Thoreau on Nature as Prayer

Thoreau on Nature as Prayer

Walt Whitman noticed bushes — “so harmless and innocent, but so savage” — as a wellspring of wisdom on being rather than seeming. “When now we have realized easy methods to take heed to bushes,” Hermann Hesse exulted in his love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our ideas obtain an incomparable pleasure.”

Two generations earlier, one other poet laureate of nature and the human spirit made bushes a centerpiece of his emotional universe. For Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862), there have been inventive and religious companions, sane-making and important. His love of them comes alive in Thoreau and the Language of Trees (public library) — a collection of the good Transcendentalist poet and thinker’s meditations on bushes, drawn from his two-million-word journal by author and photographer Richard Higgins, whose stunning black-and-white images complement Thoreau’s arboreal writings.

Photograph by Richard Higgins from Thoreau and the Language of Trees.

Thoreau reverenced bushes as dwelling incantations, wordless prayers, benedictions for the artwork of being. In their firm, he discovered a counterpoint to the falsehoods of society. Fifteen years after his mentor Emerson lamented in his personal journal that “in cities… one seems to lose all substance, & become surface in a world of surfaces,” Thoreau redoubles his insistence on defining one’s own success and writes in a diary entry from January of 1857:

In the road and in society I’m nearly invariably low-cost and dissipated, my life is unspeakably imply. No quantity of gold or respectability would within the least redeem it — eating with the Governor or a member of Congress!! But alone in distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even on a black and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager can be pondering of his inn, I come to myself, I as soon as extra really feel myself grandly associated, and that the chilly and solitude are associates of mine. I suppose that this worth, in my case, is equal to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come to my solitary woodland stroll because the homesick go residence… It is as if I at all times met in these locations some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, although invisible, companion, and walked with him.

Four many years later, Whitman — who was two years youthful than Thoreau however lengthy outlived him — would file a kindred sentiment in his own notebook: “After you’ve got exhausted what there may be in enterprise, politics, conviviality, love, and so forth — have discovered that none of those lastly fulfill, or completely put on — what stays? Nature stays; to deliver out from their lethargic recesses, the affinities of a person or lady with the open air, the bushes, fields, the modifications of seasons — the solar by day and the celebrities of heaven by evening.”

Complement the totally elevating Thoreau and the Language of Trees with Rachel Carson on our scientific and spiritual bond with nature and David George Haskell on what a dozen of the world’s most interesting trees taught him about life, then revisit Thoreau on the spiritual rewards of walking, knowing vs. seeing, the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius, and how to use civil disobedience to advance justice.