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.”
In Whitman: A Study, the Catskills nature-writer, essayist, and philosopher John Burroughs (1837-1921) defended Walt Whitman (1819-1892) against the hostile reactions of contemporary scholars, for whom Whitman’s poetry was too coarse, racy, and controversial. In the book, Burroughs presented Walt Whitman as the “poet of democracy” and described him as a primal man, visionary of the open air, barbarian in the parlor, force of nature, and prophet. But Whitman: A Study isn’t just about Whitman, it’s also an exposition of Burroughs’ philosophy. Inspired by both science and nature, Burroughs saw natural processes at work within society, and he explained how both physical strength and the vitality of culture can fade if we lose our connection with the natural world. This message seems just as relevant for our information age as it was 120 years ago when Whitman: A Study was first published.
When running in the mountains, I’ve seen many footprints on the paths. Sometimes I’m reminded of people like John Burroughs, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau, who wandered the forests during the 19th and early 20th century, experiencing nature as a source of beauty, strength, and inspiration. There are older tracks, too, for behind these figures lurks another spirit: Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the essayist, lecturer, poet, and father of the American Transcendentalist movement.
I hadn’t read Emerson since college, but one day it occurred to me that there could be a connection between “Transcendentalism” and the sport of ultra-running, if for no other reason that those who run longer distances than the conventional 26.2-mile marathon, are driven in part to do so by a desire to “transcend” perceived limits. I began to wonder, might ultra-runners be carrying Emerson’s banner, without even knowing it?
In a recent New Yorker article, Adam Alter explores the psychological and spiritual motivations of ultra-marathon runners, that is, people who run distances longer than the conventional marathon (26.2 miles) in races that sometimes last hundreds and even thousands of miles. Alter, who is associate professor of marketing at the Leonard Stern School of Business, where he also has an affiliated appointment in the psychology department, asks the “obvious question,” why would someone choose to do this?
But the really interesting question is, why would professor Alter want to know?
After all, the questions we ask reveal a lot about who we are and what we seek.
In a recent post, I compared a weekend spent hiking in the Catskills to Henry David Thoreau’s two-year sojourn at Walden Pond, as both were experiments in natural living and self-sufficiency.
But then my daughter Emeline brought to my attention a recent article entitled “Pond Scum.” The author, Kathryn Schulz, questions why we still admire the literature of a man who was mean-spirited and a fake. She summarizes her opinion in no uncertain terms: