Whatever happened to the dogma of Thoreau and Emerson?
This blog entry is neither dramatic nor a desperate plea for awareness, nor is it a call for activism or admonishment of contemporary culture. It’s just a gentle reminder (or suggestion) to pay more attention to things that you’d normally take for granted. I’ve been thinking about such matters for the last few months, but recently my thoughts happened to have been crystalized. You see, I’ve been inspired by a very interesting book I recently devoured called The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert, who also wrote Eat, Pray, Love. The story is about a man in North Carolina named Eustace Conway who, from his early adolescence, rejected modern American life and committed to living off the land, much like the intrepid and resourceful pioneers that founded and tamed the wild American frontier hundreds of years ago (think Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone).
Early in the book was a passage that really caught my attention:
We (Americans) have fallen out of rhythm. It’s this simple. If we don’t cultivate our food supply anymore, do we need to pay attention to the idea of, say, seasons? Is there any difference between winter and summer if we can eat strawberries every day? If we can keep the temperature in our houses set at a comfortable 70 degrees all year, do we need to notice that fall is coming? Do we have to prepare for that? Respect that? Much less contemplate what it means for our own mortality that things die in nature every autumn? And when spring does come round again, do we need to notice that rebirth? Do we need to take a moment and maybe thank anybody for that? Celebrate it? If we never leave our house except to drive to work, do we need to even be remotely aware of this powerful, humbling, extraordinary, and eternal life force that surges and ebbs around us all the time?
This beautifully written passage really spoke to me. Frankly, I would have always agreed with its assertions at any moment of my life, but, you see, I’ve been living on Sullivan’s Island for the last few months, visiting the beach almost every day, swimming in the ocean, surfing hurricane swells, and jumping on fishing boats whenever anyone is gracious enough to offer. So, I’ve been thinking about the quality and enhancement of our lives as it pertains to appreciating aesthetic natural beauty and the power of nature. I don’t mean gazing at Mother Nature with an aw shucks, Forrest Gump type of wonderment, more like taking a few moments to consider the sublime pureness of what goes on around us. To not curse the rain, but think about what it means to the organisms it falls upon. To not be pissed because at high tide we can’t play bocce ball on the beach, but to rather think about the beautiful monotony of the tides and simple but incredible relationship it has with the gravity of the moon.
Now, I’m aware that I might sound like a spoiled SOB—I’m sure many people would love to live at the beach and ponder cosmic and natural phenomenon. But I submit to you that one can appreciate such things sitting on their back porch, driving on a tree-lined road, and other seemingly mundane situations. Even watching someone we know and love walking a dog we know and love or having a cocktail and chatting with friends can evoke bigger picture feelings of wonderment on how such nice things come to pass.
I’m lucky enough to count surfing, fishing, and hunting among my hobbies. I love them for many different reasons. But mostly because it is being a part of something larger, infinitely larger, and more impressive than any human being’s existence—whether its paddling for a wave that was created 100 miles out at sea by a wind gust, stepping on the banks of a river that was forged by an earthquake 10,000 years ago, looking for rainbow trout to rise for a green drake mayfly hatch, or watching the silhouette of ducks careening through the forest into a pond to feed before sunrise. And these are things that happen every day, habits and cycles that occur over millions of years by trial and error. It’s mind-boggling, something we should appreciate but not in a pedantic way. We need to just sort of give a wink or thumbs up to what’s going on around us more often.
While we are on the subject of hunting and fishing, I know some people out are rather skeptical that one could appreciate nature and then hunt and kill an animal. This is a fair question, and one that Elizabeth Gilbert covers in her book about Eustace Conway. I really liked this passage as well:
Eustace met people who were vegetarian environmentalist and were upset to see him hunt animals. He reached the point where he no longer had the energy to explain how much more destructive to the environment their synthetic-fleece clothing was, seeing that it was made of nonrenewable material produced in polluting and resource-gobbling factories. Or that they didn’t know where their food came from, or how the earth suffered from its manufacture and packaging.
Now I realize I’m initiating a whole other type of argument or philosophy, but I think the point is that it can be constructive to think about what’s happening around us in a different light, to consider the imperative, and sometimes brutal, cycle of life among the species of Mother Earth.
Humans, and especially Americans, have just become numb to aesthetics and wonderment. We’ve have taken such enormous leaps forward—I often celebrate our progress. But staring at our phones or at the television all day has become alarmingly prevalent to a large number of people in society. Sitting on a back porch doesn’t seem to be such a time-honored tradition as it once was.
I’m guilty of it too. If my iPhone doesn’t connect to the internet fast enough to settle an argument about what I think Bill Murray whispered to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation, I almost want to smash it against the wall. It makes me feel like Kanye West or something. And I love great service as well, always searching for the path of least resistance, like most everyone else. But I’m really going to try more these days to stop and smell the roses (PUN intended). I think we all could benefit from being outdoors more often. To be more aware. One Eustace Conway quote I tried to absorb was:
There’s no way you can have a decent life if you aren’t awake and aware…you must show up for your
Own life. The most extraordinary gift you’ve been given is your own humanity, which is about consciousness, so honor your consciousness.
It’s naive, overly idealistic, and a bit simplistic to agree with Eustace Conway’s philosophies in the book, that America will and should go back to nature, but I think just a bit more admiration and warm recognition of our surroundings isn’t too much to ask, is it?