Nature Mysticism



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Nature Writings
We have already examined Walt Whitman as spiritual Master, and seen his teachings as jnani, via positiva, and we will also examine him later as one of the 'lost Buddhas of the West'. Here we look at him as Nature mystic. As we will find with Traherne we cannot call Whitman solely a Nature mystic because his vision is broader than that, but there is no doubt that Nature was extremely important to him. One of his biographers, John Burroughs (himself something of a Nature mystic) remarks somewhere that Whitman was fond of flowers. In fact his love of Nature was as expansive as all else was with Whitman, and nothing except the paralysis of later life could keep him away from meadows, forests, streams, and above all the sea. Burroughs tells us in his biography of Whitman:
The sea, too, had laid its hand upon him, as I have already suggested. He never appeared so striking and impressive as when seen upon the beach. His large and tall gray figure looked at home, and was at home upon the shore. The simple, strong, flowing lines of his face, his always clean fresh air, his blue absorbing eyes, his commanding presence, and something pristine and elemental in his whole expression, seemed at once to put him en rapport with the sea. (Whitman: A Study, p.50)
Whitman was a carpenter's son and grew up on Long Island by the sea. Although we cannot say as with Jefferies that Nature was his route to the transcendent, nevertheless we cannot subtract it from him as we could with Thomas Traherne. We have suggested that an aesthetic sense is essential to the Nature mystic, which Traherne certainly possessed, but Whitman and Jefferies demonstrate that something more is also involved: a knowledge of Nature that derives from long observation. This does not have to be schooled as with the great naturalists such as John Muir and John Burroughs, and nor does the observation have to be scientifically based. Rather, it is the eye of love that distinguishes birds from each other, trees from each other, and so on, for each expresses a character that gladdens the heart in different ways. In this typical extract from Leaves of Grass Whitman is engaged in the 'cataloguing' that he is often dismissed for, but is better seen as a via positiva statement of the non-dual state, couched in terms of the appreciation of Nature:
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress'd head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots,


And am stucco'd with quadrupeds and birds all over,
And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons,
But call any thing back when I desire it.

(Song of Myself, v. 31)


Whitman had no formal education and did not study Nature in a scientific way, but has the simple adequate vocabulary of the natural world that intelligent men and women living outside of cities always possess (usually learned from one's mother). He knows the tree-toad, the wren, and here the mocking-bird:
As I have walk'd in Alabama my morning walk,
I have seen where the she-bird the mocking-bird sat on her nest in the briers hatching her brood.
I have seen the he-bird also,
I have paus'd to hear him at hand inflating his throat and joyfully singing.
And while I paus'd it came to me that what he really sang for was not there only,
Not for his mate nor himself only, nor all sent back by the echoes,
But subtle, clandestine, away beyond,
A charge transmitted and gift occult for those being born.
('Starting from Paumanok' v. 11)
Whitman did of course live in a context of both the American Transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau and the time of the great early naturalists such as John Muir and John Burroughs. He met Emerson and Thoreau, and counted Burroughs as a friend (Burroughs provides us with one of best contemporary Whitman biographies in his Whitman: a Study). It was Emerson's endorsement of Leaves that allowed its early literary survival, and Whitman once argued with him at length over its contents, confessing later that every objection which Emerson raised confirmed once and for all for him the truth of his own chosen path. In Thoreau Whitman certainly found an appreciation of Nature in common, but suspected that Thoreau's romantic views were more from a 'morbid dislike of humanity' than a love of woods, streams and hills. This reminds us again that Whitman's via positiva starts with his fellow men and women and ends with them, encompassing Nature on the way, rather than making it his prime focus. As Thoreau pointed out to Whitman, Whitman was a man capable of seeing the worst in men as much as anyone, and when Whitman is in the mood he can be devastating on this subject. However he always makes sure that the object of his criticism is understood to have the same divine origin and destination that Whitman had come to realise so fully in himself. He is more inclined however to put things mildly, as in this passage:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,


They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

(Song Of Myself, v. 32)


We have pointed out before that the Nature Mystic needs an aesthetic sense, and with Jefferies and Whitman we see that a detailed knowledge, though not necessarily scholarly or scientific, of Nature is also present. Whitman provides us also with some material regarding one of the major obstacles to Nature Mysticism, the problem of death and suffering. We have seen in some of the extracts in the 'Selected Masters' section on Whitman that he came to terms with death, and in particular death through that most violent of human activities: war. This extract reminds us of his attitude to death, and how he relates it to Nature:
And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try and alarm me.
To his work without flinching the accoucheur comes,
I see the elder-hand pressing receiving supporting,
I recline by the sills of the exquisite flexible doors,
And mark the outlet, and mark the relief and escape.

And as to you Corpse I think you are good manure, but that does not offend me,


I smell the white roses sweet-scented and growing,
I reach to the leafy lips, I reach to the polish'd breasts of melons.
And as to you Life I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths,

(No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before.)


The next extract could seem callous, until we remember how he ministrated so tirelessly to the needs of the sick and dying in the Civil War hospitals:
Agonies are one of my changes of garments,
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person,
My hurt turns livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.

(Song of Myself, v. 33)


Whitman would many times have had to 'lean on his cane and observe' as he talked to a dying soldier on his cot, and he is showing us here almost a method of the non-dual via positiva, the exercising of deep empathy with existence in its destructive mode. Without the cosmic vision, the expanded sense of self that the depth of the spiritual life provides, such encounters with the suffering of others simply closes the heart and mind of a sensitive person to the natural world. If instead one can truly evade the wish 'I want the world to be different to this', then the via positiva opens up, and non-duality is there in its blissfulness. The idea that one can stand by the agonies of a wounded person and find no quarrel with life, to repeat the earlier point, seems monstrously callous. Yet everything that could be done has been done (Whitman ministrated to the kind of needs that the doctors could not, they having done their best), and one is now personally tested: one 'becomes the wounded person' and can one retain the love of life that came so easily in the summer meadow? This scenario illustrates just how hard the via positiva is in the beginning, and how easy it is to retreat into the via negativa. (We could say that while millions may have been attracted to the spiritual life of via negativa through an encounter with suffering, and that it may seem the easier path to start with, in the long run it gets much harder. More on this later)
Whitman has conquered suffering and death as surely as the Buddha did, but leaves us with that paradox when contemplating the via positiva / via negativa divide: does the Enlightened individual return here or not? Whitman (and there is good evidence that he believed in reincarnation) has no fears regarding the 'endless rounds of rebirth' so feared by the Buddhists, as this poem shows:
TO THE GARDEN OF THE WORLD
To the garden of the world anew descending,
Potent mates, daughters, sons, preluding,
The love, the life of their bodies, meaning and being,
Curious here behold my resurrection after slumber,
The revolving cycles in their wide sweep having brought me again,
Amorous, mature, all beautiful to me, all wondrous,
My limbs and the quivering fire that ever plays through them, for reasons, most wondrous,
Existing I peer and penetrate still,
Content with the present, content with the past,
By my side or back of me Eve following,
Or in front, and I following her just the same.
Does not Krishna hint at this same delight in returning to the 'garden of the world'? We will consider this idea later on, but for now a few more thoughts from Whitman on Nature. The following quotation is in response to another friend and biographer, Richard Maurice Bucke, who had suggested writing about a magnificent waterfall:
"All such things need to be at least the third or fourth remove; in itself it would be too much for nine out of ten readers. Very few care for natural objects themselves, rocks, rain, hail, wild animals, tangled forests, weeds, mud, common Nature. They want her in a shape fit for reading about in a rocking-chair, or as ornaments in china, marble or bronze. The real things are, far more than they would own, disgusting, revolting to them." Whitman adds: "This may be a reason of the dislike of Leaves of Grass by the majority."
The last two extracts are from Specimen Days, Whitman's prose diary from later in life, both on the subject of trees:
10 - 13 October [1881]: I spend a good deal of time on the Common, these delicious days and nights every mid-day from 11.30 to about 1 and almost every sunset another hour. I know all the big trees, especially the old elms along Tremont and Beacon streets, and have come to a sociable-silent understanding with most of them, in the sunlit air, (yet crispy-cool enough), as I saunter along the wide unpaved walks.

1 September: I should not take either the biggest or the most picturesque tree to illustrate it. Here is one of my favorite now before me, a fine yellow poplar, quite straight, perhaps ninety feet high, and four feet thick at the butt. How strong, vital, enduring! how dumbly eloquent! What suggestions of imperturbability and being, as against the human trait of mere seeming. Then the qualities, almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic, of a tree; so innocent and harmless, yet so savage. It is, yet says nothing. How it rebukes by its tough and equable serenity in all weathers, this gusty-tempered little whiffet, man, that runs indoors at a mite of rain or snow. Science (or rather half-way science) scoffs at reminiscence of dryad and hamadryad, and of trees speaking. But, if they don't, they do as well as most speaking, writing, poetry, sermons or rather they do a great deal better. I should say indeed that those old dryad-reminiscences are quite as true as any, and profounder than most reminiscences we get. ('Cut this out,' as the quack mediciners say, and keep by you.) Go and sit in a grove or woods, with one or more of these voiceless companions and read the foregoing, and think.



One lesson from affiliating a tree perhaps the greatest moral lesson anyhow from earth, rocks, animals, is that same lesson of inherencey, of what is, without the least regard to what the looker on (the critic) supposes or says, or whether he likes or dislikes. What worse what more general malady pervades each and all of us, our literature, education, attitude towards each other, (even towards ourselves,) than morbid trouble about seems, (generally temporarily seems too,) and no trouble at all, or hardly any, about the sane slow-growing, perennial, real parts of character, books, friendship, marriage, humanity's invisible foundations and hold-together? (As the all-basis, the nerve, the great sympathetic, the plenum within humanity, giving stamp to everything, is necessarily invisible.)
Whitman uses the term plenum here as humanity's foundation, and the slow-growing fundament of Nature which it teaches us about. He also uses the term inherency, another useful concept in considering both the via positiva and Nature Mysticism. Although he mentions dryad and hamadryad, Whitman is not an occultist, and does not recommend the view of Nature that Rudolf Steiner might adopt where the significance of trees for example lie in the spirits that inhabit them. Rather it is a resting in what is, finding Nature to be good, and through the loss of the sense of separate self, finding that oneself is good too. Death and suffering are no more than things to take in one's stride, giving them due care and close, unflinchng attention.


Thomas Traherne


 



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