

“The simplest and most lumpish fungus has a peculiar interest to us, compared with a mere mass of earth, because it is so obviously organic and related to ourselves, however remote. It is an expression of an idea; growth according to a law; matter not dormant, not raw, but inspired, appropriated by spirit. If I take up a handful of earth, however separately interesting the particles may be, their relation to one another appears to be that of mere juxtaposition generally. I might have thrown them together thus. But the humblest fungus betrays a life akin to our own. It is a successful poem in its kind. There is suggested something superior to any particle of matter, in the idea or mind which uses and arranges the particles.”

While these two sound very different, I think they may be saying the same thing. Whitman finds enchantment in the earth just as it is and Thoreau seems to be embellishing the earth quite a bit. He’s got nature “related to ourselves”, “an expression of an idea,” and “appropriated by spirits.” It seems like a lot of adornment.

But there may be a lot that Whitman carried into that line, "The earth—that is enough.” For many, they look out the window while going down I-80 and the earth is not enough. It’s because of what they do or do not bring into that view. To many people Iowa is a barren brown world of dirt and snipped off corn stalks. Better to look at the vibrant color of the cellphone. The reason the earth was enough for Whitman was because he carried all of the mystery and awe and wonder of Thoreau into that statement. Cellphone addiction does not always bring much to the table of the imagination when it comes to nature. So there isn’t much to eat and digest there.

But there is a caveat here. It would seem that William doesn’t bring much to the table when he looks at nature. He is sort of like a blank slate. But William’s table is as full as anyone’s. He just encounters nature for what it is. He’s kind of like Whitman. The earth—that IS enough for William.

But my Dad, who grew up the son of a high school biology teacher, has read books on biology his whole life and can identify trees, prairie plants, and wildflowers, brings a bit more of that complicated Thoreau type approach. William sees a purple flower and says, ‘Wow.’ It may take a little more than that for my dad to say ‘Wow,’ but the ‘Wow’ my dad might say is, “Wow, why purple?”

I can remember very little of what I actually said growing up. But I distinctly remember where I was when I asked my dad a question one time. We were walking around in circles in his workroom doing exercise together. I asked him unexpectedly, “Why do flowers come in so many colors?” To my dad it was a question that struck at the mystery of the universe. For him, couldn’t evolution have made them all red? Why did natural selection tend toward color variation? How did color variation help in survival and reproduction.

My dad shouted upstairs to my mom, “Hey Wilma, why do flowers come in so many different colors?” “What?” Repeat. Then she said, “Because that’s the way God made them.”

Maybe my mom and I were like Whitman and my dad was like Thoreau, but in both ways, there is this thing—engagement in nature. My mom and dad love flowers in very different ways. My mom raises flowers. The whole perimeter of the place I grew up was lined in flowers. My mom can identify, plant, prune, and care for domesticated flowers. My dad studies wildflowers. While he does not plant them, he does observe, study, and try to identify them. But whether one says, like Whitman, the flower is good or like Thoreau, the flower is an expression of an idea, they both model one key component of an enchanted life—engagement. The engagement can take on many forms, but when there is engagement, there is also the possibility for awe, wonder, and ‘Wow.’

Thoreau wrote on July 10-12, 1841, five years before Walden, “A slight sound at evening lifts me by the ears, and makes life seem inexpressibly serene and grand.” Sorry, but when our ears and eyes are filled with cell phone pixels, the transcendence and enchantment of nature are filled with artificial secondary synthetic reproduction of nature. The soul desires primary sources. Authentic experience. Full engagement. As Thomas Moore writes, emptying ourselves of disenchanted values and a recovery of a childlike sense of wonder, may involve less screens about nature and more interaction with nature.

But merely putting oneself into nature may not mean transcendence or enchantment. I believe over time it will, but we may have to bring something into our contact with nature. E.B. White wrote of Thoreau on the 100th anniversary of Walden, that when Thoreau went to the pond, he struck a deliberate attitude that wasn’t about drawing the attention of others to himself, rather it was to draw his own attention more closely to himself. Thoreau once wrote, “I learned this at least by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

I believe when we bring imagination into the equation of enchanted living, we run the risk of finding more enchantment in our experience.

I've often wondered why, for instance, my tennis players don’t get more interested in hitting off the wall. I mean, a little secrete about tennis is that if you come from a family that can’t afford lessons and you’re interested in learning tennis, then there is one universal—the wall. The wall can teach you the game of tennis as good as any tennis instructor. Novak Djokovich became the world’s number one tennis player by hitting tennis balls off a bullet riddled wall in Serbia. So one way to magical tennis is through a simple wall.

But to many of my players the wall is just a wall. You hit the ball off the wall and the ball comes back. It is nothing more. Some people approach life like that. “Iowa is nothing but a barren empty brown cornfield.” “My job is nothing more than a place I earn my paycheck.” “That deer on the road is nothing more than a nuisance.”

Then I realized that Djokovich probably didn’t do the wall like that. His bullet riddled wall was mixed with a good dose of heroic imagination.

When I was a kid I played tennis off the Emerson School wall. That wall in my mind was transformed into a green at Wimbledon were I was playing against John McEnroe—and winning. A part of enchantment is simply imagining the possibilities. That may sound contrary to Whitman’s line, but enchantment is that background we bring into the game. If a player didn’t know about Wimbledon or John McEnroe, then that kind of possibility isn’t there.

It’s like when I look out from the Loess Hills facing the setting sun. I don’t see boring old Iowa. While this may be totally sappy and sentimental, I see it like this:

I see that Nebraskan mesa abruptly end at the floor of the Missouri Valley, and I see that giant knee bend in the continent where the Missouri comes from the expansive west which carried in a continent of debris, that the prevailing westerlies blew into these hills, and I see those contrails in the sky, like modern wagon wheel tracks, and I see that mocha Wyoming grey that comes at the advent of winter, or those enormous billowing thunderheads that took an entire great plains to build themselve into delicious smoke signals that scream, “Spring is here. Thank God Spring is Here.” And I see the tall grass prairie waving like waves on a sea, and I pause, and I take it in, and somehow all of it combined with something unspeakable, something absolutely ridiculous to say openly, but that I might someday get back there, I may someday reach that western horizon of unspeakable possibility, that somehow mixes everything from Crazy Horse and Red Cloud to Willa Cather to John Wayne and Lewis and Clark to Larpentour--the early French fur trapper in these parts to Theophile Bruguier and War Eagle, in no particular order, toward something a little less cheap, something a little more ancient, and while I have never arrived at the West, somehow that western horizon gives me a tremendous sense of hope and somehow I am healed.

One of the main reasons I think education is so important is because the story or hi-story of these people, plants, animals, and geologic forces, each make an overlay on the surface of reality. And each layer adds something to the view until you are left with a feeling of the place--a sense of place.

The world is perhaps a wall for tennis. We can bang up against it and stay there, banging and banging against it. Without a little dash of heroic imagination, it will just be a wall. The quarantine is a wall. It can be boring. It can even be terrifying. Or it can somehow be a new layer of possibilities.

Thoreau deliberately set his attitude toward enchantment. Yes, the world really is enough, but seeing the possibilities in it, takes heroic imagination which is fed by engagement in primary sources--which for me include nature and books. Imagination is a form of currency. There is some work to do in order to develop it. It may not just accidently happen for us adults.

It's not just a quaint little idea. This stuff is vital to our lives. As Thomas Moore writes," The soul has an absolute, unforgiving need for regular excursions into enchantment...where the concerns of survival and daily preoccupations momentarily, at least, fade into the background." I believe it can be more than momentary. I think we can live in a sense of wonder and awe. William doesn't need any training, but we adults might have to get intentional about it.

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