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Unformatted text preview: Words for the Wild: The Sierra Club Trailside Reader Edited by Ann Ronald Sierra Club Books San Francisco, 1987 RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803-1882) I doubt that many of us have hauled an entire volume of Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings into the wilderness, and perhaps we never will. Yet every time we enjoy the prose of John Burroughs, of Joseph Wood Krutch, of Annie Dillard, and of a good many other nature essayists past and present, we are vicariously enjoying the words of their mentor too. Such a legacy would have been a surprise to the sage of Concord, for his notion of wilderness was more intellectual than absolute. Not only did Emerson prefer thinking, talking, and writing to experiencing, but he also held himself aloof from that which smacked of wildness. His descriptions detail farms instead of forests. He was content to look at the landscape close to home, to eye a sunrise from the hilltop by his house, to view a storm from behind a window glass, to speculate rather than to participate. The true center of Emerson's world was man. Nature was valuable either as a vehicle whereby man, through transcendence, could perceive a oneness with God, or as a system whereby man could perceive ethical analogies. Thus nature was more significant for its mental than for its physical challenges. Such activities as peak bagging, river running, or even wandering through unexplored terrain were meaningless to Emerson, but an accompanying spiritual release was something he well understood. “The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon,” he wrote in 1836. “We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.” Beginning with these thoughts, Emerson penned a doctrine that sounds quite conventional in the 1980s but that was wholly new to his countrymen who perceived the natural world as a place to be tamed, an environment to be conquered. His tiny book, Natur e, and his later collections of essays stirred a number of his contemporaries into fresh ways of thinking and writing about the American landscape. It was Emerson who first described the correspondences between man, nature, and God. It was Emerson who saw in nature signs analogous to human and spiritual facts. It was Emerson who preached so successfully the doctrine of intellectual and physical self-reliance. And it was Emerson who affirmed, "Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us." Of course it was Henry David Thoreau who attached these concepts to an actual way of life, but it was Emerson among the Transcendentalists who first saw the possibilities. Moreover, it was Emerson who brought the essay about nature into the American literary marketplace. From Nature (1836) To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made separate between him and what he touches....
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- Fall '08
- Ralph Waldo Emerson