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.
In a recent post on lichens, I quoted from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” I also mentioned that Whitman’s poetry echoes 13th-century Japanese Zen Master Dogen, who wrote: “There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass.” These sages question the modern propositions that big is more impressive than small, that sentience is only a human quality, that loafing around is a waste of time.
My last climb for August would be Windham High Peak, and as I began to plan the hike, I suddenly recalled that unlike many Catskill mountains, the path to Windham is lined with grass. There would be, it seemed, the opportunity to achieve three goals with one hike: to reach the summit, to observe the grasses along the way (and perhaps identify a species or two), and to reflect on Whitman’s message.
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.”
Sunday was beautiful: sunny, calm, warm (in the 50s!) — a respite from the snow, ice, gusting winds, and heavy cloud cover more typical of February in New York. A great day to be alive and outdoors.
Driving back to the city with Odie the Labradoodle, I pulled over at a trailhead on the Long Path, figuring we’d sneak in a two- or three-mile hike. The snow had largely melted, leaving only scattered patches, so I took off sandals and stepped gingerly onto the path and found it to be a manageable mix of dirt and mud that had warmed up nicely in the morning sun. Odie scampered ahead, while I sauntered along, and soon we were clambering up the lichen-crusted granite rock face that marks the summit of Long Mountain, a 1,155-foot peak in Harriman State Park. Carved into the rock is a memorial to Raymond Torrey:
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.
The Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius once wrote,
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
This advice reminds me of one of the messages in the Bhagavad Gita, a two-thousand year-old Hindu text:
Wherever the mind wanders, restless and diffuse in its search for satisfaction without, lead it within, train it to rest in the Self. Abiding joy comes to those who still the mind.
— Vishnu, Bhagavad Gita
I’ve been trying to put this advice into practice. Walking down the street in the face of an icy winter wind, I make an effort to relax. Instead of fretting at subway delays, I imagine shifting my brain into neutral gear.
The other day, arriving at a restaurant a few minutes before my wife, I took a deep breath and put away my phone…