“For the improvement’s of age have had but little influence on the essential laws of man’s existence: as our skeletons, probably, are not to be distinguished from those of our ancestors.” – Henry David Thoreau
There were few things I would eschew in my youth like nature. I reserved an unholy regard for alternative music, literature by French writers and the clothing of Nanette Lepore, but the concept of getting out in nature was woefully uninteresting to me. I really thought that people who liked being in nature were missing something. Even as I got older, the natural world seemed like something obscure and almost boring compared to the inner turbulence of youth. I was comfortable staring out at a mountain or sitting on the beach and watching the tide, but it felt more holy to revere nature from afar where it was a thing only to be observed.
It’s only as I’ve gotten older that my attitude has changed. The concept of camping still doesn’t hold much interest for me, but there are few things I reserve the appreciation for that I do for nature. Whether through a combination of volunteering in local parks and becoming interested in nature walks and hiking, discovering the names of new plants and flowers – seeing them as they begin to bloom – holds an excitement for me that it never did before. The arrival of the magnolias and the cherry blossoms in Spring is welcomed, and the salmonberries and roses that bloom later in the season are equally endearing. It is only in being in nature that I’ve begun to understand what solitude truly is, the often-hidden hallmarks of what it means to be human and interconnected with nature.
The essayist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau was well acquainted with nature. In fact, Thoreau’s most famous work, the 1854 book Walden, alludes to the time he spent along Walden Pond in Massachusetts. For more than two years, Thoreau resided on a part of the sprawling property of Ralph Waldo Emerson, where he lived by the laws of nature, providing shelter and food for himself by building a home and planting a garden. While Thoreau sometimes used the resources of family and friends, he tried to live simply and frugally, opting to mend his clothes instead of buying new ones and keeping the furnishings in his house to a minimum. Thoreau’s attempt to live a life off the grid seems ever more difficult given our lives now, but his reverence to live along the lines of nature seems even more distant.
On March 28th, Donald Trump sat down to sign an executive order that would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to withdraw the Clean Power Plan that was put into place by the previous administration. While the increase in environmental disasters has been predicted and the science behind climate change is terrifying, the Trump administration’s executive order – particularly in these times – seem to once again assert the formative truths of man, that we have power over nature, even if the utility we find in it seems to diminish every day. It is easy in moments like this to see how wide the gap has become between the reality of nature and the language of business, how vacuous the gulf between the natural world we rely on and ourselves is.
In contrast to Thoreau, a man who wanted to live simply by nature, our human acts being completely removed from their implications is especially shocking. Every day, even as we live in a world that is so far removed from a small house that sits on a pond that it is hard to fathom, we veer further into territory where we cannot reflect on the truths of nature and where executive orders signing away our interconnectedness become the norm. It seems common to believe we have bested nature with our advancements or regression, and perhaps there is the belief that we will ‘best’ again, but we are missing a mortal truth in our lack of reflection.
While this ignorance may take on a catastrophic tint in today’s world, I suspect it is not much different than the folly of my youth when I had no interest in walking in nature or camping. Instead, I thought nature was something outside of me that had little bearing, something that simply happened to be there, however convenient or inconvenient. To those who seek power, it may seem like they are above the things that can destroy them, but in being unable to walk in nature and understand fundamental human realities and what solitude means, we avoid some part of ourselves that will rear its head when it sees fit, obscuring all the machinations we have created to avoid it.