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,