A week or so ago, our friends Ann and Jules invited me and my wife over to dinner, and after an excellent meal, Ann played a recording for us. It was the poet Robert Frost, reading his poem, “birches“:
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do.
Having just returned from a hike in the Catskills, I had to interject here and point out that in the mountains of southern New York, it’s not the birches that are bent over after winter storms, but rather the fir and spruce saplings, which are often crushed to the ground under heavy loads of snow. Robert Frost lived in New Hampshire, I explained, and no doubt conditions up there are different.
Needless to say, on the very next hike in the Catskills, I was overwhelmed by bent-over birches….
InWhitman: A Study, east coast naturalist John Burroughs presented his friend Walt Whitman as the poet of democracy, primal man, visionary of the open air, barbarian in the parlor, force of nature, prophet. The famous literary critic Harold Bloom goes even further, placing Whitman on par with Shakespeare and describing him as “the greatest artist his nation has brought forth” and “as close to an authentic American saint as we will ever know.” I was thus very excited recently to come across Whitman’s memoir, Speciman Days, which would give me a chance to better understand the poet’s vision.
Speciman Days is not a conventional life story but rather a series of vignettes. What I loved the most was how Whitman described the simple experience of being outdoors, which was for him a source of health, joy, and even ecstasy, and also the standard of beauty against which he judged art and literature. In fact, the outdoors life was in his view critical for “the whole politics, sanity, religion, and art of the New World.” Without a direct connection to nature, he warned, American democracy would “dwindle and pale.”
Readers of this blog won’t be surprised that I sympathize with this view. But in modern America, the outdoors life is for the most part a thing of the past: according to recent data, the average American today spends only 7% of their time outdoors.
The original Blade Runner movie made a deep impression on me when it was released in 1982, especially the last few seconds, when the protagonists escape from the dark, rainy, urban disaster zone of future Los Angeles into sunlit forests and mountains — the only glimpse of nature in the 1-hour 57-minute film. Thus I was very curious when Blade Runner 2049 showed up in theaters a few weeks ago.
The timing was fortuitous, because I’d recently read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the 1974 classic by Robert Pirsig, which opens with a motorcycle trip into the fresh air and sunshine of the countryside, an attempt to escape a lifestyle increasingly shaped and dominated by technology. Or perhaps, as the novel’s protagonist muses, it’s not technology itself but some kind of force that gives rises to technology: “something undefined, but inhuman, mechanical, lifeless, a blind monster, a death force.”
Dread of technology is not recent. A copy of Walden tucked away in the protagonist’s motorcycle saddle-bag calls to mind Henry David Thoreau’s warning that “men have become the tool of their tools.” For Thoreau, dependence on technology was a form of enslavement, and his famous observation that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” seems to be the implicit premise in both Pirsig’s novel and the tech noir genre to which the Blade Runner films belong.
Of course, we need technology to survive. Pirsig adds that without it, “there would be no possibility for beauty in the arts,” as the words “technology” and “art” both refer to the process of making things…. But the fear remains: that technology has taken on a life of its own, that it is reordering human existence according to mechanical rules, that the end result for us will not be the light and beauty of nature, but rather despair and the grim urban decay through which the blade runner stalks his prey.
In a recent essay for the New York Times, performance coach Brad Stulberg advocates for the “unbalanced” life. He explains that “the times in my life during which I’ve felt happiest and most alive are also the times that I’ve been the most unbalanced.” These were times when he was fully consumed by a particular activity, whether trekking in the Himalayas, training to set a personal record in the triathlon, or writing a book. Sticking with a more balanced lifestyle might have precluded these “formative experiences.”
Brad goes on to quote elite athletes who also urge people to “give it your all.” The idea is enticing: who wouldn’t want to clear away distractions and throw themselves passionately into a single special activity?
But whether unbalance is the best strategy is debatable. There’s a simple approach to allocating time among activities, and that’s to spend the incremental hour where you get the highest pay-off. Because talents and aspirations differ, what seems balanced for one person might be unbalanced for another. The more important question is how to achieve a state of inner balance.
In The Practice of The Wild, Beat poet, Zen student, and environmentalist Gary Snyder writes of stepping off the beaten path. This metaphor brings to mind the 19th century Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who advocated for “absolute freedom and wildness,” and who strongly preferred sauntering through the woods to walking the public road. These authors have attracted a large following among nature-lovers, environmentalists, and even anarchists, many of whom crave independence from the constraints of modern society, and some of whom advocate for “rewilding” or a return to ancestral lifestyles. But a close reading of Snyder and Thoreau finds little support for “human wildness,” i.e., a state of being free of social constraint. Rather, they portray wildness as a fleeting experience and use the word more as a metaphor for creativity and originality. Once we understand this point, we find that the key to absolute freedom is not to be found in nature, but rather in the spirit of self-reliance and self-discipline – or put differently, the wild must indeed be “practiced.”
This post is based on talk I gave at the John Burroughs Association May 20, 2017 Slabsides Open House, assisted by my friends Lisa Zucker Glick, who read the John Burroughs’ quotations, and Jim Porter, who read the words of Walt Whitman. For additional citations and references, please see “Running the Long Path.”
The east coast naturalist John Burroughs was a passionate observer of the forests, animals, and especially the birds of his native Catskill Mountains. He wrote unabashedly, “I find I see, almost without effort, nearly every bird within sight in the field or wood I pass through (a flit of the wing, a flirt of the tail are enough, though the flickering leaves do all conspire to hide them).”
This was no idle boast. Theodore Roosevelt, himself a great birder, acknowledged Burroughs’ mastery in his 1905 book, Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter, where he wrote that “No bird escaped John Burroughs’ eye; no bird note escaped his ear.”
As a Burroughs fan and someone trying to improve his own skills, I was thrilled to discover recently that the master had left behind some advice on the art of observation. Several of his essays contain how-to tips, including “The Art of Seeing Things,” “Sharp Eyes” and The Gospel of Nature, which I’ve tried to summarize in this blog post.
But first a few words of caution, in the form of a caveat Burroughs offered his readers: “I have as little hope of being able to tell the reader how to see things as I would have in trying to tell him how to fall in love or to enjoy his dinner. Either he does or he does not, and that is about all there is of it. Some people seem born with eyes in their heads, and others with buttons or painted marbles.”