In his essay Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson describes the ultimate transcendent experience. He writes that walking through the woods allows him to return to reason and faith. The beauty of the natural environment restores his sense of well-being. The burdens of other people’s opinions, personal challenges, and grief fall away. With his feet flat on the earth, bathed in fresh air and his vision uplifted, “all mean egotism vanishes”. Becoming a transparent eyeball is how Emerson describes the mystical sensation of being at One with the Universe.
Remember a time when you had a sense of this greater Unity with the world around you. In some of the most challenging periods of my life, I have walked the beach to remember that the world does not revolve around me. No matter how heavy my responsibilities or sorrows may seem, in Emerson’s words “the currents of Universal Being circulate through me.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson asserts that most people have a very superficial seeing of the world around us. Often our minds are so full of future plans or reviewing the past that we are blind to our surroundings. He writes, “The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and heart of the child”.
The first time I took my daughter Liza on the Cliff Walk she was about eight-months old. While unloading her stroller I imagined that she would enjoy seeing the ocean waves and feeling the sea breeze. In fact, Liza did enjoy the Cliff Walk. However, what she enjoyed was not the clear blue water or the sailboats on the horizon. She leaned forward smiling and connecting with all the people and dogs that crossed our path. Even more surprising, her little hand reached out from the stroller to feel the hedge as we went by. For me, hedges are nothing more than a nuisance, reminding me of the hedge that needs trimming at home. I followed her example and brushed my open hand against the hedge as we past. The tiny thick leaves were cool and soft; sensuous as velvet.
Communion with the divine is possible in nature. Liza reminds me that it is not necessary to travel long distance to exotic locations for this transcendent experience. Certainly, I have felt awe on the colorful cliffs of Aquinnah and surrounded by the great redwood trees of Muir Woods. But as Emerson writes, “The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to one another; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.” Liza recalls me to this sense of wonder and awe when she notices the play of light on a wall, the feel of grass through her fingers, the exhilaration of a rainy day.
In a poem entitled, “Each and All”, Emerson writes of a man who is so enraptured by the beauty of nature that he desires to possess it for his very own. In hearing a sparrow sing, he captures the bird in a cage. He collects seashells from the shore. He picks flowers along a woodland path. However, in taking these living things from their natural settings, he discovers that each loses their beauty. The sparrow sings but without the river and the open air, the song is not as sweet. The seashells are ugly and dry without the bright sunshine, sand, and tumbling waves. The beauty of the violets is somehow less without the dappled sunlight through the trees.
The poem concludes, “Beauty through my senses stole;/ I yielded myself to the perfect whole”. As Emerson declares in Nature, “nothing is quite beautiful alone; nothing but is beautiful in the whole. A single object is only so far beautiful as it suggests this universal grace.”
If there is something in human nature that causes us attachment and clinging, it is even more essential that we take the time to open our minds and hearts to our wider connection. Let us make it our practice to spend time in Nature not to capture it or collect it as our own but to remember that the whole “world is a mirror of the soul.” Then perhaps we can do as Emerson suggests and “Write it on [our] heart[s] that every day is the best day in the year.”