AT SOME POINT between my sixth and seventh birthdays, the Greek god Pan started haunting our backyard. He dwelled behind the pear tree next to the garage and left his hoof prints in the dirt, his half-eaten pears in a shrub. I once spotted his horned silhouette near the ivy-strangled fence. With a fashioned spear I hunted him up and down the block, through neighbors’ yards, and into the woods by the river, my imagination animated, stirred by sylvan possibility. I’ve never forgotten that feeling, never been able to forget.
An ecstatic and engaged individuality defined my childhood in suburban New Jersey. While my single father labored ten-hour days, my pals and I biked all across town, cussing and spitting, each of us a veritable Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. We concocted waterproof forts by the river and then prayed for rain, raked mountainous piles of leaves to grapple in, buried Star Wars figures in narrow graves in a field, donned camouflage and faded into the woods with BB guns and bows and arrows. (My father’s handing over of a Crosman BB gun and compound hunting bow to an eight-year-old boy remains a curiosity I can’t fully explain. That nobody ended up disabled or deceased is a mystery fit for Newton. Even after my little brother shot our babysitter in the face — the BB got lodged in the bone of her chin and had to be surgically excised — I was still allowed to make merry with the gun.) For most of the day, my father and grandmother didn’t know my whereabouts, and nobody between the ages of six and thirteen ever lingered indoors longer than necessary. My grandmother’s voice — the Italian Catholic shrill of it — knifed the neighborhood every evening at five when dinner was slid onto the table. Meals were wolfed down, barely tasted, and I was gone again.
Greg Borthwick lived on Bosel Avenue, the tree-lined street behind ours. His face mottled with acne, body scarred everywhere from recklessness and riot, he was the wildest son of a bitch on wheels — skateboard, scooter, BMX, ten-speed. He’d ride that BMX off the diving board into my godmother’s pool, or jump from my grandmother’s high brick porch on a pogo stick. He picked apples from the tree in the field across the street from my house and chucked them at aluminum-sided garages and parked automobiles. We played basketball incessantly in our driveway, even in winter, even at night — my grandfather attached a floodlight to the porch for us. Because he was a maniacal fan of professional wrestling, Greg Borthwick organized matches in our front yard, a melee of Levi’s jeans and t-shirts, twenty-five kids in a multihued pile. Cavorting with Greg Borthwick was better sensory stimulation than anything electronic could have afforded me — this was a time before the ubiquity of soul-killing electronic distraction — and he looms large in the dome of my memory. Last I heard, he’d moved to Virginia to preside over an amusement park: the perfect attempt to prolong the childhood sublime.
Our small suburban town flanked by countryside made that kind of childhood possible, made Greg Borthwick and Pan possible, and I can’t help but doubt that my son — Ethan Jacob, age three — will have the equivalent of a Greg Borthwick or Pan obsession in his Boston boyhood. If I send a ten-year-old Ethan into the Boston streets on a BMX bike it will be perhaps only a matter of hours before he’s pancaked by a car in Copley Square or else bullied off the curb by a sidewalk crowd on Boylston. All of civilization might be a danger zone — if metropolitan madness does not maim you then a raging river or stray tractor in a wheat field might — but I cannot shake the idealistic, naïve suspicion that Ethan would be safer, freer, better in the wilderness, with a more complete affection for beauty, a want of the sublime.
Cities are not entirely devoid of nature, I know, but their parks and reserves make it difficult to achieve what Thoreau named “a constant intercourse with nature,” one that leads to “the contemplation of natural phenomenon” and thus to “the preservation of moral & intellectual health.” For Thoreau, that constancy was not negotiable. If he thought he could have achieved the sublime in the Boston Common — the oldest park in the nation — he might have tried, but he didn’t believe it was possible. Consummate immersion in the deep green of Concord was the only method of obtaining the particular brand of clarity that had become so necessary for his sustained contentment.
WHAT WILL BECOME of Ethan, of his “moral & intellectual health,” in the city of Boston without Thoreau’s constancy, without the mountains and meadows, the rivers and forests so integral to his development into a fully feeling adult? Since his birth I have returned again and again to Wordsworth and Thoreau with a kind of hallowed intensity, convinced that their nature-wisdom has something to teach me about raising and loving my son. I’ve been conflicted since day one over the prospect of raising Ethan in the city, because my beloved Wordsworth recommends a life in nature — because Wordsworth wouldn’t have been Wordsworth without it — and because I myself grew up within frolicking distance of forests and streams that taught me about bliss and its first ingredient, beauty. Too much concrete, macadam, and steel — like too much electronic illumination, God help us — must be detrimental to a child’s development. Someone asked me recently, “What do you want Ethan to be? A poet?” And I thought: Indeed. The poets, those unacknowledged legislators, have always been wiser than the philosophers, the politicians, the pundits.
If it’s true that children raised in cities often grow into shrewd, incisive adults wise to the crooked ways of the world, that being exposed daily to a wealth of cultures, languages, libraries, bookstores, theaters, and museums can make impressive people, Wordsworth might argue that those individuals lack a “sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused” — that is, a sense of the unity, harmony, freedom, and “unwearied Joy” exemplified by nature. Who doesn’t want “unwearied Joy” for his child? Emerson might go a bit further and say that those divorced from nature have a thinking deficiency, because “Nature is the vehicle of thought.” For Emerson, as for Wordsworth, Nature is synonymous with Life — our lives simply refuse to cohere outside the context of the natural world. Will Ethan the city boy forever lack something sacred in his mind and spirit? Will he lack a certain useful knowledge? When my paternal grandfather was in Korea during the war, his platoon mates from Manhattan thought the crickets were North Korean soldiers sending evil signals to one another in the nighttime. They never got a good night’s sleep.
In the opening pages of his book-length poem The Prelude, Wordsworth knows the value of the child’s communion with nature:
’twas my joy
To wander half the night among the Cliffs
And the smooth Hollows, where the woodcocks ran
Along the open turf.
This boyhood dedication to nature — this joy — will evolve by the end of the poem into the grandest moment of humanism in all of English-language literature: the poet’s encounter on Mount Snowdon, where human imagination is deified. In the childhood scenes of The Prelude, the boy’s mind and spirit are fostered by nature, but by the time the poet has reached the peak of Snowdon, a reversal has occurred — the mind is now molding nature, and has indeed become more eminent than any aspect of the natural world: “a thousand times more beautiful than the earth” and “of substance and of fabric more divine.” Sublime reciprocity: nature enhances the mind so that the mind can enhance nature, endowing it with an influence to enhance the mind even further. Decades later and an ocean away, Thoreau would come to a similar conclusion in the woods of Walden, writing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers: “This world is but canvas to our imaginations.” In other words: I’m worried about Ethan’s mind, about the canvas he will or will not be capable of creating from that mind. What will be his Snowdon? A taxicab? A traffic circle? The subway system?
Wordsworth’s experiences in nature, from his earliest verse to the 1850 version of The Prelude, are never marred by hippie simplicity or the kind of Noble Savage naïveté that infected the hapless hero of Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into the Wild. Rather, Wordsworth felt in nature what Gerard Manley Hopkins later felt: the sublime, a “divine vitality” and spiritual prevalence that revealed not only the divinity’s creative power but our own power of imagination and transcendence. Wordsworth’s “spirit in the woods” is for Hopkins “God’s grandeur”: “nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” That exuberant caravan of words, “dearest freshness deep down things,” never made sense to me until Ethan was born and I began envisioning his future, his development.
Emerson believed that nature was a better teacher than history or man-made authority. Wordsworth saw “mind” at work in daffodils and ferns, artwork underway in every forest. And this is what Thoreau means by “Nature is a greater and more perfect art.” More perfect than what? Than anything we are capable of crafting from plastic, from iron, from words. I’ve felt the truth of those eternal sentiments since I was a boy, years before being blessed by Wordsworth and Thoreau. At the age of ten, I needed to leave home in order to punish my father for some perceived injustice or other. I crept down the block and disappeared into the pine forest, barefoot and wearing a backpack stuffed with survival gear and crackers. That pine forest spoke to me of simplicity and purity — of haven — long before I had an accurate notion of complexity and contamination. And what worries me now about Ethan is that when it comes time for him to run away in order to make me ache, he will not have a pine forest whispering to him about sanctuary and salvation. If I’m lucky he’ll flee to the Museum of Fine Arts and lose himself in quite a different, albeit lesser, breed of sanctuary. If I’m unlucky he’ll walk into Harvard Square to befriend the pierced vagabonds huddled in a reek at the entrance of the T. What I want for him, really, is religion, and not that species of belief available cheaply in every one of Boston’s churches, but the religion that is already a part of him, pulsing within him — if only he is allowed to experience it as such.
ONCE A MONTH, usually after a dose of Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” or “Tintern Abbey,” my wife and I have a conversation that runs something like this:
“We need to get out of this city,” I’ll say. “These goddamn car alarms. When did the world acquire so many cars? Everyone is texting and driving. The traffic is unholy.” (Furthermore, twice a month between April and December the city cleans the streets in our sector. The obscene orange vehicles alert us to this cleaning at seven a.m. by way of loudspeaker. It sounds like the Battle of Britain and yanks my whole household from sleep.)
“We can move to western Mass,” she’ll say, “and get some land. Away from cars and street cleaning.”
“But then I’d have to drive into Boston for work. And you don’t drive, so you’d be stuck in the sticks.”
“We want to move to the country to get away from the cars, but we can’t move to the country because I don’t drive a car.”
“And the people here are generally so angry. So impatient. Some are evil. A woman, the other day, tried to run me down on my bicycle.”
“Will there be libraries and museums in walking distance in the country?”
“It’d be nice if Ethan could have a little dirt bike,” I’ll say. “Or a horse. He needs a forest to wander in. I had a stream in my backyard when I was growing up. We caught frogs.”
“He’ll break his neck on a dirt bike. And he’s afraid of actual horses. He likes them in books only.”
“He’s gonna get hit by a car in this city. So many cars. We need mountains. Not people, mountains.”
Katie and I attempted an experiment for Ethan’s second birthday: We took a trip to Boulder, Colorado. The only other time Ethan had been in nature happened at the start of that summer when we spent two days at a friend’s cottage in the New Hampshire wild. The mosquitoes and flies were kamikazes, but Ethan enjoyed netting snakes and toads in a pond and then canoeing across an unspoiled lake, and mostly because there were other children there to share the experience with. We trekked through the forest — swatting vampiric flies — to a meadow resplendent with sunlight, and we picked marble-sized wild strawberries, though the tall grass made our ankles itch. We were mere weekend tourists incapable of real immersion, of anything even approaching spiritual pleasure. I was a curmudgeon overly concerned with getting mud on my shoes. Halfway back I had to carry Ethan because the mists of pollen made him sleepy.
On the summit of Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, with only a few other people in view, we gawked clear across Colorado and into Kansas, that untampered-with air like the air in Eden, pines and boulders everywhere the sanctified art of earth. I remembered Thoreau’s sublime, transformative experience atop Mount Greylock — the highest peak in Massachusetts — when, also on a July morning, he beheld beneath him “a country as we might see in dreams, with all the delights of paradise. . . . It was a favor for which to be forever silent to be shown this vision.” Thoreau’s vision, like Wordsworth’s on Snowdon, involved clouds, mist, and the imaginative might of the mind, whereas ours on Flagstaff was less, well, visiony. Crystalline and reaching forever, yes, but brief and . . . ordinary. And we had driven to the summit in a rental car, for God’s sake, since hiking such terrain with a toddler would have been an invitation to injury. Ethan was thrilled to crawl over boulders and crap on pine needles, and Katie and I felt exhilarated up there — but this wasn’t the sublime for me. It was simply a reaction to novelty. In just another day our trip would be finished, and my phone insisted on vibrating with work-related questions. Vacation for me always feels like a vacuum. We airplaned back to our Boston lives and haven’t mentioned Boulder since.
Maybe some of us are not fit for visions, for Wordsworth’s “visionary hours,” the sacred wisdom that nature has to offer. Perhaps we’ve become too infected with the opposite of idealism: cynicism, and its quickness to say bullshit. For me “the world is too much with us,” and part of that world is the exhaustion of skepticism, of waiting to be swindled by the truth, disappointed by outsized expectations. For every scientist who claims that the human being’s default mode is gullibility and the willingness to subscribe to nonsense and idealism of every stripe, there’s another who claims that cynicism and doubt are precisely what allowed early humans to flourish. Two hundred thousand years ago you’d better have been rather skeptical of that lurking lion’s intentions and as equally cynical about that other clan’s ostensible motives. Think about how difficult it would be now to sell someone a magic potion, or a 1990 Oldsmobile. Unless you have the constitution of a thirteenth-century monk, it’s just as difficult now to believe in lasting transcendence by hiking to the peaks of Snowdon or Greylock. Modernity’s mess is in our pores, and belief in anything but the immediacy of our tactile lives grows more difficult by the generation.
But I want to believe. And I want my boy to believe with me. We shake off our idealism — our dreams of mountains — at our own peril. And this seems to me one of the essential values of Wordsworth and Thoreau today (even if you aren’t contemplating a return to nature): their secular insistence that our lives have meaning beneath the immediacy of the quotidian.
MY MISANTHROPIC STREAK enjoys this logic: the planet is an overpopulated insane asylum; humans are heinous and cruel. Glance around at what we’ve done to the animals, the oceans, the air. (Thoreau on the human being: “What he touches he taints.”) Remember what we did to one another at Antietam and the Somme. That’s what kind of clan we are. Selfish, crazed, cannibalistic. I’d like to get away from them, from us, live in a place where my nearest neighbor is an owl.
My pastoral idealism and viridity have convinced me that humans are happier, less aggrieved creatures among bucolic splendor, awash in Wordsworth’s “vital feelings of delight” inspired by the interconnectedness of nature. Or, as Thoreau has it in Walden, “There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still.” For anyone who has anguished beneath the black dog of melancholy, that seems an irresistible promise. Concrete, steel, car alarms, and computers are not soothing, not even a smidgen religious. The human spectacle lacks tranquility. We are so ensconced in artificiality, is it any wonder many of us are miserable and almost mad? In Thoreau’s celebrated Journal (for a personal record of the nineteenth-century American mind at work it is second only to Emerson’s magisterial Journals), he argues that you can’t have it both ways, that you must decide between nature and society: “You cannot have a deep sympathy with both man & nature. Those qualities which bring you near to the one estrange you from the other.”
That’s the rub: You can’t have it both ways. Certainly not if you earn an average income and don’t own a weekend and summer house in Vermont or New Hampshire. Even so, do you honestly want to spend half of the weekend in your earth-killing car, stymied on a highway with a million other Bostonians trying to give their children a weekend’s worth of rustic bliss? There’s no constancy in that, and aggravation enough to age you. And so once you accept Thoreau’s formulation, the line is drawn: on this side is city life, on that side nature. You must choose. But our lives, our circumstances, choose for us, do they not? Who is really master of his own fate? It was easy for Thoreau; he was a bachelor without a job or children to feed. He could sit in the Concord woods and whistle with the wind (he also accidently burned down more than three hundred acres of those woods in 1844). I have to go to work every morning, and I’m not about to switch professions and become a lumberjack so my boy can daily chase after chipmunks and maybe become a bard. In a certain mood you could very quickly come to the conclusion that Thoreau is full of shit.
HERE IS WHAT I REMEMBER with something close to euphoria: I spent every summer of my boyhood in the wilderness of Bridgton, Maine. When I was a small child, my maternal grandparents moved to a cottage on a lake in the woods so my grandfather could fish full time (only a middling human being, he was an expert fisherman with more trophies than could fit in the cottage). They owned a motel/restaurant on a hill, and out back was a long, wide, grassy slope that stopped at the sandy edge of Beaver Pond. Larger than two football fields, Beaver Pond was where I swam, boated, fished for bass, and conquered the island in the center. Even after my parents divorced when I was ten years old, I continued going to Maine each summer. I could always tell when we were getting close because the air changed, turned piney and new as soon as we hit New Hampshire. Jersey didn’t have air like that. And when I say I would lose myself in those ancient woods, I mean I would enter in the late morning and not emerge again till almost nightfall, moose and deer near enough to smell. The world was not too much with me then.
Wordsworth’s idealizing of childhood is not Lewis Carroll’s retreat into innocence and wonder but rather an integral component of his nature worship. There’s always a sense in Wordsworth — especially in “Intimations of Immortality,” “The World Is Too Much With Us,” and the later books of The Prelude — that adulthood is a disappointment after the “delight and liberty” of childhood. The girl or boy receives nature by mainline, by intuition alone, whereas the man or woman communes with nature only by reflection, by cognitive processes that can cause static in reception. The child has no word for the sublime; he simply experiences it. The adult, on the other hand: his word gets in the way of his experience. Ethan’s time atop Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder was purer and more joyous than his mother’s or mine not only because his phone wasn’t buzzing — although that certainly helped — but because the child “still is Nature’s priest” capable of “the vision splendid.” A newborn arrives hardwired for communion:
Along his infant veins are interfus’d
The gravitation and the filial bond
Of nature, that connect him with the world.
We sorry adults have lost that gravitation; we’re far too busy, too wrapped up in society’s strings:
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
Here’s the good news for us adults who frolicked in the forest as children but are now too besieged by civilization to give a damn: We can recollect those “beauteous forms” of nature when locked in the offices we work in, and feel once more “sensations sweet.” Wordsworth can will himself into a “serene and blessed mood” because he has nature pulsing at his hub, informing his thoughts and emotions. That childhood engagement with nature becomes ever after “a master-light of all our seeing,” and it’s precisely the master light I want for Ethan. In his essay “The Method of Nature,” Emerson believes that the natural world has the potential to inspire “ecstasy.” That’s a lofty goal for my boy; I’ll settle for contentment, for well-roundedness and appreciation of the wooded playground that made us.
Rachel Carson maintained: “Only as a child’s awareness and reverence for the wholeness of life are developed can his humanity to his own kind reach its full development.” No American of the last century did more than Carson to emphasize the importance of a child’s immersion in nature, of how love for nature equals love for humankind. Our want of full development for our children is our own reminder, our own summons to restore the primordial nexus we have to the natural world, regardless of whether or not that nexus has been weakened by society’s sharp sting. Establishing that vital connection to nature for our kids is one way we redeem ourselves after forgetting ourselves — it’s one way we become children again.
HEMINGWAY’S BOY-HERO Nick Adams spends his childhood and adolescence praying to the forests of Michigan — the wilderness his sanctuary, his temple — and yet, for all of his communion with nature, Nick doesn’t turn out that well (nor did Hemingway himself). I have a family member who was reared in the woods of Maine, in the sanctified wild where I found the sublime. The last I saw her, she was two hundred pounds overweight, tattooed from neck to feet, and had a slightly off child from a nowhere-to-be-found father and not even the dimmest possibility of employment. Many of the Mainers I’ve met have become immune to the grandeur just outside their doors. They don’t even look. As I continue to contemplate a monumental uprooting from Boston into a backwoods, that cousin of mine towers like a reprimand or warning. You can’t just drop a child into the woods, clap your hands, and expect him or her to turn into Wordsworth or Carson.
And if Ethan is never allowed Thoreau’s all-important constancy in nature? I’ll chastise myself for choosing one place over another. But that’s the paradox of place: We want to be somewhere, and then we want to be somewhere else. There’s always somewhere better, even if the place we are is best. This dilemma of the city versus the woods has become for me a question of proper parenting, of how to inspire awe in Ethan, and how to invoke Wordsworth and Thoreau anywhere we are — at the apex of the Prudential Tower in downtown Boston or on a mountain in Colorado. The question has become not Will we move to the country? but rather What kind of father do I want to be?
In the first half of his supremely dull autobiography, The Words, Sartre writes, “There is no good father, that’s the rule.” The poet Robert Bly, channeling Freud, writes, “Millions of parents now realize that to raise children without damaging them is impossible.” But how can we damage them least? At the Boston MFA or at Walden Pond in Concord, we must cultivate our children’s sense of the sublime, must nudge them always toward what is beautiful, toward bliss, toward a deeper-seeing into the things of earth, wherever on earth we might be.
I’m having a hard time following the thread of William Giraldi’s argument. His indecision as to whether living a completely natural life like Thoreau, or whether to stay in the urban landscape he knows and works in strikes me as a Western, middle-class conceit. We are a generation told that the world is our oyster, and we cannot fathom not having it all. Wanting both what he have, and what we do not.
I wonder, can we not have live in a city but be entranced, mesmerized and empowered by experiences in the natural world? Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places makes reference to the authors need for wild places, yes, but also for the tenets of civilization- libraries, theatres, cafes.
Children do need experiences in and of the world. Too often we shutter them away, exclude them from winter’s howl and summer’s glare, remove them from climbing trees or journeying through woods. And that’s a crime, for their development, their love of the world, of their lived place. But please, let’s not split hairs worrying over urban versus rural.
Instead, let them roam, explore and discover. And I think, in exploring- as adults as well as children- we can discover the sublime of nature in the most unexpected places.
I’m a grandmother of 6 and retired elementary teacher. My parents took me to beautiful natural areas to “camp” in every summer. My own children were taken to natural areas to picnic, often, and took classes at our Museum of Natural History. Love of nature, trees, flowers, frogs, crickets–they have it, and their lives are enriched. A cicada shedding its skin is still a matter for excitement. Life is fascinating!…I love this article.
Best article I’ve read in awhile.
I absolutely loved this beautifully written piece. What a wise and compassionate heart you have. I could relate to the struggle and conflict within the story. Your clear and open writing and your capacity to be present in living made my reading of Splendid Visions a joy and the reason I come back to Orion for inspiration. Thank-you for putting yourself out there.
If the evolutionist and philosopher Steven J Gould can come out of a Queens NY neighborhood, I am sure Ethan will be fine in Boston. Besides, Boston has a lot of great places to explore, it is just a matter of scale.
Lovely, heart-felt article. I too was raised (many years ago now) in a small town with a deep woods and a stream-divided glen where we played and later biked to new sources of privacy. I live now in the Hudson Valley near the Shawangunk range, protected and accessible. As a philosopher and author, Emerson has been my spiritual parent, and I work at keeping his name and work out there, much as this article does for Thoreau. I understand Giraldi’s frustrations and hopes for Ethan because it is the earliest influences that set the tone and temperament for a lifetime.
Emerson was raised in Boston, poor, fatherless, schooled At Boston Latin and entered Harvard at fourteen, in fact an adult too early. Thoreau, on the other hand, was born in Concord and had a childhood in the woods, experience that fueled his mystic temperament for his brief lifetime. These influences for the two men can be seen in their work and, to some extent, in the tensions between them, although they remained friends for life.
What is truly sad is that the experience of the wild places needs to happen alone or with peers, not parents watching every move and guarding against real or imagined dangers. I remember coming home at dusk on summer evenings to parents who never asked where I had been or what I did. They had their own lives and if I wasn’t hurt or all torn up, they were content to let me be. I was able to see for myself, think for myself, be myself.
I go to Concord and Walden regularly and will be giving a paper this July at the Thoreau Society Meetings on Emerson and Thoreau, and I appreciate this article, which I’m sure will influence what I say there.
My father taught me the arts of oar and sail.On the pond, the harbor, he quietly assured me of the water’s truths. We swam off narrow beaches, caught blowfish and fluke from a skiff, watched ospreys and terns nesting, stuggled with the southwesterly wind on the hard beat home and did all this within sight of New York City, its Empire State and Chrysler towers off in the afternoon mist. Nature was all around; the salt sea carried her on its breast.
Bill Giraldi might take a page from my father and look to the east, where Massachusetts Bay spreads out green and tumbling. A small boat is better than a big one, at least early on, because it keeps you closer to the elements. You notice more, so much more. So look eastward. Teach your boy the arts of oar and sail. They will stay with him, gateway to Nature’s wonders.
Great article on important subjects, but my sister moved her 5 kids to the country from the suburbs, many years ago, and none of the kids ever play in the outdoors, roaming the hills and woods as we did as kids. They are addicted to iPads, and can’t understand why the countryside doesn’t have charging points or wifi. Their lower class neighbours play in the woods, however, and are not afraid of ‘invitations to injury’. Maybe the issue is not urban/rural so much as middle-class/lower class. Best not to over-parent your kid, or worry over his outcomes. You can’t control it, but Swedish studies have shown that incidents of psychoses are 80% higher in urban areas. So rural life in active communities is the healthy way to live. Thoreau was right. GO!
The childhood wistfully recalled here is probably no longer possible. Children are too closely monitored, scheduled, and protected to be permitted to wander freely. Heck, it might be classified as child endangerment (irony not lost on me).
And I expect that it is not nature, as defined by rural space, that is required, but the wilderness of the existing environment, whatever and wherever it is, and the imagination and freedom to explore. That is the thing that has been truly lost to children. That is what deserves to be mourned.
Dude, you grew up in the suburbs. That’s hardly Walden Pond.
This is a beautiful article, thank you for posting. However, to some extent, I disagree. The line between “nature” and “society” has been made to seem clear and definite, while really our societies are figments of nature, and there is wildness in cities and ourselves. I have lived in cities my whole life (from Washington, DC to the San Francisco Bay Area) and have learned to sense and experience “urban nature.” My own philosophy nowadays is that wildness is not a characteristic of our environment, but rather of ourselves and the way we interact with our surroundings, and in this way, wildness can be experienced anywhere on earth.
Perhaps we don’t need to necessarily raise our children in the woods, but instead simply raise them with more freedom and wonder, wherever they happen to be. I’m talking about more freedom and creativity in the education system, more opportunities to play, to build, to destroy, to discover. More learning about the local wildlife – even if this wildlife means city squirrels and pigeons.
Mr Giraldi, Your article struck a chord with me, in large part because I escaped from Boston with my pregnant wife determined that my child would not be born, much less be raised, there. We moved to rural Idaho and my children roamed, in part, the same woods I grew up in. I’m glad we did it, but, I’m also very very glad we packed up the kids (aged 11 and 13) and moved them to Tokyo for two years, followed by their finishing High School in Boise, Idaho’s largest city. It takes a variety of experiences to give perspective without which appreciation is difficult. Throeau cherished Walden in part because he contrasted it to Boston and I cherish my home in the woods all the more for having lived in city apartments. I believe your agonizing concern bodes well for our son and my advice to you is to take him camping. Start now, don’t wait.
There is a fascinating comments moderation policy at work here. Everything posted here that is even remotely critical of the article has vanished. Fawning responses, on the other hand, are allowed to remain.
I am not impressed, Orion. I urge you to make your moderation policies more explicit, so that individuals with active critical faculties won’t waste their time here (I wonder how long this comment will last…?)
The city needs to be re-imagined as a place to nurture children. Certainly these urban places exist already to some extent. Urban places where the cars do not dominate, where nature has inroads, and where gardens and children flourish.
RobT: the policy on comments on the website is that personal attacks — on authors, staff, Orion, or anybody — are unacceptable. Disagreement with the ideas expressed, though, are absolutely welcome.
Thanks, Erik, for the reply.
I read the at least some of the deleted responses, and while I agree that they contained personal remarks, they also contained much that is of substance. Orion appears to be more sensitive than many publications to the such remarks, if they are deemed to override the substantive content.
Of course, you are entitled to set your standards, and it’s good to know what they are.
What the author sees as “nature” is just as constructed by humans as the cityscape he derides. In this era of anthropogenic climate change, it’s hard to affirm that some part of the world remains ineffably natural.
There is no more primeval forest and claims of enlightenment through exposure to the “primeval” should be evaluated accordingly.
Thatâ€™s the rub: You canâ€™t have it both ways.
Yes, you can.
I was a Visiting Professor in Bozeman, Montana, and when my contract ended, my wife and I decided to stay rather than me attempt to find an academic position elsewhere, to make place our vocation, that is, to put down roots in a community and in a place where we wanted to be. This meant dropping a few tax brackets, scraping by from year to year, barely making it. Why did we do it? Two reasons: children and nature. Our two elementary school aged daughters were thriving in Bozeman’s very fine public schools. Bozeman sits in a wide long valley surrounded by five mountain ranges, in the largely ecologically intact Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (despite its many abuses) with vast wilderness areas where the grizzly roamed. We wanted contact with wildness and, more crucially, we wanted out daughters to experience wild nature. We believed Wendell Berry when he says people, community, and places matter more than careers. We believed Ed Abbey when he said we would be well-rewarded by taking the harder route, an axle-busting, tire-blowing one lane dirt road through the desert. Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” So we did.
Now I am not going to criticize William Giraldi for staying in the city and pursuing a well-paying career instead. I have no right to do so. These decisions are very personal and none of them are easy. There are consequences whatever we chose. Mr, Giraldi can look forward to a comfortable retirement. I will never retire. I will work until I drop dead, and am at risk at spending my elder years in dire poverty. But we have been well-rewarded as Abbey promised over the long-term with a good community and good friends, a place where we have taken root. We have a productive garden, a beautiful little house. I have been an activist and wilderness advocate and we have spent plenty of time in the wilds hiking, skiing, camping, canoeing and we have thrilled to seeing grizzlies, wolves, and the other wildlife that inhabit the back country. I am a wealthy man after all. More to the point, our daughters experienced all this with us. They have since gone on to graduate with high honors from college–now they rock climb, sea kayak, go snorkeling, ski, snowshoe, backpack, and have also chosen to stay away from cities and be surrounded by nature, moving to Alaska after college rather than heading straight into graduate school. The career can wait while they take the time to experience one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on the planet, the temperate rainforest and the inland passage of southeast Alaska. They are between them artists, sea kayak guides, writers, community-spirited and in love with the natural world. As I said, it is a personal choice and, on my bad days, I regret mine, especially when I see friends moving toward comfortable retirements, traveling a lot and financially secure. But then I think of what the path we have chosen has meant to our daughters, how it has shaped them, and what, finally, it has meant to us. In the end, death is the great equalizer anyway and so I believed Thoreau when he raised the question of whether you want to be on your deathbed and realizing you never really lived. I know for myself, I can answer that question in the affirmative and rest in peace.
I share in your thoughts as I grew up on a Texas ranch with the animals as my friends. Today I live in San Antonio and still have my ranch. It is a delicate balance and I truly feel sorry for children who only know the city. That is partly what is wrong with the youth today as they are only entertained by computers and social media.
Don’t feel sorry for us city kids, as an ecological identity is possible regardless of local. In fact, when I was a naturalist at a urban center, I much preferred the city kid, who would be totally open to exploring the estuary in new ways, whereas the rural and suburban kid often cam with preconceived and misguided concepts of what natural meant.
I can’t recall reading such a powerful piece, clamping down so hard on all I feel, know and am about. I’m much older than William, but share, align and walk his path paralleling his inner feelings through and through.
Raised rural, worked 40 years in urban, back to rural and it’s like I cured myself of terminal cancer. If one is locked up in urban dysfunction long enough, absent from nature, they will succumb to the institutionalization of decay, filth, noise, outrageous human behavior and the incessant stench of polluted air. Urban zones sugar coat their poison with quaint coffee shops, elegant restaurants, cultural activities celebrating a process wending toward attachment to the gentry class wallowing among things and status. Nature offers none of this. Nature displays life ranging from simplistic to complex, in an ever forward cycle of evolutionary momentum, energy and replication. To ignore nature, or attempt to destroy or alter it to enhance human convenience will result in catastrophic consequences.
I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to read William’s wonderful, truthful and mind expanding essay. Hail to Orion for publishing this essay.
Mr. Giraldi and friends of Orion-
The idea that mass media and the Internet have caused the insulation of certain political and social ideologies has become something of a platitude. If (as I wholly believe) Orion is more concerned with publishing sensible fact than Fox News, for instance, it doesn’t mean that they are any less effective in providing the type of content their readers tend to agree with. (To use this issue as an example, we are reassured to find an article about climate deniers, but would be outraged to find an article written by one. The deniers have their own media outlets, and are sought out by people who want to hear that message.) I consider myself a conservationist, somebody interested in literature, and I suspect Iâ€™m not alone among Orion subscribers as most articles in the magazine are written for that crowd. When I receive a new issue, I look forward to reading it from cover to cover, and, while I anticipate liking some articles more than others, I rarely expect to fundamentally disagree with its contents. But for the last eight days, Iâ€™ve been stuck on page 25 of the March/April issue where the italics at the end of Mr. Giraldiâ€™s article invite us to â€œshare our thoughts on childhood and parenthood, wild and tame.â€
When I first arrived at the end of the piece, I felt a certain queasiness, like the feeling that comes from drinking too much coffee on an empty stomach. I drank some water, but the feeling remained. I paced. Then I slowly began to realize that the sensation was disagreement, profound disagreement with the â€œsplendid visionâ€ presented in the article. I began to feel angryâ€”I flipped back through the pages: how could Giraldi think these things, read Thoreau to the extent that he has and still face this dilemma? I sought out this discussion page, but most people were praising the article. Where did my disagreement lie? I attempted to work it out. But before I could formulate a sober response my anger turned to depressionâ€”whatâ€™s it matter anyway? We all fail to live up to these ideals of seeking the sublime and feeling the pulse of wildness. Then came the bargainingâ€”if I donâ€™t drive for a week, if I refuse to eat anything but rice and beans, then Iâ€™ll have escaped the clutches of the remarkable tameness presented by Mr. Giraldiâ€™s readings of Thoreau and his personal anecdotes. It became clear to me that I was moving through something along the lines of Elisabeth KÃ¼bler-Rossâ€™ five stages of grief. Iâ€™d been traumatized the piece in a way that would have been impossible had I deliberately read an article I knew Iâ€™d disagree with. It was the shock that did it. But why get so worked up over this? I went to find out. I walked from my house (a camper trailer between the Eagle River in Colorado and Interstate 70) for two miles next to the roar of the highway. Eventually I arrived at my current sanctuary, the first section of bank downstream from my home where the semi-trucks canâ€™t be seen. I sat down and reopened Walden. Every once in a while, I closed the book and watched the ice melt off of the banks and the geese pull one icy leg at a time out of the river and tuck them into their feathers.
It may sound inconsequential to attempt a serious response in a discussion forum to a short article. Nevertheless, the piece strikes me as representative of a serious trouble at the heart of the very best (in my opinion) portion of the environmental movement: one that respects its literary foundations, and maintains a respectful distance from the sciences (by not believing that science and technology will deliver us from the crisis by force of reason alone, but also refusing to replace them with some kind New Age spiritualism). Here, in this thin sliver of the contemporary culture, itâ€™s so easy to feel that all our cards are stacked, if only from the threat of global warming and nothing else. The sciences can diagnose the symptoms and predict doom, but it is up to the Giraldiâ€™s of the world–the writers who can recall wonder-infused days in the woods–to use their whatever rhetorical talents they may have to speak against the root of the problem and not fertilize the soil of industrial tree while contemplating trimming one of its branches, which is precisely what I think Giraldi has done in this article. I will attempt to explain what I mean by this. From the present historical vantage point, it appears this issue is far more consequential to the toddlers of the world than their amount of outdoor playtime, though undoubtedly the two are not wholly separable.
Personally, I have yet to articulate these feelings in a philosophical mode and Iâ€™m taking Giraldiâ€™s piece as a starting point in order to begin to engage with the concepts that reoccur in most environmental writing. Iâ€™ve done this as an exercise in strengthening my own understanding of the movement, but Iâ€™ve shared it here in the hopes that somebodyâ€”perhaps even Giraldi himselfâ€”would care to critique my comments and help me strengthen them. Granted, I have failed to be brief. Iâ€™ve felt it necessary to thoroughly engage with Giraldiâ€™s text, treating it as a kind of philosophical piece despite his own criticism of philosophers. (Are Thoreau and Emerson remembered primarily poets?)
(And a final disclaimer: in light of the foregoing conversation in this forum on censorship, I also feel it necessary to point out that all of the remarks contained herein are meant to engage with Giraldiâ€™s ideas and not his person. That said, he has written a very personal piece and it is hard to respond his ideas without also commenting on the â€œcharactersâ€ of Giraldi and his family, which are his subject. I agree with some of what Giraldi has written, but to quote Thoreauâ€™s â€œLife Without Principle,â€ â€œAs the time is short, I will leave out all the flattery, and retain all the criticism.â€)
Giraldi opens with an account of his own childhood in New Jersey, where his summer days came with unimpeded access to bikes, woods, and an arsenal of childrenâ€™s weapons: BB guns, bows and arrows. He speaks of little supervision and much freedom. I think itâ€™s safe to call this upbringing wild. Itâ€™s described as being full of adventure, imagination, and not insignificantly, much danger. The games played are spontaneous and are not organized, the freedom is not safe. There were presumably no security measures in place to ensure that if little Bill broke his leg in the woods he would be found promptly. There were not consumerist designs on the type of play he was doing–the toys he was given were props for an adventure, not determining factors in that adventureâ€™s possibilities such as is found in a video game, for example. He presents himself as a wild child.
We can pose this vision as a foil to better understand the stories in the rest of the article which we will broadly call â€œtame,â€ that is planned, determined, safe, and secure. It is this distinction–wild vs. tame–that provide a more helpful model for analyzing the troubling features in the remainder of Giraldiâ€™s account than the more problematic distinction he uses of urban vs. natural. Wildness is read here an approach to being active in the world that is synonymous with spontaneity and imagination, while tameness tries to predict, protect, and control its situation. Both are categories of value. The urban vs. natural distinction, on the other hand, tries to be an ontological categorization with real references in the world, but of course the two bleed together too easily. Is a stand of trees on the edge of the suburbs natural? How about a mountaintop parking lot in Colorado? It is hard to say. But maybe it can be agreed that shooting your babysitter in the face with a BB gun and being allowed to keep that gun afterwards is wild, i.e. uncontrolled (if not desirable) and driving to the top of a mountain anywhere because, as Giraldi says, â€œhiking such terrain with a toddler would have been and invitation to injury,â€ is markedly tame. They are a world apart, but not because of their location or proximity to an urban center–both are near trees, and by Giraldiâ€™s account, are therefore â€œin nature.â€ (As a wrote â€œtreesâ€ in the last sentence a full sized cottonwood tree fell over 50 yards outside my window. There is no wind right now.) They are different because the adults of Giraldiâ€™s childhood did not attempt to over-manage the risks involved in play, while in the Colorado drive no sacrifices are made, no risks taken (though of course, plenty of people have gone hiking with toddlers without injury and plenty of people have been killed while driving mountain roads with toddlers), and Giraldi admits he spent much of the time on Flagstaff talking on his phone.
Viewed in this way its really no wonder that Giraldiâ€™s repeatedly fails to experience the sublime described by Wordsworth or Thoreau. It wasn’t Nature-the-place that ignited their poetic fervor, but a truly wild approach to a given moment, which must arise spontaneously; it cannot be planned. Those descriptions are not simply what will happen to anybody who ventures to the top of a mountain regardless of all other circumstances. Instead, those transformative moments speak to a certain openness to the anarchy of the present moment, a certain forgetting of the security, purpose, and self-awareness (not to mention work calls) in an ecstatic submission of wonder. No matter how far from roads you travel, that moment will not come if your traveling is overly tame.
Giraldi wonders why driving to the top of Flagstaff was â€œordinaryâ€ and concludes â€œthis wasn’t the sublime for me,â€ even though he had the opportunity to â€œgawk clear across Colorado and into Kansas, that untampered-with air like the air in Eden.â€ Besides the fact that that view would have looked out across the Denver Metropolitan Area (population 3.1 million) and that same â€œuntampered-with airâ€ has repeatedly failed to meet EPA standards for smog (but maybe the EPA has higher standards than those set in Eden), why didnâ€™t Giraldi have a Snowdon-like sublime experience? He blames the times: â€œModernityâ€™s mess is in our pores, and belief in anything but the immediacy of our tactile lives grows more difficult by the generation.â€ When Thoreau looked out from Mount Greylock at a Massachusetts that had been almost entirely farmed out by the mid 19th century, did he bemoan is current unfortunate birth after spiritual transformation was no longer possible? No, and I think his message is a call to return to the immediate tactile before us. If anything has grown more difficult in modernity, itâ€™s escaping the world of symbolic productivity which Thoreau was already so disgusted with in his time. Which brings us to a very common but, in my opinion, deeply misguided reading of Thoreau, one that makes him out to be primarily a transcendentalist or a naturalist and leaves out the practical aspects of his life. I think that heâ€™s very clearly opposes himself to certain strains of these titles, and that he is concerned not with transcending the tactile but, as he says in Walden, â€œsettl[ing] and wedg[ing] our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance…till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality.â€ Itâ€™s that last term â€œappearanceâ€ which can make us assume that this meaningful reality is somehow beyond or â€œbeneath the immediacy of the quotidianâ€ as Giraldi puts it. But I think we can be very precise here. The appearance and opinion and the other â€œslushâ€ we must get past is that which keeps us from seeing the meaning in the very immanent tactile reality before us. Itâ€™s NOT that â€œmodernityâ€™s messâ€–in Thoreauâ€™s time or Giraldiâ€™s–is too much of a fascination with the tactile and an inability to see beneath the physical forms of the world to a deeper meaning, but that we canâ€™t see through our opinions and traditions to the very immediate tactility before us, one that can only appear as quotidian to the deluded no matter how far or close to the â€œnatural stateâ€ those objects may be. We lose touch with reality by taming it, for those â€œhard rocks in placeâ€ are always spontaneous and wild. We only get â€œthrown off our trackâ€ when we have a track to get thrown off of. Feeling the real blooming of the moment, any moment which canâ€™t be planned or separated from more â€œordinaryâ€ moments as Giraldi would have us do, is to experience the sublime at any age, in any place. Thoreau says this quite clearly: â€œFor God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages.â€ Here, has he not done the same thing for the woods that James Joyce did for the city in the second chapter of Ulysses, when Stephen says, â€œThat is God…A shout in the street.â€ The dichotomy canâ€™t be urban vs. natural (though we may have our personal preferences) for the sublime is in the living moment, we just must wake to see it. What could be more opposed to all transcendence than this belief?
That is what I take from Walden. It doesn’t make sense to me to read it primarily as a book of nature essays–for itâ€™s not nature thatâ€™s responsible for this sublime. Before being a naturalist, I see Thoreau as an ethical economist, one who is concerned, not with making a profit in gold, but, as he might say, making a profit in morals. I think itâ€™s crucial we read him as such, now more than ever. There is nothing radical anymore about enjoying hiking in the woods. And there is nothing wild about driving up a mountain or peering into the Grand Canyon for a few minutes, or even owning a lake side cabin and spending every weekend there. These utterly common experiences of â€œnatureâ€ are now fully culturally accepted, and the destruction of the planet moves ahead at full bore. What is radical about Thoreauâ€™s thought, what is truly wild, is his economic insights, and he seemed to see them as primary himself. As Bill McKibben rightly points out in his annotations of Walden, we donâ€™t meet Walden Pond itself until almost a third of the way through the book. What comes first is the chapter â€œEconomy,â€ an account of how Thoreau freed himself from the rat race he saw all around him even in Western Mass before the Industrial Revolution. He was not duped by Giraldiâ€™s praises of â€œpastoral idealism [which has convinced Giraldi] that humans are happier, less aggravated creatures among bucolic splendor.â€ As if the farms and pastures weren’t the main target of Thoreauâ€™s economic critique, a â€œserfdomâ€ and a â€œpenanceâ€ as he apt to call farming. The opening pages of Walden make this very clear. â€œBut men labor under a mistake…By seeming fate, commonly called necessity, the are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break in and steal.â€ Is it not remarkable that Giraldi, in addition to his praises of the agrarian life, makes almost this exact argument to say Thoreau is â€œfull of shit” (Giraldi’s words)? He continues: â€œSo once you accept Thoreauâ€™s formulation, the line is drawn: on this side is city life, on that side nature [This line is drawn by Giraldi or a vulgar reading of the Journal but not Thoreau, of course]. You must choose. But our lives, our circumstances, choose for us, do they not? Who is really the master of his own fate?â€ But page three of Walden (quoted above) says such defeatism is a mistake. There is no necessity here in Giraldiâ€™s sense, there is always a choice–thatâ€™s the point the entire book is setting itself up to prove, not that the woods are pretty. Then Giraldi hits us with the most laughable line of all: â€œIt was easy for Thoreau.â€ A modern estimate of Thoreauâ€™s annual income during the writing of Walden in todayâ€™s US dollars is between $400 and $500. Iâ€™d like to see Giraldi, as soon as Ethan goes off to college, quit his job and live on $400 for a year and still say â€œIt was easy for Thoreau.â€ Walden is so provocative, not because tells us hiking around is nice, but because it tells us we have a choice right now–live like a serf by working yourself into the grave or find freedom by choosing voluntary simplicity. If it were easy, most people would choose the latter (even if â€œno man is so poor he must sit on a pumpkin,â€ only eating unsalted, unleavened Indian meal cakes like Thoreau isnâ€™t most peopleâ€™s idea of a walk in the park). But saying we donâ€™t have a choice is the cheapest attempt of escape from this terrifying challenge. Thoreau knows this, and he strove to take the most difficult of paths, the wild path of simplicity.
I would go so far as to say todayâ€™s environmental crisis is caused by the feeling that the other path, the path of laying up treasures, is being forced upon them as if it were a necessity. And by demonstrating the fact that there is an alternative to unchecked consumerism, Thoreau has given us a far more profound solution–the only possible solution–to the environmental crisis, especially global warming, than the setting aside more national parks to hike in. Global warming and the sixth major extinction in the history of the planet are not being caused by people, as Zizek says, they are being caused by unchecked industrial capitalism. People were on the planet without threatening their own existence by throwing all natural systems into a cycle of mass extinction for hundreds of thousands of years. In the last century and half since Thoreau died, weâ€™ve done the diligent work of ensuring our own destruction and that of most life on the planet. The cause of this is not an under-appreciation for â€œnature.â€ Itâ€™s that weâ€™re all tied, as Ed Abbey said, â€œto a crackpot expand-or-expire machine for our survival.â€ And the capitalist system will expand until it expires no matter how thoughtful we are about our city parks and wildlife refuges. The tame response to the clear facts of global warming and their association with capitalism, is to say thereâ€™s no choice to be had. â€œIâ€™m not about to quit my job and live on less in order to work to ensure thereâ€™s a livable future for my son.â€ The wild response, is to do just that. To reject all security and comfort (what will those things mean in a dying planet anyway?) and to make very little money. What, after all, could be a bigger threat to capitalism? Thoreau was clear that this was the only way. In â€œA Life without Principleâ€ he says, â€œThe ways you get money almost without exception lead downward.â€ Or more strongly in â€œCivil Disobedience,â€ â€œAbsolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue.â€ And in Walden: â€œThe nation itself, with all its so called internal improvements, which, by the way, are all external and superficial, is just an unwieldy and overgrown establishment… tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim… and the ONLY cure for it is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose.â€ The only cure is an economic one; itâ€™s that simple. The same is true, though Thoreau could only have guessed it, of the environmental crisis.
I think itâ€™s clear here that the choice isnâ€™t between the city and nature, itâ€™s between consumerism and simplicity. To pose it as otherwise is to make the idea of â€œnatureâ€ part of the consumer market, to make us think we could have Wordsworth’s or Thoreau’s “splendid visions” by buying a cabin in New Hampshire. But it’s very important that in Walden, â€œnaturalâ€ descriptions come later, after the economy has been dealt with. To try and have the experience of the sublime without making the economic change is impossible. Why is flying to Colorado to get to â€œnatureâ€ is doomed to be â€œordinary?â€ Thatâ€™s eco-consumerism: a total contradiction in terms. Nature comes into this picture because it represents the space which is undetermined by the market. It may be effected by the market (altered, damaged in some way) but so long as it is not controlled or owned by any particular active entity, it represents last refuge on the planet from the capitalist structure. Carrying all your supplies on your back for a few days in a wild walk changes the coordinates of what is deemed necessary in life. You begin to realize everything which seemed so essential to grab onto before is corrupt. That’s why children must be allowed out of doors–to form another reference point to what is valuable, good, and true. The observations of â€œnatureâ€ are just the cheapest (in terms of monetary cost) way to access the beauty that is spontaneously welling up in every moment without a corresponding corporate profit being made.
Even an uncritical reading of Giraldiâ€™s article will, I think, turn up the question of why Giraldi praises being in â€œnatureâ€ as a child but excuses himself from ever escaping the city as an adult. Going to the country is now a question of parenting, of duty, not a chance to have ones beliefs and worldview shattered against Thoreauâ€™s hard rocks of reality. He says, â€œEstablishing that vital connection to nature for our kids is one way we redeem ourselves after forgetting ourselves–itâ€™s one way we become children again.â€ But heâ€™s also told us that in the three years since Ethan was born, they’ve only been â€œin natureâ€ twice. (For somebody who worries about his childâ€™s exposure to nature as much as Giraldi does, visiting his definition of it less than once a year seems quite a poor record.) On one of those visits, Giraldi worries about muddy shoes, the next he spoke into his cell phone and drove the rental car. Did he become a child again? No, he says those places didnâ€™t provide â€œsublime for him,â€ â€œsome of us are not fit for visions,â€ etc. â€œThe girl or boy receives nature by mainline, by intuition alone, whereas the man or woman communes with nature only by reflection.â€ First the defeatism of the time period, then the defeatism of circumstance, now the defeatism of mature brain function, of adulthood. (Perhaps I should be clear that I’m not saying these are Giraldi’s faults alone, but the most common ways we protect ourselves from the radical component of Thoreau’s message, which, if it gets through, will surely shake us.) How can Giraldi still hope to find anything of value in nature with all these barriers in his way? Isnâ€™t he looking in the wrong place? The transformation, I would argue, should not be one of location from a Boston street to a wooded hilltop. The transformation has to be one of an economic relationship with the world. If the child â€œreceives nature by mainlineâ€ itâ€™s not because she has underdeveloped cognitive abilities as Giraldi would have it. Itâ€™s because she is not seduced into thinking the appearance of forms before her are a means to an end. She doesnâ€™t try to get anything out of nature, including transcendence, or even something â€œnatural.â€ There is no difference for the small child between the Yosemite Valley and a concrete irrigation canal. The difference is only how much space they are given to freely experience that place imaginatively. Right? The adult has just as much access to this, as Thoreauâ€™s entire corpus seeks to prove, but he must throw off the economic mode of viewing the world, â€œfor money comes between a man and his objects, and obtains them for him.â€ Some have this insight–that we are slaves to profit, that all money corrupts and all economies are built on the backs of unspeakable suffering–and work their lives trying to reform the whole system, which, while admirable, is essentially another excuse, another form of defeatism because they still live in the system to reform it. Thoreau takes that excuse away from us who have the economic means to choose a secure life. (This may sound like itâ€™s only possible in the developed world, but isnâ€™t the idea of the hermit, the Lao-Tzuâ€™s, Jesusâ€™s, and Buddahâ€™s all telling us this same message? Thoreau says, â€œThe prophets are employed in excusing the ways of men.â€ Do these great prophets, read radically, offer us excuses or demand of us with Rilke: â€œYou must change your life.â€) Thoreau tells us it is possible to live in a different economy right now. And simply living that life is revolutionary. The only revolution is a personal one, a throwing off of the chains of security and comfort. Thinking that aspect of Thoreauâ€™s work through will make you quake in your Guatemalan-made boots. Thinking that thought through makes his nature observations look like petty journalism. (I should say the doubters that this is possible with a family, that I know a man who chooses to live on less than $10,000 by mowing lawns one and a half days a week and whoâ€™s managed to raise a happy, healthy family in the process.) Thoreauâ€™s famous dictum: â€œIn wildness is the preservation of the world,â€ is not true of this cheap version of nature that Giraldiâ€™s article is praising, one that exists out there in some other place. It is true of our approach to living, which is directly correlated with the amount of money we make. Will we live wild or tame? There is no necessity, we all have the choice right now.
Zak: I read your entire response and as much as I enjoyed William’s essay your points are profound and with merit. I tend to see, feel and respond in a more general sense, and my youth aligns with William’s description of a loving and personal expression of one’s inner self connected to particular geographic environmental conditions. Details you expound on are also worthy of note, and as is with any literary expression, open and vulnerable to views that differ.
I feel certain your stance and viewpoints manifest from personal life situations, and spiritual awareness creating obvious insight and exemplary expressive abilities.
Environmental goals, challenges and directions are in need of all relative expressions and is Orion’s paramount point of interest. It is realistic and without doubt or question Orion’s readers are in many ways re-enforcing already in place views. Is it possible to have too much re-enforcing?
I view Orion from an overall perspective, the magnificent photos, the very high quality writings. It is not possible to employ such a variation of nature and environmental themes and not touch a thread of controversy.
Controversy is important, needed and should be read, absorbed and embraced. I thank you for such a thoughtful missive. Raymond
Since Mr. Giraldi is enamored of the great authors and poets, may I suggest he put Wordsworth, Thoreau and Emerson back on the shelf for a while, and instead pull off Whitman. Whitman had the same deep connection to nature that the others had, but at the core his message was to embrace riotous life in all its messiness and uncertainty. Two more modern authors would also provide guidance, David Sobel and Richard Louv, who address in detail what a child needs to connect to nature. It is not the mountaintop or remote wilderness, it is the edge nature. Boston has plenty of that edge nature: the bay, the river, the back bay, the regional parks and preserves, even the victory gardens.
The photo that illustrates the article, of a girl sitting alone in the midst of asphalt returning to nature is instructive. I don’t know what she is doing, or what she is thinking, but the message to me is that she is having a moment of connection.
I’ve spent a lot of time on the mountaintops and in the wilderness, as well as in the edge nature, and I live now in an urban area where I have less contact with nature. I and many others are here, hard at work looking for the way forward into a sustainable and connected future.
For me, the clearest message that nature has provided is that we are not in control. We are not in control. I think the better approach to raising a child is to step back and let them find their own path. In the literal and California sense, that will take them into the poison oak patches and into uncertainty. Yes, keep an eye on them and help them come back to the path if they stray too far, but remember that it is their path and not yours that they follow.
From the article.
“MY MISANTHROPIC STREAK enjoys this logic: the planet is an overpopulated insane asylum; humans are heinous and cruel. Glance around at what weâ€™ve done to the animals, the oceans, the air. (Thoreau on the human being: â€œWhat he touches he taints.â€) Remember what we did to one another at Antietam and the Somme. Thatâ€™s what kind of clan we are. Selfish, crazed, cannibalistic. Iâ€™d like to get away from them, from us, live in a place where my nearest neighbor is an owl.
My pastoral idealism and viridity have convinced me that humans are happier, less aggrieved creatures among bucolic splendor, awash in Wordsworthâ€™s â€œvital feelings of delightâ€ inspired by the interconnectedness of nature. Or, as Thoreau has it in Walden, â€œThere can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still.â€ For anyone who has anguished beneath the black dog of melancholy, that seems an irresistible promise.”
And what is a future that addresses that problem and that okay at least 90% solution(Yes I know about disease and bipolar chemistry)? Certainly two central requirements would be many less people and much more wilderness. It’s like 2+2=4 in its simplicity and yet oh do we like to dance around the matter rather than directly address it.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
I think that Mr. Giraldi is missing a very important point about the sublime and that’s wonder. Adults and children can have a sense of wonder in whatever environment they find themselves. With wonder we can lose ourselves in the moment, find small details interesting, and make connections to ourselves, the world and the people around us. I’d recommend that Mr. Giraldi put down Thoreau and Wordsworth and pick up Rachel Carson’s ‘A Sense of Wonder.’ Yes, she was exploring the forests of Maine with Roger but the lesson applies just the same to a city like Boston. Be together, observe, ask questions. Mr. Giraldi’s son’s childhood will look different than his, but it doesn’t have to be as horrible as he fears it will be.
Like Mr. Giraldi I, too, am not a fan of playgrounds. There must be wild places within a T ride or short drive from central Boston. The Trustees of Reservations own and manage amazing parks and other natural places throughout Massachusetts. It won’t be outside the back door like the wild places of his youth, but they’re there. And they are Ethan’s to explore.
Lovely. Tho’ I understand the indecision, I have not felt it. I left the inner city for the country 15 years ago at the age of 44 and have not regretted it. Tho’ I recently had to move to a small town, I still see the wonder of a beautiful cloud formation and point it out to my children, a practice I have followed my whole life. There is wonder everywhere, from the first dandelion poking through the mud, the fungus growing in a pile of wood chips, the house finch sitting on your gutter. The trick is to recognize the wonder and celebrate it. Bloom where you are planted, but if you aren’t blooming, uproot and plant yourself elsewhere. But don’t feel guilty. Guilt is useless. If something is wrong, change it; if it isn’t, get over the guilt.
Why the cheap shot at hippies? In Mississippi during my college years (early 70’s), hippies were in the thick of the fledgling environmental movement that tried to stop the death of the Tombigbee river. Hippies I knew became engineers and neurosurgeons and musicians and social workers and are the finest people I have known. Ease up with the stereotypes, please.
This article got me fired up (like Zak, it pushed me to put in my two cents. Or even my $1.20).
In one of Doris Lessing’s short stories, extra-terrestrials have noticed California is about to fall into the Pacific, and at great personal expense they decide to try and warn the humans. To their surprise, the humans already know! Young girls strum their guitars and compose mournful odes, etc. But no one does a damn thing.
It is hard to pry loose comfortable humans with a threatening future. Little Fiver, the seer rabbit in “Watership Down” warns that the Warren is doomed, that something terrible is coming, and that all the rabbits must pack up and leave. The head rabbit turns his back on Fiver and says, “We must leave now? In mating season?” Fat chance.
here is thought from Thomas Frank in the April 2013 Harper’s Magazine: “In a famous essay published sixty-seven years ago* George Orwell declared that the cliches of the day were a product of politics. The only way people could absorb the awful events of World War II, he wrote, was to hear them camouflaged with nonsense. And so the English language was being ruined with passive constructions, threadbare similes, ways of saying things that burned up the syllables yet illuminated nothing.”
Now we are at war. It is the biggest and baddest war ever, and if we give up, our children are doomed. We try to avoid this inconvenient truth with a knowing air of omnipotence, lots of words, a smile and a good swabbing of antiperspirant. But it is going to take every one who has awakened to do everything within their power to save our species & our earth as we know her.
Most us us know when we are doing right–we don’t have to make excuses. Do right, write strong, and don’t give up. If you give up, I guarantee, we haven’t got a chance.
Hello, I enjoyed the article very much. The author’s child has the tremendous advantage of loving parents who are aware of nature and connected with the sophistication of urban life as well.
The article mentions ecstasy in nature, but quickly dismisses it. But the idea bears closer examination. Are you familiar with the writings of Edith Cobb? She had a huge collection of accounts by famous and/or accomplished people of their childhood moments of ecstasy or transcendence in nature and their assertions about how those moments became touchstones for the rest of their lives, resources that could be returned to, even guides to help them make decisions in life. Similar accounts by more recent people include such notables as Father Thomas Berry, Alice Walker, John Lennon, and many others.
It isn’t necessary for a child to live in nature day to day, but to have enough time alone in nature to be bored enough to leave his habitual mental connections for a bit sometimes, until the world somehow connects with him or her individually, or at least that is the effect. These moments are probably the basis from which the “technology” of vision quest was developed.
If you want to read a little more about it, you can download and read (no charge) an article I wrote about these childhood moments here: http://arrow.monash.edu.au/vital/access/manager/Repository/monash:80094
I make this comment not at all for my own advancement but because no one ever told me about this phenomenon when I had a young child, and I wish they had.
I can’t believe in all the above comments that no one has stated a simple truth overlooked in this article: human beings are natural.
We are a part of nature, created by nature, and everything we do is natural. It is not as though nature stopped working once humanity evolved, or once agriculture was invented and cities became feasible.
As a father, I sympathize with the authors grand concerns about his children, but the reality is that human beings are excellent at adapting to their environment: we live on every continent now, in every environment on the planet. Our children will grow up adapted to their environment. Because the environment is changing so rapidly, they will not have certain traits, perhaps cherished, that we aquired. However, they will have the wherewithal to succeed if we love and support them for who they are, not what we wish (wisely of not) for them to be.
If you say everything is natural then the word natural doesn’t mean anything. Natural as opposed to what?
Getting your education from nature is different from getting your education from a tv set. A tv and a tree are both just as natural? Sorry I don’t buy that.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
TOOLS FOR NEED, NOT GREED!
Dear Author of “Splendid Visions”:
I would like to offer ‘The Other Side’ to your (natural?) love of nature and how children (from adulterated adults) lose out.
Kindly write me for an essay in progress. It will show The Adult World to be more childish than children (and not as ‘grown up’ as “grown ups” like to have children call them).