Transcendentalism, Nature, and Concord

About a year and a half ago I remember having what can only be described as a really good day. Now, if those superlatives don’t exactly bowl you over, it’s simply because nothing truly spectacular happened; I was just able to look back at the end of the day and realize how incredibly refreshing it was.

I had a day off from work (this was when I was managing a cafe in Harvard Square) and decided to spend it by myself exploring Concord. So I walked from my house-converted-into-an-overpriced-apartment to Davis Square, took the red line one stop to Porter and changed to the Fitchburg commuter rail line out to Concord. I then visited various locales including Thoreau’s replica cottage, Walden Pond, Louisa May Alcott’s home, the Old North Bridge, and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. I felt rather transcendent myself as I ate my lunch by the water’s edge of Walden Pond. It was a clear, mild (low 70s probably) October day. The leaves were just beginning to change. As I sat in that place near Thoreau’s little Walden experiment, and as I later visited the graves of several famous writers, I somehow felt connected to that legacy, that heritage of literature. I don’t necessarily agree with all their worldviews, but I still felt as if I was breathing in the fresh air of greatness. Call their ghosts muses or whatever, I also spent time writing; one poem in particular I am still eager to publish eventually. Thus, it was…a really good day.

In my American Literature class we will be taking a look at Transcendentalism over the next couple of weeks. Here is a small excerpt from M.H. Abrams’ immensely useful A Glossary of Literary Terms (7th edition) under the entry “Transcendentalism in America”:

What the various Transcendentalists had in common was less what they proposed than what they were reacting against. By and large, they were opposed to rigid rationalism; to eighteenth-century empirical philosophy of the school of John Locke, which derived all knowledge from sense impressions; to highly formalized religion, especially the Calvinist orthodoxy of New England; and to the social conformity, materialism, and commercialism that they found increasingly dominant in American life. Among the counter-views that were affirmed by Transcendentalists, especially Emerson, were confidence in the validity of a mode of knowledge that is grounded in feeling in intuition, and a consequent tendency to accept what, to logical reasoning, might seem contradictions; an ethics of individualism that stressed self-trust, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency; a turn away from modern society, with its getting and spending, to the scenes and objects of the natural world, which were regarded both as physical facts and as correspondences to aspects of the human spirit; and, in place of a formal or doctrinal religion, a faith in a divine “Principle,” or “Spirit,” or “Soul” (Emerson’s “Over-Soul”) in which both humanity and the cosmos participate.

It’s amazing how relevant some of these tenets are still today. In an over-commercialized, super-technological, empiricism-is-our-only-truth type of world, we need a return to nature, to unplugging, to spirituality.

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“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life. And see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” -Thoreau

I am most refreshed in nature. I have been blessed to get out into the wild in my life: the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali coastline in Hawaii, the West Highland Way in Scotland, Acadia National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and more. I live in El Salvador right now. And while it’s difficult to be isolated in nature (security reasons), there are some spectacular views, spectacular opportunities to witness another marvelous part of the world.

So here’s my advice. If you’re feeling the grind of the machine (corporate culture, for example, or whatever system is stymieing your life), break free. For a moment at least. Where is it you can go to transcend, to commune in nature? To know that you’re not just useless mass of atoms? You’re made of special stuff.

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