water photograph by mark whitney
Artist: Mark D. Whitney
Media: Digital Photograph

Natural Aesthetics: Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir

In my last post I mentioned a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson because all this talk of whether it is better to appreciate nature through the steady empirical eyes of science or the soaring imaginative eyes of the soul put me in mind of some books I have read by him and some other naturalist type people like Thoreau and Muir.

I must admit that Emerson is often beyond me. His writing is verbose, lofty, full of imagery and references to classical works, and thoroughly nineteenth century. He can write page after page on the subject of circles. He can write an essay with the title “The Over-Soul” and get away with it. I’m not sure I ever fully understand everything he writes, but I like to think I can pick up some nuggets along the way.

Emerson is my poster boy for the ethereal imaginative unbounded other worldly end of the spectrum in nature appreciation. His writings represent a great store of thought that is worth every bit of the effort needed to grasp their meanings and his works inspired and influenced many other great writers – Thoreau, Muir, Hawthorne, Whitman, Frost – the list goes on and on.

However, encounters with nature for Emerson were less about the actual things that he saw or touched or heard and more about using nature as a mirror to reflect upon the soul of man and enlighten him to spiritual principles. If we had only his writings as a guide to aesthetically appreciating nature, we would love the beauty of place and we would harmonize with nature on a spiritual level, but we would know little about nature as itself, as nature. We would look at nature and only see ourselves.

Thoreau was a neighbor and friend of Emerson and was greatly influenced by him, but he tempered his transcendental flights with some practicality and earth bound insights. John Elder in his introduction to “Nature Walking”, pictures Emerson motionless gazing “through nature’s surface to its spiritual substratum” while he pictures Thoreau as “A walker rather than a gazer, an ironic, punning undercutter of his own lofty assertions, a serious field naturalist, and a pioneering environmentalist, Thoreau complements Emerson and introduces enduring elements into American nature writing.”

Now we are getting somewhere. I can get a handle on this. There are still the ethereal raptures and transcendant insights, but now too there is action near at hand rather than in the mind only. Nature, real and solid, is under our feet, in our ears as well as our eyes. Thoreau reflects on nature, but also reaches out touches and studies it.

Muir takes this blend of imagination and action to a higher level (practically as well as figuratively). No sunset walks through farmers’ fields for him. No quiet contemplations on the common in the city of Concord. The wild mountains were his home. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness.”

Muir could wax lyrical about the “glories” of nature, but running through all his writings is the thread of natural science and practical observation. Muir wandered in the mountains and reveled in the pure experience of nature, but he also undertook serious scientific studies that still carry weight today. Edwin Teale writes that “Even his records of scientific studies read like adventure stories.” and John Burroughs said that when Muir told the story of the preacher’s dog, Stickeen, you got “the whole theory of glaciation thrown in.”

So in the end my personal take aways from all of this would be:

1. That failure to appreciate the free gift of nature is a mistake. As Emerson says in Nature, “the simple perception of natural forms is a delight…To the body and mind which have been cramped by noxious work or company, nature is medicinal and restores their tone”.

2. That there is room in our dealings with nature for both imagination and science. Indeed these two should go hand in hand.

The beauty of nature, the colors, the forms, the sounds, the textures, the scents can set our minds soaring with insights into ourselves and the world of which we are a part, but science and knowledge keep us from losing our way among the clouds and chasing after mirages. Science can reveal to us portions of nature that we might overlook, hidden worlds that come to light only through careful examination but it is imagination that animates the facts and figures and brings home to us the beauty and worth of these new insights.

In this way not only can we enjoy a beautiful sunset over a pristine lake, but also the more subtle beauty of a fallen tree providing home and sustenance to a myriad of insects, plants, and animals.


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