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?