And yet, these thought leaders felt the push and pull to
move away from even relatively small crowds, partly because they could; they
had the means and the choice and opportunity to do so. In the wild expansive
nature of the North American continent, which was still largely unexplored and
undeveloped, they still had pristine places to roam and delve into, unlike the much
more restricted and relatively set geographical areas of Europe, for instance.
Let us also not forget that they had the means to live and
survive in the wilderness. In fact, it is more often those who possess at least
a moderate amount of income who would even dare and contemplate such a crazy idea, to begin with, namely, to seek a different and more minimal and austere
lifestyle away from the comfort of one’s home. In the somewhat paraphrased words
of the French singer-songwriter Soan, I’d like to sleep under the moon but only
when it is my choice. Unlike many wanderers, nomads, and homeless people, both
Emerson and Thoreau had a home to return to in case things went south, i.e. if
they encountered dangers, ran out of food, or simply did not enjoy the
experience anymore. People less fortunate would not have a backup plan to fall
But such ideas do not come out of nowhere and are not
created in a vacuum or on a sporadic whim. In fact, French thinker and
philosopher Rousseau was quite influential in propagating this idea of a type
of return to nature and the (supposedly and allegedly) simple rural life of
peace and tranquility. In certain ways, they are also echoes of Jefferson’s dilemma
regarding the American spirit, should the nation embrace a rural life and
lifestyle or bend towards an industrialized urban life of workers and factories?
This was driven by a general dissatisfaction with the status
quo of the rapidly growing and changing cities and it seemed like a viable
option or a kind of refuge from the madness to venture far from the madding
crowd and into the arms of Mother Nature.
On the other hand, this ideology was also expressed in the
work of Spinoza and became a quasi-religion. Nature was regarded as a pantheistic
phenomenon with an apparent return to more “primitive” and original beliefs of
spirits living in trees and blades of grass. Although Spinoza stressed reason
and rationality, he made it all part and parcel of nature, which was seen as a
type of Mother goddess, the origin and pinnacle of creation, and the continuous
ever-flowing source of nourishment and subsistence.
These views hearken back to a collective experience we all
have and which psychoanalyst Otto Rank talks about in his books and writings
ever since his quintessential and revolutionary publication of The Trauma of
Birth a hundred years ago. It is the dreamlike and fantastical prenatal
world and experience of the womb. In a certain sense, the turn to nature represents
a return to the maternal womb, the place where one felt still, at ease, sustained,
fed, nourished, and at peace. This longing has driven us from the world of crowds
to the stillness that nature embodies or at least that we imagine and presume
it (or she) does.
That said, it is not only an idealistic view of nature but a
very romantic one and perhaps even dangerously so. The romantics who stressed
feeling and all things emotional over the rational and logical embraced the
natural world but failed to see it in its entirety, which included not only
beauty and grace but also the power to destroy alongside other destructive
This idealization of the natural world is a dangerous human
fallacy that ended up costing various lives and it can be illustrated by two
real-life stories depicted in two forms of art, a movie as well as a documentary.
First off, we have the insightful and moving documentary Grizzly Man by
Werner Herzog where self-proclaimed American environmentalist Timothy Treadwell dissatisfied with his own life and struggling with
mental health issues decides to go to the Alaskan wilderness to live with
He preferred their company over their human counterparts and
was perhaps inspired by his affection for his cute and cuddly teddy bears
in his childhood. In other words, he denied these furry animals their wild and
beastly qualities and saw and idealized them as peaceful and loving beings and not as bears
that would be driven more by instinct and less by reason.
That said, some humans may seem wilder and more
unpredictable than animals but that is a different story, which leads us to the
sad story of another nature-enthused individual who is cinematically depicted in Sean Penn’s Into
This idealistic but depressed young individual Chris
McCandless who also went by the pseudonym “Alexander Supertramp” decides to
take a deep dive and plunge into the wilderness by (apparently) rejecting the
materialism and consumerism of his time and era. At the same time, despite
being good at school and having the opportunity (and means) to study at a prestigious
university, he throws all potential and caution into the wind, burns cash, drives to live
in nature, and eventually dies there due to accidental food poisoning.
Again, this seeking of nature is less a going-to-somewhere
but rather a running-from-something. The same may be said of all the
individuals mentioned here whether it is Thoreau (whose philosophy of civil
disobedience ended up influencing Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.) or Emerson
(whom Nietzsche considered “the most gifted of the Americans”) as they had their
own motives to move away from traditional society, religion, and thinking.
At the same time, the transcendentalists served as the inspiration and role
model to young idealistic but tormented individuals like Chris McCandless to embark upon a recklessly dangerous trip while using their books as a guide, source of
inspiration, and motivation throughout the journey. They build upon Rousseau’s
apparent dialectic between what is human-made and what is natural and organic
and that the latter is what one should and needs to always ideally strive for.
In such dualism, we may overlook various segments of life
where both can interact for the benefit of us all. This is very clear
in the case of science, in particular, medicine and medicinal advances that
have helped us survive the various onslaughts of naturally occurring diseases
and circumstances. In that sense, a full and unprepared return to nature as in
the above cases could and should be construed as foolish and misguided and certainly
not beneficial to the body, mind, and spirit of all and any of those involved.
As mentioned earlier, they all had the means and the luxury
to renounce a comfortable life for a lifestyle of unease and unpredictability.
At times, it may feel not so much as a form of liberation but perhaps a kind
of self-punishment stemming from one’s feeling of enslavement when faced with
pain and trauma that one wishes to numb or escape from. Be it as it may, the notion
that they are free in the wild and can howl like wolves or run around naked
without necessary consequences comes from a romantic past and heritage. And
yet, it is fraught with danger and each of them would have to wrestle with their own demons sooner or later.
This is not to say that the rich and wealthy cannot have insights;
they can and indeed have, and it is perhaps best demonstrated in Siddhartha
Gautama who gave up and sacrificed a life of comfort for his spiritual
endeavors. However, I find it rather interesting to contrast the Buddha, a
wealthy and privileged prince to Jesus who was born in a manger next to farm
animals, rode a donkey, and died with few if any possessions, which I believe is
food for thought for another and different kind of post.
Yet this does underscore that although it is important to
embrace nature whose majestic beauty we do not appreciate enough, we should not use it as an excuse for not facing our troubles and personal issues. Though being in a retreat or a monastery may provide temporary relief and shelter and serve as a potential incentive for peace and calm inside of us, true peace and
happiness await us and come from the inside and that could transform any place and dwelling to make us feel at home by even turning a simple nutshell into a luxurious palace.