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5 Famous Naturalists on the Transcendental Powers of the Wilderness

In Balanced Achievement’s The Weekly 5 series, we aim to present you with five ideas, products or tools that you can utilize to enhance the quality of your life. In this week’s article, we look at the wisdom of five famous naturalists who showed us why spending time in nature is such a life-affirming habit to undertake.

The first half of the 19th century was a monumental age in American history as the country’s size expanded rapidly with new frontiers of unsettled lands that beamed with potential and opportunity. By the time the now immortalized journalist John O’Sullivan proclaimed that it was the ‘manifest destiny’ of Americans to carry the great experiment of freedom to the edge of the continent in 1945, over seven million citizens had already moved west of the Appalachian Mountains, with hopes for a more prosperous future, and millions more were soon to follow in their footsteps.

Yet, just as these trailblazers were valiantly coming face to face with the many unknowns of the unexplored west, a group of scholarly pioneers, who remained firmly rooted along the eastern seaboard, were coming to discover the wealth of blessings and wisdom one could attain from spending time in the wilderness of their own backyards.

An image shows a picturesque scene of a waterfall surrounded by fall foliage. This picture is featured in Balanced Achievement’s article on the wisdom of famous naturalists.

To be exact, it was during the 1830s when a group of New England’s intellectual elites initiated a philosophical movement, known as transcendentalism, which valued the life-transforming powers of nature over almost everything else. Throughout this decade, and the ones that followed, iconic figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David ThoreauMargaret Fuller and Amos Bronson Alcott, who in spirit must be considered as America’s first true naturalists, gifted the world with some of the first writings to glorify the outdoors and paved the way for the environmentalists, preservationists and conservationists of the future.

Here, we’ve done our best to illuminate the lives and wisdom of five famous naturalists, which we consider as anyone who fully realized the divine inspiration and transcendental energy of the wilderness, from a historical context.

1.) Ralph Waldo Emerson:

A headshot image of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who along with other famous naturalists illuminated the wisdom that can be found in nature, is pictured.In 1803, the same year Thomas Jefferson purchased the expansive Louisiana territory for $15 million from the French, a young boy named Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts. After honing his intellectual capabilities at the prestigious Boston Latin School and Harvard College, the now immortalized thinker would spend his earliest post-educational years working as a church minister and teacher. Things for Emerson, however, drastically changed when his first wife tragically passed away at just 20-years-old in 1831 and his beliefs about the church began to take a skeptical turn. It was on a trip to Europe in 1833 when he first recognized the spiritually transcending power of nature, while visiting Paris’s Jardin des plantes, and he’d soon be encouraging others to find solace in the wilderness. He proclaimed:

As I walked in the woods I felt what I often feel that nothing can befall me in life, no calamity, no disgrace (leaving me my eyes) to which Nature will not offer a sweet consolation. Standing on the bare ground with my head bathed by the blithe air, & uplifted into the infinite space, I become happy in my universal relations.” 

Upon returning to the United States, Emerson would play a most influential role in commencing the previously mentioned transcendentalist movement that sprung about in Massachusetts in 1836. In fact, the day before he published his still celebrated essay Nature, which is one of the first true classics of the nature writing genre, he brought together many of New England’s brightest minds to disseminate ideas at the first ever meeting of the Transcendental Club.

Besides the work he did as Massachusetts’ most revered transcendentalist, ‘The Sage of Concord‘, who traveled to a variety of naturally intoxicating destinations throughout his life, notoriously lead nine iconic thinkers into the wilderness of upstate New York in 1858 for a two week expedition which became known as ‘The Philosophers Camp’. For both the famous naturalists of his generation and the ones who came after he passed away, Ralph Waldo Emerson has remained an unmatched source of wisdom and inspiration. He told us:

Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection. Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood.”

2.) Henry David Thoreau:

A headshot image of Henry David Thoreau, who along with other famous naturalists illuminated the wisdom that can be found in nature, is pictured.Although Henry David Thoreau is considered by many to be the father of modern American nature writing, his work was assuredly influenced by the mentoring role the aforementioned Ralph Waldo Emerson played throughout his life. Thoreau first met Emerson after graduating from Harvard and returning to his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts in 1837, the year following the first ever Transcendentalist Club meeting, and soon the two literary giants would form a close intellectual bond. Subsequently, it was during the earliest years of their relationship when Emerson advised his understudy to keep a journal and introduced him to many of New England’s most influential minds. Undoubtedly, the exposer to the naturalistic ideals of transcendentalism propelled Thoreau, who’s also revered for his iconic political essay Civil Disobedience, towards the divinity of the wild. He declared:

The wilderness is near as well as dear to every man. Even the oldest villages are indebted to the border of wild wood which surrounds them, more than to the gardens of men. There is something indescribably inspiriting and beautiful in the aspect of the forest skirting and occasionally jutting into the midst of new towns, which, like the sand-heaps of fresh fox-burrows, have sprung up in their midst. The very uprightness of the pines and maples asserts the ancient rectitude and vigor of nature. Our lives need the relief of such a background, where the pine flourishes and the jay still screams.”

It was in 1945 when Henry David Thoreau came to believe that he needed to spend more time concentrating on his prose and decided to set out for what would famously become a two year stay in the seclusion of a small cabin scenically situated on Walden Pond. Here, he would experiment with the art of simplistic living while writing about the spiritually transcending powers of the outdoors.

Although Thoreau’s book Walden, which recounted the now legendary stay, won few admires after it’s initial publication in 1854, literary critics have since praised it as one of the true classics of American literature and other famous naturalists, such as E. O. Wilson, Edwin Way Teale, and Joseph Wood Krutch, have cited it as one of their primary sources of inspiration. He told us of nature:

Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand. I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.”

3.) John Burroughs:

A headshot image of John Burroughs, who along with other famous naturalists illuminated the wisdom that can be found in nature, is pictured.1837 was not only a landmark year for naturalists because it marked the first meeting between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, but also because another iconic woodsman came to the earth as the legendary John Burroughs was born some 220 miles west of Concord, Massachusetts, in upstate New York. Throughout his youth, Burroughs became enamored with the wild and spent much of his time working on his family’s farm, fly fishing and frolicking through the Catskill Mountains. It was from the outdoorsmen spirit he developed during his younger years, and from the encouragement he later received from the immortalized poet and close fried Walt Whitman, that ultimately lead Burroughs to pursue a career as a nature writer. He so wisely said:

To the scientist Nature is a storehouse of facts, laws, processes; to the artist she is a storehouse of pictures; to the poet she is a storehouse of images, fancies, a source of inspiration; to the moralist she is a storehouse of precepts and parables; to all she may be a source of knowledge and joy.”

Over the course of his lifetime, John Burroughs became a sort of cultural icon who captivated readers with his writings and accompanied many influential figures on outdoor expeditions or welcomed them to his famed Slabsides cabin. In addition to participating in railroad tycoon E. H. Harriman’s trailblazing trip to Alaska in 1899, for example, Burroughs spent time in the wild with the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

After publishing Wake-Robin, his first collection of nature essays, in 1871, Burroughs would have 22 additional essay collections published, two of which were released posthumously, to bring The Complete Writings of John Burroughs up-to 23 volumes. For the contributions he made to America’s conservation movement, Burroughs has had 12 schools, a distinguished writing medal and a natural sanctuary named in his honor. Of nature’s spiritually transcending quality, he told us:

Every walk to the woods is a religious rite, every bath in the stream is a saving ordinance. Communion service is at all hours, and the bread and wine are from the heart and marrow of Mother Earth. There are no heretics in Nature’s church; all are believers, all are communicants. The beauty of natural religion is that you have it all the time; you do not have to seek it afar off in myths and legends, in catacombs, in garbled texts, in miracles of dead saints or wine-bibbing friars. It is of today; it is now and here; it is everywhere.”

4.) John Muir:

A headshot image of John Muir, who along with other famous naturalists illuminated the wisdom that can be found in nature, is pictured.In comparison to the one and only John Muir, there is perhaps not a single individual who’s contributed more to the preservation of America’s forests or taught us more about the wisdom of the outdoors. In fact, thanks to his writings and lobbying efforts, the United States government formally began recognizing National Parks for the first time in the late 1800s and he earned the nickname ‘Father of the National Parks’. Like the previously mentioned John Burroughs, Muir developed an enthusiastic passion for nature at a young age, but rather than being raised with the freedom to roam throughout the woods, it was his strict religious upbringing that stoked his love for the wilderness. After being born in Scotland in 1838, Muir’s deeply religious parents moved the family to Wisconsin when he was 11-years-old, because they found the church back home to be inadequately strict in discipline and faith, and over the 65 years he called America home, he’d leave a legacy unmatched by any other naturalist to walk the earth. He encouraged his fellow citizens to venture into the wild:

Wilderness is not only a haven for native plants and animals but it is also a refuge from society. Its a place to go to hear the wind and little else, see the stars and the galaxies, smell the pine trees, feel the cold water, touch the sky and the ground at the same time, listen to coyotes, eat the fresh snow, walk across the desert sands, and realize why its good to go outside of the city and the suburbs. Fortunately, there is wilderness just outside the limits of the cities and the suburbs in most of the United States, especially in the West.”

Although John Muir’s interest in nature started at a young age and his list of outdoor adventures is most legendary, it was only after a work accident almost left him blind in 1867, when he made the decision to be true to himself by pursing a career as an intellectual woodsman. During his lifetime, Muir would not only publish over 300 articles and 12 books depicting his time in nature, but he’d also co-found the ever prominent conservationist organization known as the Sierra Club.

Amongst his most notable outdoor expeditions, Muir undertook a walk of around 1,000 miles from Kentucky to Florida, he spent two years living in Yosemite and he ventured to Alaska on four separate occasions. Since he passed away in 1914, he’s had four additional books published posthumously, a 211-mile hiking trail in the Sierra Nevada named in his honor and he’s become known as the patron saint of the American wilderness’. For Muir, who’s religious beliefs transcended from the church to the trees, nature’s spiritual qualities were all too obvious. He wrote:

The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us. Thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love.”

5.) Rachel Carson:

A headshot image of Rachel Carson, who along with other famous naturalists illuminated the wisdom that can be found in nature, is pictured.On May 27th, 1907, a young girl by the name of Rachel Carson was born into a farming family in the rural town of Springdale, Pennsylvania. Although she spent her childhood years exploring the hills, fields and forests of her family’s 65-acre farm, Carson would go onto to become one of history’s most iconic marine biologists. It was at a young age when Carson developed a deep passion for reading about the ocean and writing about nature, and her poetic prose would later play a monumental role in launching the global environmental movement. In addition to captivating readers with her award-winning writings, Carson, who just like the other famous naturalists discussed in this article came to associate spending time in the wilderness with spiritual development, would help reshape the United States’ environmental policy as it relates to pesticides. She proclaimed:

I believe natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society. I believe that whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of man’s spiritual growth.”

Although Rachel Carson is best known for her 1962 book Silent Spring, which examines the harmful effects pesticides have on people and the environment, she first gained literary fame for a trilogy of books that explored oceanic life. In Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea, published in 1941, 1951 and 1955 respectively, Carson magnificently describes the science of the ocean in an intoxicatingly elegant way.

Yet still, it was her research of the pesticide DDT and advocacy to ban the toxic substance that etched her name in history, as her work lead to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Throughout her lifetime, Rachel Carson won numerous literary awards, and after her death in 1964, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter and had two U.S. researcher vessels named in her honor. She told us of the transcending powers of nature:

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”

1 comment

20 John Muir Quotes on Nature’s Ability to Nourish the Mind, Body & Soul | Balanced Achievement March 11, 2019 - 10:09 pm

[…] philosopher John Muir, there is perhaps not a single individual who’s taught us more about nature’s transcendental powers or done more to ensure the preservation of America’s forests. Throughout his lifetime, the […]


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