I'm reading this article on nature and sublimity and modernity and urbanity, (will I lose my right to use these -ity words when I leave academia in May?) "Splendid Visions" by William Giraldi. It's in Orion Magazine and requires a subscription, but if you really want more than the excerpts here, I'll share my pdf with you.
In it, Giraldi asks whether we are missing out on something essential, and whether our children will be missing something essential in their beings, by living in cities. He cites Wordsworth and Thoreau and Emerson and his own childhood in a town on the edge of wilderness.
An ecstatic and engaged individuality defined my childhood in suburban New Jersey. While my single father labored ten-hour days, my pals and I biked all across town, cussing and spitting, each of us a veritable Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. We concocted waterproof forts by the river and then prayed for rain, raked mountainous piles of leaves to grapple in, buried Star Wars figures in narrow graves in a field, donned camouflage and faded into the woods with BB guns and bows and arrows. . . . For most of the day, my father and grandmother didn’t know my whereabouts, and nobody between the ages of six and thirteen ever lingered indoors longer than necessary.And this:
In the opening pages of his book-length poem The Prelude, Wordsworth knows the value of the child’s communion with nature:
’twas my joy/To wander half the night among the Cliffs/ And the smooth Hollows, where the woodcocks ran/ Along the open turf.
This boyhood dedication to nature—this joy—will evolve by the end of the poem into the grandest moment of humanism in all of English-language literature: the poet’s encounter on Mount Snowdon, where human imagination is deified. In the childhood scenes of The Prelude, the boy’s mind and spirit are fostered by nature, but by the time the poet has reached the peak of Snowdon, a reversal has occurred—the mind is now molding nature, and has indeed become more eminent than any aspect of the natural world: “a thousand times more beautiful than the earth” and “of substance and of fabric more divine.” Sublime reciprocity: nature enhances the mind so that the mind can enhance nature, endowing it with an influence to enhance the mind even further. Decades later and an ocean away, Thoreau would come to a similar conclusion in the woods of Walden, writing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers: “This world is but canvas to our imaginations.” In other words: I’m worried about Ethan[his three year-old son]'s mind, about the canvas he will or will not be capable of creating from that mind. What will be his Snowdon? A taxicab? A traffic circle? The subway system?
Let's put aside for a second the fact that poets have had divine and soaring visions about the human-ness of cities that are
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job,proud of the fact
(Or maybe that's the resilience of humanity despite cities?)
We're putting that aside, because I've also been concerned about what living in a city means for me and any future children I have. I felt that sublimity, that communion with nature as a girl. We had gardens and fruit trees and redwoods that I climbed away-way up, and our house backed up to field and a big old pepper tree (whose berries became Christmas wreaths), and our street ended up in the hills: endless, rolling pasture land that we would hike in and that, at 16, I would flee into and write pastoral poetry about.
My grandmother's garden was wilderness in itself, as I've previously described.
We spent weeks in Tahoe each year with forests on all sides and a river a five-minute walk away and, of course, the mountains. Until embarrassingly recently, my sister and I thought Desolation Wilderness was a term for a type of geography that occurred all over the world, a descriptive term, rather than an isolated location, a hope, perhaps, that everyone experienced the same sense of immensity and awe that one feels looking out from atop the Tahoe Rim Trail.
And when not in Tahoe, we were elsewhere in the wildernesses of California, reliving my father's boy scout trips, tramping through and up rivers, learning how to cool our bodies by submerging our wrists and where it was safest to drink, hopping rocks, and hiking in great, old, quiet forests, feeling connected by a primaeval thread to the moss and the trees and the massive, curling ferns.
I still feel that connection when we vacation, though, as Giraldi notes, it is no longer so easy
to believe in lasting transcendence by hiking to the peaks of Snowdon or Greylock. Modernity’s mess is in our pores, and belief in anything but the immediacy of our tactile lives grows more difficult by the generation.I had my Snowdon in Shasta, walking up a stream that poured out into the Lake we had been floating on, finding a naiad in the shimmering rocks of a small outcropping that was cut into the grassy and sun-dappled bank. I wrote about it in high school, in a persuasive essay of all things, arguing that faeries do exist. My mind, shaped by nature, had created the reality of it, and was in turn shaped further by this new reality.
I feel I got something important out of this, something that is currently buried rather a bit too deep, the absence of which aches when it is too far off. But is it necessarily something that must be cultivated in exactly the same way in my children? Is that idea too eminently narcissistic or narrow minded? Too, what? provincial, luddite, blindly privileged?
I have finished the article now, and Giraldi wraps up in a hopeful sort of way. He implies that it is not necessarily the removal from nature that takes from us our sense of communion with nature but rather our adulthood.
Wordsworth’s idealizing of childhood is not Lewis Carroll’s retreat into innocence and wonder but rather an integral component of his nature worship. There’s always a sense in Wordsworth—especially in “Intimations of Immortality,” “The World Is Too Much With Us,” and the later books of The Prelude—that adulthood is a disappointment after the “delight and liberty” of childhood. The girl or boy receives nature by mainline, by intuition alone, whereas the man or woman communes with nature only by reflection, by cognitive processes that can cause static in reception. The child has no word for the sublime; he simply experiences it. The adult, on the other hand: his word gets in the way of his experience. Ethan’s time atop Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder was purer and more joyous than his mother’s or mine not only because his phone wasn’t buzzing—although that certainly helped—but because the child “still is Nature’s priest” capable of “the vision splendid.” A newborn arrives hardwired for communion:
Along his infant veins are interfus’d/ The gravitation and the filial bond/ Of nature, that connect him with the world.
We sorry adults have lost that gravitation; we’re far too busy, too wrapped up in society’s strings:
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;/ Little we see in Nature that is ours;/ We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
Here’s the good news for us adults who frolicked in the forest as children but are now too besieged by civilization to give a damn: We can recollect those “beauteous forms” of nature when locked in the offices we work in, and feel once more “sensations sweet.” Wordsworth can will himself into a “serene and blessed mood” because he has nature pulsing at his hub, informing his thoughts and emotions. That childhood engagement with nature becomes ever after “a master-light of all our seeing,” and it’s precisely the master light I want for Ethan. In his essay “The Method of Nature,” Emerson believes that the natural world has the potential to inspire “ecstasy.” That’s a lofty goal for my boy; I’ll settle for contentment, for well-roundedness and appreciation of the wooded playground that made us.
Rachel Carson maintained: “Only as a child’s awareness and reverence for the wholeness of life are developed can his humanity to his own kind reach its full development.” No American of the last century did more than Carson to emphasize the importance of a child’s immersion in nature, of how love for nature equals love for humankind.The problem is that "full development" contains elements of both city and country life. And most of us, Phil and I certainly amongst them (at least until those lottery numbers come up--and I'm tempted to say even then), have to choose between those two. Giraldi notes:
My pastoral idealism and viridity have convinced me that humans are happier, less aggrieved creatures among bucolic splendor, awash in Wordsworth’s “vital feelings of delight” inspired by the interconnectedness of nature. Or, as Thoreau has it in Walden, “There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still.” For anyone who has anguished beneath the black dog of melancholy, that seems an irresistible promise. Concrete, steel, car alarms, and computers are not soothing, not even a smidgen religious. The human spectacle lacks tranquility. We are so ensconced in artificiality, is it any wonder many of us are miserable and almost mad? In Thoreau’s celebrated Journal (for a personal record of the nineteenth-century American mind at work it is second only to Emerson’s magisterialJournals), he argues that you can’t have it both ways, that you must decide between nature and society: “You cannot have a deep sympathy with both man & nature. Those qualities which bring you near to the one estrange you from the other.”
That’s the rub: You can’t have it both ways. Certainly not if you earn an average income and don’t own a weekend and summer house in Vermont or New Hampshire. Even so, do you honestly want to spend half of the weekend in your earth-killing car, stymied on a highway with a million other Bostonians trying to give their children a weekend’s worth of rustic bliss? There’s no constancy in that, and aggravation enough to age you. And so once you accept Thoreau’s formulation, the line is drawn: on this side is city life, on that side nature. You must choose.And Giraldi ultimately decides that his "idealism" is just that: an idealized vision of life in the wilderness.
I have a family member who was reared in the woods of Maine, in the sanctified wild where I found the sublime. The last I saw her, she was two hundred pounds overweight, tattooed from neck to feet, and had a slightly off child from a nowhere-to-be-found father and not even the dimmest possibility of employment. Many of the Mainers I’ve met have become immune to the grandeur just outside their doors. They don’t even look. As I continue to contemplate a monumental uprooting from Boston into a backwoods, that cousin of mine towers like a reprimand or warning. You can’t just drop a child into the woods, clap your hands, and expect him or her to turn into Wordsworth or Carson.
. . .
It was easy for Thoreau; he was a bachelor without a job or children to feed. He could sit in the Concord woods and whistle with the wind (he also accidently burned down more than three hundred acres of those woods in 1844). I have to go to work every morning, and I’m not about to switch professions and become a lumberjack so my boy can daily chase after chipmunks and maybe become a bard. In a certain mood you could very quickly come to the conclusion that Thoreau is full of shit.Now, I feel like his warning is perhaps a false dichotomy. His implication that one must choose the city to escape bumpkin-hood feels a bit like the urban-provincial mindset of some San Franciscans that can't imagine culture existing anywhere between our 7-by-7 paradise and the forytish square miles of New York (plus Austin and Minneapolis if you are into Indie music and particularly nuanced in your thinking). But, weirdly (or maybe not), that warning has led to an anti-dichotomous message: moving to the country won't save you from your shallow city life; it is far more complicated than that.
Our want of full development for our children is our own reminder, our own summons to restore the primordial nexus we have to the natural world, regardless of whether or not that nexus has been weakened by society’s sharp sting. Establishing that vital connection to nature for our kids is one way we redeem ourselves after forgetting ourselves—it’s one way we become children again.
. . .
At the Boston MFA or at Walden Pond in Concord, we must cultivate our children’s sense of the sublime, must nudge them always toward what is beautiful, toward bliss, toward a deeper-seeing into the things of earth, wherever on earth we might be.This is a good reminder for me to parent myself. The "black dog of melancholy" often tunes me into the "irresistible promise" of nature's pipings. I long to run away "to the woods . . . to live deliberately." But running away would leave me lonely and where would I teach?--that other thing that tunes me into the oneness of all things. So, screw you, Thoreau, I'm determined to have it both ways. And to fend off that melancholy, revel in nature, and still live connected to people in a more efficient and close-knit and sustainable way. And to not be a privileged little brat about it. This is possible, right? I mean, land is expensive and right now nature a thing for those with money and means to travel to it or the leisure (means) to take the time to appreciate it around them. But it shouldn't be. And. It doesn't have to be.
. . .
(God, I need a tree to climb and a river to ford.)