Compiled by Michael Colebrook

A collection of accounts of transformative experiences involving encounters with the natural world, taken from the writings of:

Thomas Berry

Robert Burns

Annie Dillard

D H Lawrence

Aldo Leopold

John Muir

Brian Swimme

Henry David Thoreau

William Wordsworth

Val Plumwood


Thomas Berry

The Great Work (Bell Tower, 1999), pp. 12-13.

The house, not yet finished, was situated on a slight incline. Down below was a small creek and there across the creek was a meadow. It was an early afternoon in late May when I first wandered down the incline, crossed the creek, and looked out over the scene.

The field was covered with white lilies rising above the thick grass. A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something that seems to explain my thinking at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember. It was not only the lilies. It was the singing of the crickets and the woodlands in the distance and the clouds in a clear sky. It was not something conscious that happened just then. I went on about my life as any young person might do.

Perhaps it was not simply this moment that made such a deep impression upon me. Perhaps it was a sensitivity that was developed throughout my childhood. Yet as the years pass this moment returns to me, and whenever I think about my basic life attitude and the whole trend of my mind and the causes to which I have given my efforts, I seem to come back to this moment and the impact it has had on my feeling for what is real and worthwhile in life.

This early experience, it seems, has become normative for me throughout the entire range of my thinking. Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformation is good; whatever opposes this meadow or negates it is not good. My life orientation is that simple. It is also that pervasive. It applies in economics and political orientation as well as in education and religion.


Robert Burns

On a Mouse, on Turning her up in her Nest, with the Plough.

Duncan Wu. Romanticism: An Anthology (Blackwell, 1998), p.133.


Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,

Oh what a panic’s in thy breastie!

Thou need na start awa sae hasty

Wi’ bickering brattle!

I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee

Wi’ murd’ring pattle!


I’m truly sorry man’s dominion

Has broken nature’s social union,

An’ justifies that ill opinion

Which makes thee startle

At me, thy poor earth-born companion

An’ fellow mortal!


I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;

What then! Poor beastie, thou maun live!

A daimen-icker in a thrave’”

‘S a sma’ request:

I’11 get a blessin wi’ the lave,”

An’ never miss’t!


Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!

It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!

An’ naething, now, to big a new ane

0′ foggage green!

An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin,

Baith snell an’ keen!


Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ wast,

An’ weary winter comin fast,

An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,

Thou thought to dwell;

Till crash! the cruel coulter passed

Out through thy cell.


That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble

Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!

Now thou’s turned out, for a’ thy trouble,

But house or hald,

To thole the winter’s sleety dribble,

An’ cranreuch cauld!


But mousie, thou art no thy-lane

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain

For promised joy!


Still, thou art blessed compared wi’ me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But och! I backward cast my e’e

On prospects drear!

An’ forward, though I canna see,

I guess an’ fear!




Annie Dillard

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (HarperPerennial, 1988), pp. 5-8, extracts.

A couple of summers ago I was walking along the edge of the island to see what I could see in the water, and mainly to scare frogs. Frogs have an inelegant way of taking off from invisible positions on the bank just ahead of your feet, in dire panic, emitting a froggy ‘Yike!’ and splashing into the water. At the end of the island I noticed a small green frog. He was exactly half in and half out of the water, and he didn’t jump.

He didn’t jump; I crept closer. At last I knelt on the island’s winter killed grass, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away. He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped. I watched the taught, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple; it was a monstrous and terrible thing. I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away.

I had read about the giant water bug, but never seen one. It is an enormous, heavy-bodied brown beetle. It eats insects, tadpoles, fish, and frogs. Its grasping forelegs are mighty and hooked inward. It seizes its victims with these legs, hugs it tight and takes one bite. Through the puncture it shoots the poisons that dissolve the victim’s body – all but the skin – and through it the giant water bug sucks out the victim’s body. I had been kneeling on the island grass, I stood up and brushed my knees. I couldn’t catch my breath.

That it’s rough out there and chancy is no surprise. Every live creature is a survivor on a kind of emergency bivouac. But we are also created. In the Koran, Allah asks, ‘The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?. It’s a good question. What do we think of the created universe, spanning an unthinkable void with an unthinkable profusion of forms? If the giant water bug was not made in jest, was it then made in earnest? ‘God is subtle’, Einstein said. ‘but not malicious.’


Again Einstein said that ‘nature conceals her mystery by means of her essential grandeur, not by her cunning.’

Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to compass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery: the inrush of power and light, the canary that sings on the skull. Unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist, there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous. About five years ago I saw a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof of a four story building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star.

The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still, folded against his sides. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact deliberate care, revealing the broad white bars of white, spread his elegant tail, and so floated onto the grass. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.



St.Mawr. (Penguin Books, 1950), p.65. [Louise addressing her mother:]

“There’s something else for me, mother. There’s something else even that loves me and wants me. I can’t tell you what it is. It’s a spirit. And it’s here, on this ranch. It’s here, in this landscape. It’s something more real to me than men are, and it soothes me, and it holds me up. I don’t know what it is, definitely. It’s something wild, that will hurt me sometimes and will wear me down sometimes. I know it. But it’s something big, bigger than men, bigger than people, bigger than religion. It’s something to do with wild America. And it’s something to do with me. It’s a mission, if you like. I am im­becile enough for that! – But it’s my mission to keep myself for the spirit that is wild, and had waited so long here: even waited for such as me. Now I’ve come I Now I’m here. Now I am where I want to be: with the spirit that wants me. — And that’s how it is. And neither Rico nor Phoenix nor anybody else really matters to me. They are in the world’s back-yard. And I am here, right deep inAmerica, where there’s a wild spirit wants me, a wild spirit more than men. And it doesn’t want to save me either. It needs me. It craves for me. And to it, my sex is deep and sacred, deeper than I am, with a deep nature aware deep down of my sex. It saves me from cheapness, mother. And even you could never do that for me.”

Mrs Witt rose to her feet, and stood looking far, far away, at the turquoise ridge of mountains half sunk under the horizon.

“How much did you say you paid for Las Chivas?” she asked.

“Twelve hundred dollars,” said Lou, surprised.

“Then I call it cheap, considering all there is to it: even the name.”


Aldo Leopold

A Sand County Almanac (OUP, 1949), pp. 129-132

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of con- tempt for all the adversities of the world.

Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.

Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning know nevertheless that it is there, for it is felt in all wolf country, and distinguishes that country from all other land. It tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day. Even without sight or sound of wolf, it is implicit in a hundred small events: the midnight whinny of a pack horse, the rattle of rolling rocks, the bound of a fleeing deer, the way shadows lie under the spruces. Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them.

My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open fiat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes- something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped- for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades


John Muir

Gifford, Terry. (Ed.) John Muir. His Life and Letters and Other Writings (Bâton Wicks, 1996), pp 70-71.

I set off on the first of my long lonely excursions, botanising in glorious freedom around the Great Lakes and wandering through innumerable tamarac and arbor-vitae swamps, and forests of maple, basswood, ash, elm, balsam, fir, pine, spruce, hemlock, rejoicing in their bound wealth and strength and beauty, climbing the trees, revelling in their flowers and fruit like bees in beds of goldenrods, glorying in the fresh cool beauty and charm, of the bog and meadow heathworts, grasses, carices, ferns, mosses, liverworts displayed in boundless profusion.

The rarest and most beautiful of the flowering plants I discovered on this first grand excursion was Calypso borealis (the Hider of the North). I had been fording streams more and more difficult to cross and wading bogs and swamps that seemed more and more extensive and more difficult to force one’s way through. Entering one of these great tamarac and arbor-vitae swamps one morning, holding a general though very crooked course by compass, struggling through tangled drooping branches and over and under broad heaps of fallen trees, I began to fear that I would not be able to reach dry ground before dark, and therefore would have to pass the night in the swamp…

But when the sun was getting low and everything seemed most bewildering and discouraging, I found beautiful Calypso on the mossy bank of a stream, growing not in the ground but on a bed of yellow mosses in which its small white bulb had found a soft nest and from which its one leaf and one newer sprung. The flower was white and made the impression of the utmost simple purity like a snowflower. No other bloom was near it, for the bog a short distance below the surface was still frozen, and the water was ice cold. It seemed the most spiritual of all the flower people I had ever met. I sat down beside it and fairly cried for joy.

It seems wonderful that so frail and lowly a plant has such power over human hearts. This Calypso meeting happened some forty-five years ago, and it was more memorable and impressive than any of my meetings with human beings excepting, perhaps, Emerson and one or two others…

How long I sat beside Calypso I don’t know. Hunger and weariness vanished, and only after the sun was low in the west I plashed on through the swamp, strong and exhilarated as if never more to feel any mortal care.


Brian Swimme

‘Fangs and Feasts’.(Interchange, Summer 1998).

I am at a futurist conference in Brazil. Although I am as concerned as anyone about the future of the world, what’s really on my mind this morning is my own personal future. We are leaving tomorrow for a week-long trek in the rainforest, and I have a growing anxiety about the snakes I might meet out there.

How are humans to relate to wild animals? How are we to understand them? To engage with them? As our boat glides up the Amazon River, I have a lot of time to ponder such questions. With dolphins leaping out of the river and brilliant green parrots screaming out of the trees, there are many extraordinary occasions for reflecting on wildlife.

Our first human response, beginning over 50,000 years ago, was to adore animals. The snake was dangerous certainly, would kill you perhaps, but the snake was also thought to be divine, a central piece in the cosmological meaning of the world. The snake should be revered and worshipped. Of course, there are still some people who remain convinced that the proper relationship of humans to animals is a worshipful one, but such people are fast disappearing, for another way of dealing with animals has appeared in human history, and this way has come to dominate.

The guide motions to me. I have been dragging my hand in the river water and he wants me to stop. At least I think he does; we don’t share a language so it is all gestures. We drift slowly through the trees. The swollen river has flooded the surrounding forest, so we make our way through the trees by boat. One of the branches sweeps into the boat, and as it moves towards my face, I see a piece of its bark move. Squinting, concentrating on this spot, I suddenly realize that I am breathing on a spider as large as the entire palm of my hand. With rapid feathery movements, it rushes at me, then stops. I am dumb, transfixed. As we move further on, I see that the tree is swarming with them; they are trapped by the rising waters – creatures angry, desperate, bursting with agitation.

Free of the tree branches, the guide smiles at me. He shrugs his shoulders as if to say, “I tried to warn you.” My skin is as agitated as if the spiders are now swarming over me. I don’t know what the guide sees in my face, but he quickly looks away. I look back at the tree, trying to understand. Something has awakened. I don’t know what – a horror, a thrill, a terror, a vitality. I was close enough to see the eyes of the spider. I felt I could see the spider taking me in with its eyes. God takes a seat behind me in the boat. “The spiders wanted to eat you. If even one of them had bitten you, you would have become fatally sick. Your guide would have thrown you into the river and fled.”

“He would have taken me to a hospital.”

“He would have fled for his life”

“He’s not stupid. If he tried to save you the spiders would have gotten him too.”

“You sound disappointed.”

“I’m of mixed feelings. How terrible would it be to have you eliminated? You who are so critical of your ancestors for enslaving plants and animals, how are you different? Their activities pale compared to yours. They worked clumsily with whole creatures, but you dig your fingers into the genetic treasures themselves so that you can control life’s essence directly. When will you be satisfied? When the whole world is in your image ?”

The boat hits ground. We step immediately into an all-enveloping wilderness, one that surrounds me with a totality that I have previously felt only in the presence of the night sky. Our guide walks to a particular tree, steps back, and slices into it with his machete. In the wound a line of white fluid bubbles forth. Using mime, he indicates that this in the poison the local people use for the points of arrows. Nearby is a plant with large spikes coming off its stalk. He plucks one, squeezes it to its tip, and shows me an oozing milky fluid. He points back to the poisonous tree and I interpret it as a warning: if I trip and fall into one of these thorny plants, I will have some major health challenges out here a thousand miles from any hospital. I am amazed by the poisons, but I am even more astounded by this man. He leads the way through such dangers wearing nothing but shorts. He has even taken off his shoes. In this vulnerable condition he enters the forest.

We come upon a tree that ignites a unique response from the guide: he shrieks, throws his machete to one side, and scrambles up the tree. After much rustling of branches, his smiling face emerges from the leaves near the top and he tosses something to me – a yellow globular object. When it hits my hands I find myself thinking a strange thought: I am holding the Amazon.

I marvel at this oblong yellow object. I’m supposed to eat it. He is watching me, and in this moment I realise something that is utterly obvious, so obvious it has escaped my attention all my life.

For decades I have been eating things that appear to have been manufactured in the back rooms of Safeways. You go through those swinging doors next to the milk cartons and come upon stacks of yellow cereal boxes, and crate upon crate of precisely constructed tomatoes. It seems they are all assembled in the back rooms of grocery stores, or built by agri-businesses that replace soil with carpets of plastic-coated nutrients, or made in factories that manufacture a strange synthetic stuff capable of maintaining human life at some minimal level. But what I now hold in my hands has been created by the Amazon River and by the rainforest, by its trees and monkeys and soils and snakes and wind and fish. I hold a yellow globular object that baffles me, one that sits nameless in my palm, outside my language, outside my understanding. No government body has examined it. No corporate manager has shaped its marketability. No haulage firm’s cost-efficient network has transported it. No advertiser has debased it with a media campaign. It sits inside a mystery as palpable as its sun-yellow color.

I tear the skin off and sink my teeth into its living yellow flesh. An animal that has been grown by communities of life very far from here now meshes mouth and teeth with the Amazon rainforest. How marvellous, this tingling in my throat. How marvellous, these tears welling in my eyes. When my mouth mates with this gift, something awakens in me. That which is wild has awakened that which is wild.

I moan a remembering. Has my life been dedicated to constructing full-body snake suits? Have all my efforts been to shield myself from these depths? Has my education, my training, my professional goals – have all these been in service of the agenda to defang the terrible beauty of the world? I who have been so terrified of becoming food for the forest come to see a simple truth – that all existence concerns eating and being eaten, and that this applies on more than the simplistic, literal level.

One bite of the Amazon rainforest and I am changed. A new urge constellates my life, something difficult to understand, difficult to articulate, a prayer surfacing in a dream. In each instant the universe swells into being and is as suddenly consumed – horrible, sublime mystery.

Let me learn to become as wild as the pungent taste of this sparkling yellow mystery let me learn to be fed by and to feed the wilderness at the core of the universe. Let me live to assist in the work of bestowing upon future generations this wilderness which alone can awaken our true nature.


Henry David Thoreau

Maine Woods

On the summit of Mount Ktaadn.

The mountain seemed a vast aggregation of loose rocks, as if some time it had rained rocks, and they lay as they fell on the mountain sides, nowhere fairly at rest, but leaning on each other, all rocking-stones, with cavities between, but scarcely any soil or smoother shelf. They were the raw materials of a planet dropped from an unseen quarry, which the vast chemistry of nature would anon work up, or work down, into the smiling and verdant plains and valleys of earth. This was an undone extremity of the globe… Some part of the beholder, even some vital part, seems to escape through the loose grating of his ribs as he ascends. He is more alone than you can imagine. There is less of substantial thought and fair understanding in him, than in the plains where men inhabit. His reason is dispersed and shadowy, more thin and subtle, like the air. Vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature has got him at disadvantage, caught him alone, and pilfers him of some of his divine faculty. She does not smile on him as in the plains. She seems to say sternly, why came ye here before your time? This ground is not prepared for you. Is it not enough that I smile in the valleys? I have never made this soil for thy feet, this air for thy breathing, these rocks for thy neighbors. I cannot pity nor fondle thee here, but forever relentlessly drive thee hence to where I am kind. Why seek me where I have not called thee, and then complain because you find me but a stepmother? Shouldst thou freeze or starve, or shudder thy life away, here is no shrine, nor altar, nor any access to my ear. .

And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast and drear and inhuman, though in the midst of cities. Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe… It was Matter, vast, terrific, – not his Mother Earth that we have heard of, not for him to tread on, or be buried in, – no, it were being too familiar even to let his bones lie there, – the home, this, of Necessity and Fate. There was there felt the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man… I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me… What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! – Think of our life in nature, – daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, – rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?


William Wordsworth

Prelude, Book1.

Duncan Wu. Romanticism: An Anthology (Blackwell, 1994), pp 292-294.


One evening (surely I was led by her)

I went alone into a shepherd’s boat,

A skiff that to a willow-tree was tied

Within a rocky cave, its usual home:

‘Twas by the shores of Patterdale, a vale

Wherein I was a stranger, thither come

A schoolboy-traveller at the holidays:

Forth rambled from the village inn alone

No sooner had I sight of this small skiff,

Discovered thus by unexpected chance,

Than I unloosed her tether and embarked.

The moon was up, the lake was shining clear

Among the hoary mountains; from the shore

I pushed, and struck the oars, and struck again

In cadence, and my little boat moved on

Even like a man who walks with stately step

Though bent on speed. It was an act of stealth

And troubled pleasure; nor without the voice

Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on,

Leaving behind her still on either side

Small circles glittering idly in the moon

Until they melted all into one track

Of sparkling light.


A rocky steep up rose

Above the cavern of the willow-tree,

And now, as suited one who proudly rowed

With his best skill, I fixed a steady view

Upon the top of that same craggy ridge,

The bound of the horizon, for behind

Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.

She was an elfin pinnace; lustily

I dipped my oars into the silent lake,

And as I rose upon the stroke my boat

Went heaving through the water like a swan –

When, from behind that craggy steep (till then

The bound of the horizon), a huge cliff,

As if with voluntary power instinct,

Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,

And growing still in stature, the huge cliff

Rose up between me and the stars, and still,

With measured motion, like a living thing

Strode after me. With trembling hands I turned

And through the silent water stole my way

Back to the cavern of the willow-tree.

There in her mooring-place I left my bark,

And through the meadows homeward went with grave

And serious thoughts; and after I had seen

That spectacle, for many days my brain

Worked with a dim and undetermined sense

Of unknown modes of being. In my thoughts

There was a darkness – call it solitude

Or blank desertion; no familiar shapes

Of hourly objects, images of trees,

Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields,

But huge and mighty forms that do not live

Like living men moved slowly through my mind

By day, and were the trouble of my dreams.


Wisdom and spirit of the universe,

Thou soul that art the eternity of thought,

That givest to forms and images a breath

And everlasting motion! – not in vain,

By day or star-light thus from my first dawn

Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me

The passions that build up our human soul,

Not with the mean and vulgar works of man,

But with high objects, with enduring things,

With life and nature, purifying thus

The elements of feeling and of thought,

And sanctifying by such discipline

Both pain and fear, until we recognize

A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.

Nor was this fellowship vouchsafed to me

With stinted kindness. In November days

When vapours rolling down the valleys made

A lonely scene more lonesome, among woods

At noon, and mid the calm of summer nights

When by the margin of the trembling lake

Beneath the gloomy hills I homeward went

In solitude, such intercourse was mine.

‘Twas mine among the fields both day and night,

And by the waters all the summer long.






Earth First: The Romantic Vision

by Michael Colebrook

Reprinted from GreenSpirit, Spring 2000

In his discussion of Wordsworth’s poems A N Whitehead1 points out that the Excursion, which is described as A philosophical poem containing views of Man, Nature, and Society opens with a line about nature: Twas summer, and the sun had mounted high and for the best part of thirty lines we are treated to a detailed description of the landscape; only then does the poet meet the friend he sought. In the same vein, Emerson2 opened an address to the senior divinity class of Harvard University in July 1838 with a eulogy on the natural world. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. . . Coleridge3 opens an ode titled France, written in 1798, with a complete stanza about nature:

Ye clouds, that far above me float and pause,
Whose pathless match no mortal may control!
Ye ocean waves, that, wheresoe’er ye toll,
Yield homage only to eternal laws!
Ye woods, that listen to the night-bird’s singing,
Midway the smooth and perilous; steep reclined;
Save when your own imperious branches swinging
Have made a solemn music of the wind!
. . .
Oh ye loud waves, and oh ye forests high,
And oh ye clouds, that far above me seated!
Thou rising sun! Thou blue rejoicing sky!
Yea, every thing that is and will be free,
Bear witness for me wheresoe’er ye be,
With what deep worship I have still adored
The spirit of divinest liberty.

Only in the second stanza does he begin on the subject of his poem:When France in wrath her giant limbs upreared,And with that oath which smote earth, air, and sea,Stamped her strong foot and said she would be free,it is a feature of much of Romantic writing that nature comes first; people and their thoughts and activities come second, having been firmly placed in the context of the natural world, in a particular place or landscape or season. This is no mere literary artifice, it represents a significant transformation in the view of the relationship between humanity and the rest of the natural world. The natural world is no mere mechanical stage on which the human drama is enacted. It is not a vale of darkness and suffering in which we have been placed in order to struggle for the salvation of our immortal souls, neither is it an opponent that has to be challenged, dominated and moulded to suit human needs and aspirations. The Romantic view of nature is as the source and context of human existence and as such it deserves, and is frequently given, pride of place in any consideration of human endeavour.From the implied challenge in the opening words of Rousseau’s Emile4Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things, everything degenerates in the hands of man, to Emerson’s plea5, why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight [into nature]and not of tradition, Romanticism recognised that humanity should acknowledge the natural world as a source of revelation; of knowledge and wisdom that could be gained through direct experience, letting nature teach her lessons in her own way and in her own time. This is not always easy: Shelley’s poem Mont Blanc6 contains lines that epitomise the problem:

The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
So solemn, so serene, that man may be
But for such faith with nature reconciled
Thou hast a voice, great mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe – not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.


Thoreau7 experienced the awful doubt on Mount Ktaadin, Think of our life in nature, – daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, – rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we? The faith so mild is expressed beautifully by John Muir8when he found the rare orchid Calypso borealis, ‘I sat down beside it and fairly cried for joy… How long I sat beside Calypso I don’t know. Hunger and weariness vanished, and only after the sun was low in the west I plashed on through the swamp, strong and exhilarated as if never more to feel any mortal care.’ These passages express what seems to be a fundamental ambiguity within the mysterious tongue of the wilderness. Wordsworth reflects on both aspects. Rowing a boat on Ulswater9 he speaks of:

…a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being. In my thoughts
There was a darkness – call it solitude
Or blank desertion; no familiar shapes
Of hourly objects, images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields,
But huge and mighty forms that do not live
Like living men moved slowly through my mind
By day, and were the trouble of my dreams.


While, on the banks of the River Wye10 he writes:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

What these poets and writers sensed was The spirit of divinest liberty; that nature makes claims to freedom, and, albeit with some difficulty, they acknowledged the paradox that while human freedom appears to be constrained by huge and mighty forms that do not live/ Like living men, it is not complete without the freedom of the natural world. Several of the Romantics went further, through encounters with the natural world they sought liberation from the constraints and failures of human society. Wordsworth opens his Prelude9 with a statement of profound gratitude to nature:

Oh welcome messenger, oh welcome friend!
A captive greets thee, coming from a house
Of bondage, from yon city’s walls set free,
A prison where he hath been long immured.
Now I am free, enfranchised and at large,
May fix my habitation where I will.
What dwelling shall receive me? In what vale
Shall be my harbour. Underneath what grove
Shall I take up my home, and what sweet stream
Shall with its murmurs lull me to my rest?
The earth is all before me: with a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about and should the guide I choose
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way. I breathe again;

Nature, on all scales, from the vastness of a mountain landscape to the myriads of creatures in a single drop of water, presents us with breathtaking beauty, magnificent intricacy and images of peace and harmony. At the same time there is the extreme violence of flood, fire, tempest and earthquake, and in living things almost every conceivable form of eating and being eaten, of death and decay as well as birth and growth. We now recognise that the freedom of Nature is at the heart of all evolutionary processes. Throughout the natural world there is the possibility of becoming different and of testing this difference against the constraints of necessity. This is true for galaxies, stars, planets, rocks and living organisms. According to a modern Romantic, Annie Dillard11:In nature, improbabilities are the one stock in trade. The whole creation is one lunatic fringe… Intricacy is that which is given from the beginning, the birthright, and in intricacy is the hardiness of complexity that ensures against the failure of all life. This is our heritage, the piebald landscape of time. We walk around; we see a shred of the infinite possible combinations of an infinite variety of forms. Anything can happen; any pattern of speckles may appear in a world ceaselessly bawling with newness… Beauty itself is the fruit of the creator’s exuberance that grew such a tangle, and the grotesques and horrors bloom from that same free growth, that intricate scramble and twine up and down the conditions of time.

Shelley’s lessons of awful doubt and faith so mild are not alternatives, they are simply different faces of the same teaching, one cannot exist without the other. The Romantics were not the first people to be aware of the problem, but they were among the first to be able to come to grips with it in the context of an evolving world, as Emerson12realised, We knew nothing rightly, for want of perspective. They were among the first to appreciate that the world is unfinished, as John Muir13 put it, the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is still the morning of creation.The Romantic view of the natural world developed as a reaction against the rationalism of main stream philosophy and the deterministic view of nature which was a pronounced feature of the science of the time. Whitehead1 claims that, Wordsworth in his whole being expresses a conscious reaction against the mentality of the eighteenth century. This mentality means nothing else than the acceptance of the scientific ideas at their full face value. Wordsworth was not bothered by any intellectual antagonism. What moved him was a moral repulsion. He felt that something had been left out, and that what had been left out comprised everything that was most important. Much has happened since Wordsworth’s time, but we have still not fully succeeded in putting back into the natural world everything that is important. There is still much that we can learn from the high Romantic period.


1. Alfred North Whitehead. Science and the Modern World (Free Association Books, 1985), p.101.
2. Richard Poirier (Ed.). Ralph Waldo Emerson (OUP, 1990), p.53.
3. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. France: An Ode. In Duncan Wu (Ed.). Romanticism, An Anthology(Blackwell.                1996), p.518.
4. Jean Jaques Rousseau.
Emile. (http://projects.ilt.columbia.edu/pedagogies/rousseau/em_eng_bk1.html).
5. Richard Poirier (Ed.). op cit. p.3.Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mont Blanc. In Duncan Wu. op cit. p.856.
6. HenryDavid Thoreau. Main Woods (http://www2.cybernex.net/~rlnet/mewoods.html).
7. Terry Gifford (Ed.). John Muir, His Life and Letters and Other Writings (Baton Wicks, 1996), p.71.
8. William Wordsworth. Prelude (Book 1). In Duncan Wu. op cit p.284
9. William Wordsworth. Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey. In Duncan Wu. op cit. p.240
10. Annie Dillard. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (HarperPerennial. 1988), pp. 144-6. Richard Poirier. op cit. p. 240. 11. Terry Gifford. John Muir, The Eight Wilderness Discovery Books (Diadem Books, 1992), p. 752.


Communing with Nature

by Thomas Dunlap

Reprinted by kind permission from History Today, 52 (3), March 2002. pp.31-37


Any movement that brings people out to lie in front of logging trucks, risk jail by tearing up survey stakes, or risk life and limb by running a small boat in front of a whaling ship deserves the attention of historians. Environmentalism has always done that. It has roused particularly strong passions in the last forty years, since the denunciations of DDT that followed the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, and they show no signs of dying down.

Reformers of all kinds have commonly been zealous – in the early years of the twentieth century British suffragettes chained themselves to fences, and in the 1960s American civil rights demonstrators marched up to club-wielding cops – but the fight for the vote and other civil rights reflected issues of daily life and everyday freedoms, which the campaigns to protect old-growth forests and whales do not. Environmentalism spoke in different tones and to different ends. Rather than justice and social change it appealed to a sense of morality and called on us to save the planet. In researching environmentalism in Australia, Canada and New Zealand I have found that the passionate element, though perhaps equally powerful elsewhere, is expressed in the United States in an unusual way. This difference is rooted in the American experience, but also in European culture. Americans borrowed and adapted ideas of conservation and natural beauty from Western Europe, and even their distinctive fascination with wild lands and wilderness drew on Romanticism and British pastoral poetry. (Europeans also drew on reports about American conditions).

The particular passion behind the American movement arose from the way in which its environmentalism has appealed to the human impulse towards religion. By religion, I do not mean a creed or a church but the sort of thing the philosopher and founder of pragmatism William James (1842-1910) talked about in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). In this work he defined religion as the ‘belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.’ It was, he said, the common human response to:

… a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand. The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers … At bottom the whole concern of religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe.

Environmentalism, in common with such beliefs as nationalism, progress, science, the free market or scientific socialism, holds, as an article of faith, that its beliefs are not faith but knowledge. They speak not ‘the language of the heart or of the emotions, but of serene, impartial reason’. Despite these claims, these movements do serve as religions in the Jamesian sense: they give people an explanation of the world and how human life fits into it and so guide them as to how they should live.

The religious impulse within American environmentalism can be traced back way beyond the counter-culture of the 1960s, to the poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82). When American environmentalists appeal to nature’s spiritual values they may mention Emerson but they focus on Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) Transcendentalist author of Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) and and John Muir (1838-1914) the pioneer advocate for national parks and founder, in 1892, of the Sierra Club, an organisation concerned with nature preservation. Thoreau, though, was Emerson’s protégé and Muir his loyal disciple. Emerson led – by the force of his writings, the passion of his commitment to ideas, and his then scandalous departure from orthodox Christianity – the first generation of American intellectuals, people determined to question their new country and its ideas but also to establish American greatness before the world. With compelling metaphors and striking aphorisms, Emerson showed nature to Americans as a refuge from society, a source of wisdom and ultimate reality. Uniquely ‘real’ and unaffected by humanity’s tricks and shams, nature did not deceive. It was beyond us, but at the same time there was a ‘radical correspondence between visible things and human thoughts’. According to Emerson, ‘every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact….[T]he whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass.’

Emerson set a personal example. He was the first in a long line of those who sought to sever themselves from their Protestant roots, seeking alternative spiritual fulfilment in American environmentalism. He and many of those who followed turned from a childhood of hellfire and damnation to nature or, more precisely, to Nature. Like Emerson, Thoreau also rejected New England Calvinism. Muir abandoned his father’s Campbellite Baptist faith for what he described as ‘baptism in Nature’s warm heart … every wild lesson a love lesson, not whipped but charmed into us.’ (It was the whipping that had helped him memorise the New Testament and much of the Old before he was twelve.) His contemporary, the great naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921), turned from an equally narrow Protestant up-bringing to science and Emerson. Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946), nature writer and co-founder of the North American Boy Scout movement, and enthusiast for Native American virtues, once described the harsh Protestantism of his childhood as the religion of Moloch, in which parents sacrificed their children to the idol. Sigurd Olson (1899-1962), a pre-eminent figure in the early twentieth-century wilderness movement, grew up the son of a Swedish Baptist minister in Wisconsin. David Brower (1912-2000), who led the Sierra Club through its transition from conservationist and outdoor recreation club into environmental advocate, grew up a Baptist in Berkeley, California. Dave Foreman, who helped to found and then led the radical group Earth First! in the 1980s, yearned as a youth to become a preacher in the Church of Christ.

Emerson’s Transcendentalism drew on German idealism and English pastoral poetry. By 1900 his disciples added science, making a mixture that John Burroughs described in one essay and elaborated in many as ‘The Gospel of Nature’ (1905). Science, he said, forced us to abandon the old theologies. It had formed in us

… a habit of mind in which these artificial notions [belief in the ‘magic of Christ’s blood and all the pagan notions of heaven and hell’] cannot live … The study of nature kills all belief in miraculous or supernatural agents not because it proves to us that the things do not exist, but because it fosters a habit of mind that is unfavorable to them, because it puts us in possession of a point of view from which they disappear.

We should turn, then, to Nature.

Nature love as Emerson knew it, and as Wordsworth knew it, and as any of the choice spirits of our time has known it, has distinctly a religious value … [it has that because] in intercourse with Nature you are dealing with things at first hand, and you get a rule, a standard, that serves you through life. You are dealing with primal sanities, primal honesties, primal attraction, you are touching at least the hem of the garment with which the infinite is clothed.

That faith in the intrinsic power of Nature was widely popular and still lives, even in its early twentieth-century form. One of my colleagues told of an older relative pressing into her hands a copy of a John Burroughs’ essay with the explanation that this was as close to religion as she had ever found.

The modern American nature religion has only distant ties to an older strain of nature worship that ran through Western civilisation since the classical period, or to New Age religion, or to Eastern traditions such as Buddhism, that environmentalists have also often looked to. It shared a reverence for the natural world and sought spiritual insight in it, but it saw nature in modern terms that appealed deeply (if covertly) to the particular American experience. Thoreau had been content to commune with nature in the woods and fields of Concord near Boston, but, fifty years later, Muir hymned California’s Sierra Nevada mountains as God’s gardens, and in the 1930s Sigurd Olson looked for insight in the unsettled forests and lakes of northern Minnesota. Landscape photography presented the same ideal. Ansel Adams (1902-84) and his successors presented, in what can best be described as devotional art, a vision of peace in a world that was beautiful, serene – and without humans.

Science even defined wilderness and set value on wildlife. It was in the 1870s that Yellowstone was nominated the country’s first National Park, an area set aside for its natural beauty and geological interest. Nineteen years later the experiment was extended when the Forest reserve Act institutionalised a system of national forests. And early in the twentieth century President Theodore Roosevelt, encouraged by his chief of forestry Gifford Pinchot and by John Muir, established conservation (the efficient use of resources) and preservation (through national parks and nature reserves) as national policies. In the 1930s, advocates within the national parks had argued that the parks should preserve all species, for each was, in the words of George Wright, Chief of the Wildlife Division of the National Park Service, the ‘embodied story of natural forces which have been operative for millions of years and is therefore a priceless creation, a living embodiment of the past’ (1933). A generation later people would define wilderness as those large areas with fully functioning ecosystems. The Place No One Knew (1963), a book produced by the Sierra Club to mourn the loss of Glen Canyon (drowned behind a dam on the Colorado River), presented the full-blown case of wilderness as sacred space and its defence as the modern crusade. In his introduction David Brower declared:

Glen Canyon died in 1963 and I was partly responsible for its needless death. So were you. Neither you nor I, nor anyone else, knew it well enough to insist that at all cost it should endure.

And this ignorance ‘has cost all men, for all time, the miracle of an unspoiled Glen Canyon.’ Eliot Porter’s photographs, which filled each page, showed quiet pools and delicate plants against massive sandstone cliffs. The text of selected quotations that accompanied the pictures spoke of a spiritual search. One said: ‘when your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land …’ Another, by William O. Douglas, said that ‘to be in tune with the universe is the whole secret’. A passage from Einstein stated that the mystical was

… the most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience … To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.

When environmentalism emerged in the US as a conscious cause in the 1960s it inherited this belief in Nature as the door to spiritual truth and the place of ultimate reality. It incorporated a moral perspective on human treatment of Nature that went back to the American agrarian tradition. For example, in 1915 Liberty Hyde Bailey had made the case in The Holy Earth. Bailey, an agricultural reformer, spoke of the conventional virtues of rural living but he made a stronger case, that the earth was holy, and that humans have a duty to take ‘care that we do not despoil it, and [are] mindful of our relations to all beings that live on it.’ Bailey describes man’s relation to the land in terms drawn from ‘the realm of trade’, arguing that it must be put instead into ‘the realm of morals’.

The morals of land management are more important than the economics of land management … [and] any line of development founded on accountant economics alone will fail.

Around 1915, twenty years before he began writing the essays that made him famous, the pioneer ecologist Aldo Leopold (1886-1948) read and took notes on The Holy Earth. He quoted Bailey, weaving his ideas – if not his Christian principles and Biblical rhetoric – into his own argument, substituting ecology for theology as philosophical underpinning. ‘A thing is right,’ he said, ‘when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’ This message became the secular Golden Rule of American environmentalism.

Moral sentiments also infused Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), the book that sparked off the first wave of 1960s environmentalism. Its warnings about pesticide residues and health made it popular, but morality, not muckraking, kept it in print. Carson preached that we have an ‘obligation to endure’. We have it in our power to ‘silence the re-birth of new life’, and that we were doing this not primarily from ignorance but because we lacked ‘humility before the vast forces’ of nature. The ‘control of nature’, she argued, was a

phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.

Carson called for her contemporaries to do more than make new policies. She called for a change of values. Her opponents as well as her friends recognised the nature of her argument. The National Agricultural Chemicals Association questioned her scientific evidence but complained much more bitterly about what it saw as her opposition to science, progress, and Western civilisation, and it condemned her as an apostate from the doctrine of progress and human reason. She was. Living as ‘a plain citizen of the biological community’ required accepting the universe from a completely different standpoint to one geared towards ‘conquering nature’.

In the wake of Silent Spring all industrialised societies acted to reduce pollution. They passed laws and set up agencies. The American environmental movement developed a search for salvation that marked it off from earlier nature faiths, emphasising its relation to American and Protestant ideals. It couched moral duties to nature in terms of individual stewardship and looked for salvation through an individual relation to nature. The atmosphere of those early years was characterised as much by righteousness as by right policy. Everyone put a brick in their toilet tank to save water, while debates about the amount of energy that could be saved by using cloth diapers instead of disposable ones, or by having permanent-press shirts rather than all-cotton ones, created much heat (and little light). ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’, became a mantra. The moral strain has survived the counter-culture. Today, books such as The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices promise to ‘help you make environmentally responsible choices in everyday decisions, and enable you to audit your personal impact on the earth.’ The Guide assures us that our choices not only ‘send important messages to manufacturers … [but] let our family, friends and neighborhood know something of our values’:

When you do something that your friends and neighbors can see, you go on record as being concerned about the environment and you act as a role model for them.

Readers raised in pious households will recognise these sentiments. They will also recognise the exhortation that you need not be a community leader or an expert to make a difference:

In retrospect, the triumph of recycling is especially impressive because so much of the change in attitudes and individual behavior was instigated by seemingly powerless children and teenagers who prodded their families, school and colleges into action … Probably most parents … have received humbling lectures from their children after being caught tossing a glass jar or newspaper in the trash can.

And a little child, or possibly a teenager, shall lead them.

Since the 1970s, Americans have looked towards a greater goal, an integration of nature and culture that will heal humans and the land. In the counter-culture years of the 1960s, bioregionalists, following an old American tradition of utopian communities, had turned their backs on consumerist society to build new ecologically responsible lives on the land. In the 1990s, a new generation sought nature’s blessings in suburban landscapes and suburban lives. Michael Pollan, for instance, called us to the garden in Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991):

[T]he idea of a garden – as a place, both real and metaphorical, where nature and culture can be wedded in a way that can benefit both – may be as useful to us today as the ideas of wilderness have been in the past.

We had learned from the wilderness ‘more than we needed to know about virginity and rape, and almost nothing about marriage.’ The garden offered a middle ground where we might look for ‘forms of human creation that satisfy culture without offending nature.’ It could help us move past our ‘habit of bluntly opposing nature and culture’, toward a ‘more complicated and supple sense of how we fit into nature.’ Others spoke in less exalted terms of ‘restoring the ecology of our back yards’. The number of businesses now selling local flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees are a measure of the movement’s popularity. In the south-west United States, ‘xeriscaping’ – landscaping with plants that do not need irrigation – has become an environmental statement. Beyond that, people have connected the cycle of their lives to nature through ceremonies. I have discovered no environmental baptisms, but there are many who mark their continuance in the ecosystem by having their ashes scattered in national parks and wilderness areas or at sea (whereas believers in the triumphant progress of man into the universe may aspire to having their ashes shot into outer space).

The search for insight in the wilderness, the pursuit of virtue in daily life, and the integration of the life of the individual with ultimate realities, have become elements of religious practice, ways to find the ‘hidden order of the universe’ and to make ‘proper connection with the higher powers’. Environmentalism even offers a version of the great battle of good and evil; the cause of environmental protection against unchecked consumerism. It speaks of the apocalypse of environmental degradation and the earthly paradise of the sustainable society. That the problems it addresses have increased and the fears become more real gives the movement even greater appeal. Almost 150 years ago, in his pioneering work Man and Nature (1864), George Perkins Marsh (1801-82) warned of the false economy of burning the window frames and wainscotting of our houses to cook our meals. What he saw in the future we face in the present, now described in the collapse of ecosystems and ocean fisheries. We face, too, the death of something in the human spirit as wild nature dwindles to nothing. Environmentalism confronts these losses and calls on us to turn from a life of gadgets to one that serves the world. That constitutes a way of accepting the universe that runs against many of our conventional beliefs – in progress, the sufficiency of human reason, and our destiny as conquerors of the world (if not the universe). While it fails to address some problems and offers wrong answers to others, the modern environmental movement, in its basic orientation, reaches the level of religion. The passion for environmentalism comes from its followers’ belief that they are dealing with the ultimate questions.

For Further Reading:
The Norton Book of Nature Writing (W.W.Norton, 1990).
Michael Ruse, Can A Darwinian be a Christian? (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
Ian Barbour, Religion and Science (HarperCollins, 1997).

Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (Yale University Press, 1983).
Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (Yale University Press, 1991).

Thomas Dunlap is Professor of History at Texas A&M University. He is the author of Nature and the English Diaspora (CUP, 1999).

Awakening to Nature

by Michael Colebrook

Reprinted from GreenSpirit, Spring 1999

CCCanyonJohn Muir, the Scottish/American pioneer of nature conservation, was strongly influenced by the American and English Romantics, and it seems that several of these writers had special experiences of awakening or enlightenment involving the natural world.
Nature speaks to us all the time: our senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste evolved so that we can receive her messages. Most of the time these are simply part of the background to our existence, but every now and then, the true voice of wild nature breaks through; it forces itself onto the foreground and demands our absolute attention. Perhaps the most appropriate word to use for such an experience is epiphany, implying an event or manifestation leading to a new awareness but which also contains definite overtones of a spiritual experience.
Nature epiphanies were not confined to the high Romantic period but have been described by a number of authors who have cultivated an openness to the natural world. It is perhaps overstating the case to regard such epiphanies as part of the legacy of Romanticism, but it can be argued that the free use of language developed by the Romantics has made it easier for subsequent writers to describe their experiences. In this article I am going to focus on just one of these epiphanies; that experienced by William Wordsworth and described in Book 1 of his Prelude. It starts innocently enough; the young Wordsworth ‘borrowed’ a shepherd’s boat and rowed out onto Ulswater and, as he went:

A rocky steep uprose
Above the cavern of the willow-tree,
And now, as suited one who proudly rowed
With his best skill, I fixed a steady view
Upon the top of that same craggy ridge,
The bound of the horizon, for behind
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And as I rose upon the stroke my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan –
When, from behind that craggy steep (till then
The bound of the horizon), a huge cliff,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature, the huge cliff
Rose up between me and the stars, and still,
With measured motion, like a living thing
Strode after me. With trembling hands I turned
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the cavern of the willow-tree.
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,
And through the meadows homeward went with grave
And serious thoughts; and after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being. In my thoughts
There was a darkness – call it solitude
Or blank desertion; no familiar shapes
Of hourly objects, images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields,
But huge and mighty forms that do not live
Like living men moved slowly through my mind
By day, and were the trouble of my dreams.
In solitude, such intercourse was mine.
‘Twas mine among the fields both day and night,
And by the waters all the summer long.
(Prelude, Book 1, lines 395-428 & 451-2)

Following the experience, ‘for many days my brain/ Worked with a dim and undetermined sense/ Of unknown modes of being.’ Wordsworth was obliged to recognise that the natural world exists in its own right and has its own ways that are not within the realm of human experience or subject to human dominion; there are ‘huge and mighty forms that do not live/ Like living men’. This was a true epiphany, unforgettable and deeply disturbing but ultimately enriching and liberating. Book 1 of the Prelude opens with the lines:

Oh there is blessing in this gentle breeze
That blows from the green fields and from the clouds
And from the sky – it beats against my cheek,
And seems half-conscious of the joy it gives.
Oh welcome messenger, oh welcome friend!
A captive greets thee, coming from a house
Of bondage, from yon city’s walls set free,
A prison where he hath been long immured.
Now I am free, enfranchised and at large,
May fix my habitation where I will.

The poem is essentially autobiographical but it opens with lines about nature and the message is one of liberation from ‘yon city’s walls’. Clearly, by the time Wordsworth wrote the poem, the experience on Ulswater had been fully assimilated, the ‘unknown modes of being’ were no more a source of alienation but of homecoming, of belonging and of freedom – ‘enfranchised and at large’.
The significance of nature epiphanies was confirmed for me by Brian Swimme’s article in Interchange (Summer 1998) in which he describes his experiences in the Amazonian rain-forest. ‘Has my education, my training, my professional goals – have all these been in service of the agenda to defang the terrible beauty of the world? I who have been so terrified of becoming food for the forest come to see a simple truth – that all existence concerns eating and being eaten, and that this applies on more than the simplistic, literal level. . .One bite of the Amazon rainforest and I am changed. A new urge constellates my life, something difficult to understand, difficult to articulate, a prayer surfacing in a dream. In each instant the universe swells into being and is as suddenly consumed – horrible, sublime mystery’.
I think Brian Swimme comes close to expressing the conflicting emotions aroused by a true epiphany; he speaks of ‘a horror, a thrill, a terror, a vitality’. There is the initial shock of the sudden and unexpected exposure to something totally other, to ‘unknown modes of being’; to things going on that seem to have absolutely no relationship with our human existence, or if they do, they seem to pose a threat to it. Then there is the thrill of the challenge presented by the experience. Lastly there is some form of assimilation, or at least acceptance, of the nature of the experience. This process can be more or less instantaneous or, as with Wordsworth, it can take ‘all summer long’. The response to the challenge may be just a determination to find out more about whatever happened, but the most profound epiphanies result in an enlarged awareness of the vitality of nature and even a total transformation of ones outlook towards the natural world.
I make no claim to have had experiences of quite this magnitude but I do have two vivid memories of events relating to wild nature. All my life I have been interested in the animals that live in water, and the first event goes back a long way, to my boyhood, and a small stream, not much more than a ditch really, that ran across the bottom of my parents house. I used to spend hours just looking into it to see what I could see. One day I saw what I later found out to be a water scorpion (it is not a scorpion; it is an insect, about an inch long, but it has a vicious looking pair of pincers and a spike of a tail that looks as though it could sting). What has lived with me for the best part of sixty years was the shock of seeing something that was totally other and alien to my experience: ‘a dim and undetermined sense/ Of unknown modes of being.’
The second event happened much later in my life when I was lucky enough to be included in a group visiting the Bass Rock, an island nature reserve in the Firth of Forth. Walking around the rock, with its thriving colony of seals and its multitudes of gannets and other sea birds, I had an almost overwhelming feeling that I was an intruder, that the rock was the place for the seals and the gannets and I had no business to be there. The experience was in no way threatening, it was simply as if the real inhabitants of the Bass Rock were telling me that they deserved the same kind of respect for their home as I expect others to show for mine. I should wait for an invitation and, given the usual behaviour of humans towards the rest of the natural world, that invitation was likely to be a long time coming.

The Ancient Mariner – A Green Parable?

by Christine Avery

In 1797, at the full tide of European Romanticism, Samuel Taylor Coleridge began working on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This imaginary traveller’s tale contains the symbolic killing of a natural creature, the albatross, which Coleridge’s admirable biographer, Richard Holmes, considers identifies the poem as a ‘green parable’ and he claims that ‘the notion of the green parable deserves further exploration.’ If we begin to follow up Holmes’ suggestion we find, I believe, a key text and inspiration for Creation Spirituality.

Ancient Mariner

The Ancient Mariner is a ballad written in a simple style, gripping the reader by its sensuous imagery and evocation of archetypal emotions. The Mariner is the vagrant, the anguished misfit, who waylays the narrator and prevents him from joining in one of the most celebratory and social of all human events, a wedding. The Mariner has singled out this particular wedding guest, for no given reason, and this encourages the reader to identify with him as an Everyman figure. He is about to be forcibly removed from a state of merely social relatedness and turned towards the ‘otherness’ of the environment. The guest – and the reader – are compelled to accompany the Mariner in imagination away from the wedding, beyond the safe world of the land, the church, the lighthouse, and into the unknown. The storm and the ice the seafarers encounter are anti-human and feel as if anti-life. Common sense at this point might raise its prosaic head and say ‘Why go? What do you gain by tempting nature to do its worst?’ The revelatory perception that the world is not made for us, that there are places where we are not meant to be, is here implicit and it also has an implicit answer. The spirit of the explorers whom Coleridge read with constant fascination animates the poem, as in the line: ‘We were the first that ever burst into that silent sea’. The journey into the unknown is felt as a natural expression of human energy, a compelling expansion of human awareness. Though the enterprise is full of risk, it is necessary, part of the deep-laid romanticism of the human past.

Into the alien (though beautiful) world of sea and cold comes the great bird flying. The reader feels the exaltation, the response of ‘this shouldn’t be able to live here, but it gloriously and awesomely can…’ The experience suggests to the sailors something religious, ‘As if it had been a Christian soul, /We hailed it in God’s name.’ There is not only a communication between the creature and the human beings – it comes to their call and eats their food – there is also the sense of a kind of universal complicity, a wholeness which works for all its elements, expressed by the following south-wind which takes the mariners where they want to go. This recalls the experience of people close to nature that certain states of sensitivity and goodwill lead to a perception that ‘all things work together for good’. No doubt at least part of this is the concentrated mind’s enhanced ability to integrate potentially discordant experiences into new patterns. But some things cannot be integrated. The wanton destruction of harmony and relatedness is represented in the poem by the ‘act gratuit’ of the Mariner. For no reason at all, meaninglessly, he shoots the albatross ‘with my cross-bow.’ This is not part of risky exploration. It is something different – a perverseness, a disconnnection. It cannot be integrated at the given moment but needs the forging of a new pattern, worked out through the dimension of time.

The killing of the albatross has sometimes been described by critics as a trivial, token act but surely only an unjustifiably compartmentalized form of thinking could see it in this way. The shooting actually stands for every act of mindless cruelty, all failure to respect and feel with other life forms. There is a parallel with John Muir’s detestation of the wanton destruction of bears in Yosemite since they ‘are made of the same dust as we, and breathe the same winds and drink of the same waters.’ In standing for all similar actions the killing of the albatross also reinforces that habit of mind which operates symbolically – senses affinities and has an intuitive awareness of connection. If the albatross stands for life itself, the story of its killing it foreshadows – carries the warning and the darkness – of complete ecological disaster.

For the Ancient Mariner the shooting of the bird brings a retribution which represents the unbearable. The wind drops leaving the ship becalmed and there is no water to drink so that the sailors all die slowly of thirst, except for the Mariner himself who is compelled to suffer instead ‘the nightmare Life-in-Death.’ His situation is redeemed by another spontaneous act, his blessing of the water snakes that swim around the ship. He does it ‘unawares’, in a moment of grace rather than moralistic will. Although they are alien and other (the way most people tend to experience snakes) still they are alive and beautiful. The blessing causes the albatross to fall off the Mariner’s neck, like the millstone of Christian iconography, or the burden from the back of Bunyan’s pilgrim, and sink ‘like lead into the sea.’ Again, the act stands for all impulses towards honouring and preserving our natural environment. The Mariner still has much to suffer but he has become a kind of prophet who must urgently make himself heard.

‘The Ancient Mariner’ is an essentially Christian poem and in this way differs from most Romantic texts, and sharply from the spirit of such later Romantics as Tennyson, Hardy and Lawrence. In the unexplored territory, the place where we are not welcome, although there is intolerable suffering, there are also the tokens of a transcending intelligence. The cross imagery is spelled out and unmissable. The Mariner too is a Christ figure to the extent that he bears the burden for the rest of the crew, who share his guilt because at one stage they had applauded his destructive act. At the end of the poem when the Pilot’s boat goes out to investigate the returning, spectral ship, neither the Pilot nor the boatboy can bear the encounter. The Pilot faints and the boatboy goes mad. Only the ‘holy Hermit’ has (barely) enough strength to address the Mariner and then receive his confession. The Mariner himself becomes part of nature as well as remaining human: ‘I pass like night from land to land/I have strange power of speech.’ This particular transcending of a duality perhaps represents a deep human need.

Contemporary responses to the poem perhaps indicate something about its originality. Southey wrote a disparaging review including the comment: ‘We do not understand the story sufficiently to analyse it. It is a Dutch attempt at German sublimity.’ There were other more sympathetic views (not many) but perhaps Southey’s bafflement suggests that the poem went beyond the shared Romantic consciousness of that moment and that more time was needed for it to become as transparent and relevant as it is for us today.

Wordsworth’s reactions are also revealing. When working on the second edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1800 Wordsworth (although he had contributed ideas and even lines to the poem at its inception), insisted on consigning The Ancient Mariner to the end of the volume and complained: ‘The Poem of my Friend has indeed great defects, first that the principal person has no distinct character…secondly that he does not act but is continually acted upon, thirdly that the events having no necessary connection do not produce each other…’ To which a modern defender of the poem, soaked in a sad experience of human destructiveness of nature, on a scale which Wordsworth could hardly have guessed at, might respond, firstly: that an Everyman does not need a ‘distinct character since character must be the result of reflective personal development: in killing the albatross the Mariner exemplifies an undeveloped and therefore characterless human being, the moral implication being that self-development is imperative; secondly that to be acted upon must be a central part of the human experience of nature – only a lurking machismo within a patriarchal mindset could interpret this necessity as purely negative; and thirdly that the events of the poem connect in the chain: destruction leads to suffering; then blessing leads to enlightenment and a prophetic imperative. The ‘passivity’ of the Mariner connects up with the concept of ‘passive attentiveness’ as developed by Goethe. Wordsworth himself expressed it in the phrase ‘wise passiveness’, describing the state of mind wherein ‘one impulse from the vernal wood can teach you more of man, of moral evil and of good than all the sages can.’ There is, however a radiant paradox here in that an understanding of the mind as an active participant in perception is also essential to Romanticism. The two apparently opposite states, passive and participative, go together in a unity which needs to be experienced directly.

Richard Holmes’ interprets the poem as showing ’man’s destructive effect on the natural world, so that human moral blindness inadvertently introduces evil into the benign systems of nature, releasing uncontrollable forces that take a terrible revenge.’ While agreeing with this up to a point, I suggest that the ‘systems of nature’ dramatised in the poem are hardly benign – at least, not in any comfortable sense. Like the author or the Book of Job, and like Annie Dillard in our own time, Coleridge simply but urgently, palpably, plunges us into the beauty and awesomeness of the natural world – and leaves us to explore further our own strange and powerful impulses of benignity towards that world.