Nature, Alone


By Brian Volck

Scott Russell Sanders and Kathleen Dean Moore shared a stage at the recently concluded Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing. Essayists of considerable skill who share delight in and concern for Creation, the two graced their audience with an hour of wisdom and good words.

Among their observations was one I hadn’t considered: profound encounters with the natural world are almost always related as individual, rather than communal, experience. The two writers went on to consider how their own work and that of their contemporaries follow this tradition. Sanders recalled an essay of his describing a hike in the mountains with no mention of the hiker who accompanied him. “Bringing other people into the story,” he conceded, “makes it very complicated.”

In their exchange, Sanders and Moore tacitly gestured toward a significant formational moment in the Modern West. When European Romantics and American Transcendentalists re-envisioned nature as the mysterious Other occasioning something like religious ecstasy, these encounters were understood as private matters available, upon reflection, to narrative retelling but not to be shared as it happens.

Wordsworth “wandered lonely as a cloud,” Shelley’s “Alastor: or, The Spirit of Solitude,” explores—alone—nature’s dark majesty, and Thoreau chummily confides that, “I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Byron insists that encounters with nature are the only true communion: “This is not solitude, ’tis but to hold / Converse with Nature’s charms, and view her stores unrolled.” Only in human company does he feel lonely.

A lot of philosophical heavy lifting prepared the way for Romantic and Transcedentalist celebrations of the individual in nature, and I’m not qualified to talk anyone through the line of British and Continental thinkers who pondered the sublime or those Americans who took a cheerier view of nature than their transatlantic cousins.

The resulting conflation of religious experience and encounters with nature, however, stressed the one (whether truly individuated or part of a spiritual Unity) over the many. To the extent such encounters were considered religious, they resembled mystical experience rather than liturgy (from the Greek, “the work of the people”).

Bear in mind that the Romantic poets flourished while European powers were slaughtering tens of thousands in the name of Freedom and Brotherhood. When Prince Metternich slammed the lid on this first round of the Wars of Reason, any potential threat to the order imposed by Europe’s military nation-states was suspect.

Religion, especially in its Protestant forms, was most easily domesticated through privatization, and Christians were eager to oblige. From Schleiermacher’s identification of religion with intense feeling and interiority, to Whitehead’s assertion that “religion is what an individual does with his solitariness,” the long nineteenth century can be seen as progressive marginalization of religion into an intensely private matter.

While the United States followed a different trajectory toward privatizing the transcendent, the result was similar. The encounter with nature-as-religious-experience was solitary.

But the history is more complicated than that. For centuries, most encounters with the numinous have been related as individual experience. And it is hard to imagine such experiences allowing any room for human companionship.

Stories of shared mystical experience are exceedingly rare. Perhaps the most famous is related in Book IX of Confessions, where Augustine and Monica have a shared vision in a garden in Ostia. You may be able to think of others. The list isn’t long.

In comparison, stories of shared liturgical experiences—rites, masses, sermons, and so forth—are legion. For the Romantic, the Transcendentalist, and the early Naturalist, though, liturgical experience had little to offer. John Muir’s descriptions of the Sierras typically render the natural world as a preferable substitute for churches where a community gathers in prayer.

To the modern mind at least, mystical experience seems to touch the soul more intimately than liturgy.

The very act of storytelling implies at least two people, in the sense that the teller recounts a tale to the hearer or reader. To bring another person into that relationship, especially when describing a moment of great intimacy, creates an unstable triad. What might I say about those present while I, oblivious of them, achieved oneness with nature? What taboos do I break describing how I bared my soul in the presence of others?

This unstable triad has strong echoes of Sartre’s No Exit, with its famous concluding line, “Hell is other people.” Sartre makes the triad similarly troubling in Chapter 3 of Being and Nothingness: the presence of three subjectivities inevitably makes at least one of them an object, less than a person.

Not surprisingly, Dante, a pre-modern formed by a lifetime of liturgical worship, has a solution to Sartre’s problem the existentialist could never accept. At the end of the Paradiso the Mystic Rose of Heaven is depicted as a great amphitheater in which the blessed gaze upon the eternal light. Like Augustine and Monica, they look not at each other, but apprehend together the great unveiled mystery. In this liturgical setting, a multitude of visionaries engage the numinous shoulder to shoulder rather than facing off toe to toe.

Is it possible to write about nature liturgically, to take Muir at his word and welcome more than one mystic at a time in nature’s cathedrals when we tell our stories? Can nature be apprehended at once deeply and communally?

I don’t know, but I’m anxious to read a story told just that way.

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.