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.”
An edited video of the talk is available here: https://vimeo.com/218372727
For more information on the John Burroughs Association, please visit johnburroughsassociation.org
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.”
The acclaimed Japanese animated filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 classic My Neighbor Totoro tells the story of two young sisters who encounter friendly forest spirits in postwar rural Japan. The film has won numerous awards, and the Totoro has been ranked among the most popular animated characters.
There are many reasons for the film’s success, including the carefully crafted animation, the endearing portrayal of the two sisters, the lush watercolor backgrounds, and the pastoral simplicity of the setting. After watching the movie recently, I asked myself, what is a Totoro? And what was Miyazaki’s purpose in creating this movie?
Henry David Thoreau’s 1862 essay, “Autumnal Tints,” contains colorful descriptions of New England’s fall foliage, including sugar maple and northern red oak, as well as more humble plants like bearded grass and pokeweed. Of special interest to me was Thoreau’s commentary on the red maple (Acer rubrum): he’d noticed that as early as the 25th of September a small red maple on the edge of a meadow had already turned a “far brighter red than the blossoms of any tree in summer” and that the tree was all the “more conspicuous” in contrast with the rest of the forest, which was still green:
Some single trees, wholly bright scarlet, seen against others of their kind still freshly green, or against evergreens, are more memorable than whole groves will be by-and-by. How beautiful, when a whole tree is like one great scarlet fruit full of ripe juices, every leaf, from lowest limb to topmost spire, all aglow, especially if you look toward the sun!
— Henry David Thoreau, Autumnal Tints
In recent weeks I’d spotted solitary maple leaves dotting the trail, splashes of scarlet among the prevailing greens and browns of the forest floor. This Sunday would be the 25th of September — and based on Thoreau’s essay it seemed precisely the right time to go scouting for the season’s first red maples to have fully changed their color. My friend Steve Aaron was looking for a mountain to climb, so I invited him to join me and Odie the Labradoodle for an attempt on Fir Mountain, one of several pathless peaks that rise above the headwaters of the Esopus Creek.
This is a revised version of an earlier post in which I described an adventure in the Catskills undertaken in part as an experiment in “askeisis,” the ancient Greek concept of physical and spiritual training. The revised version was published Saturday in Stoicism Today, a blog sponsored by University of Exeter on the topic of ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophy applied to modern living.
To read the post, click here:
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises Arjuna to “strive to still the mind,” which reminds me of a point made by 2nd century Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius:
It is in your power, whenever you choose, to retire into yourself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
One day, while waiting for the subway, I decided to give it a try. Instead of fretting at the wait, I put away my phone and stood still. Anxiety faded, and the surroundings came into focus, as I slowly let out my breath.
A visual image had helped me make the transition: I imagined moving a gear shift into neutral. Then I wondered, could I shift into neutral while running?