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Thoreau: Nature As Prayer


A poet of nature, he dedicated some of his most strident reflections to trees, considering them living spells, prayers, and blessings.

Can one listen to a tree? Herman Hesse, in at least one striking literary tribute, held that yes, one certainly could. Walt Whitman, another poet of nature, argued that one of the greatest lessons a tree might teach us is one of humility and authenticity, as trees are reflections of the noblest in the human character. It’s that nature, in all its expressions, which continues (so long as we allow it) to be the greatest artistic and spiritual inspiration. The question also animated the pen of the great American poet, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862).

In 1845, Thoreau went to live in the woods at Walden Pond, in Massachusetts, to reflect on human nature. One of the essays which resulted from the retreat, titled simply Walden (1854), is a modest and lucid examination of human nature in many of its facets. (For example, What is success, really?).

For Thoreau, trees are creative and spiritual companions. They are beings capable of healing and even approaching the very essence of the universe. Always one of the most relevant transcendentalist poets, Thoreau considered trees living enchantments, prayers without words, and blessings within our lives on this world. In trees, Thoreau found a counterpoint to the falsehood of human societies.

In a diary entry from January 1857, Thoreau wrote:

In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it — dining with the Governor or a member of Congress!! But alone in distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even on a black and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that the cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home… It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked with him.

The reflection calls the natural world home. (It’s not within human society.) It’s as though only within nature can one find oneself, in its simplicity and singularity, its force and power, and in a natural space both symbolic and spatial. The lesson is simple and profound: there’s nothing in the vulgarity of the outside world —power, money, politics, appearances, success, or fame— that will give us what we need. The true connection with what we are comes from the universe in its entirety, its forests, trees, and waters.

Image: Public domain

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