Restoring the Landscape

Stanley Cavell was the first Anglophone philosopher to write a full book on Walden. That was back in 1972. Nearly fifty years after this breakthrough study, he writes sadly, poignantly,

That philosophers who have grudgingly come to accept the pertinence of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche persist in turning deaf ears to Thoreau strikes me . . . as soul-boggling and heartbreaking.

Thoreau effortlessly shifts between stepping back from nature for reporting what he sees – and then letting Creation step toward him, letting himself be immersed, getting the touch and tang of the Numinous, Sacred or Holy. For Thoreau, Creation is the touch of the Holy, a Holiness as much Vedic as Hebraic or Christian.  Creation or Nature is  sacred or holy without his becoming thereby  religiously fundamentalist – he has no position whatsoever about how creation was created. We see holiness directly – or don’t.

Nature for Thoreau is an object of research, and a place for extraction of resources but it’s also a place of wonder, terror, and simple beauty. Objective environmental research is eminently valuable. Absorbing the tang and taste of the world is eminently valuable, too. We can study the chemistry of a good tomato and savor its taste as well. His sense that we live in a holy place is not a Biblical article of faith. It is a report of experience.

The holy interpenetrates a five-fold set of couplings. A person is a relational interplay of psyche, soma, social others, things, and natural surrounds. The holy is a shimmer hovering over and though each. To dispense with associations with church or temple, we can speak of the wondrous or holy hovering over relations among mind and body, mind-body and our kin and fellows, among mind-body-other and things of the world, and among mind-body-things and the emplacement of all in an environment, place or landscape. If each of these relata — psyche, soma, social others, things, and natural surrounds – can appear individually and in concert under the aspect of the wondrous, it is but a small step to say they can appear under the aspect of the holy.

We might feel the satisfaction of having pure matter sustain the complexity and wonder of the human body, or of a plant’s stem, rather than staying only in the domain of scientific research. But what satisfaction comes from having the living human body or plant-stem drift beyond the wondrous to also inhabit the numinous or Holy?

Allowing things to appear, acknowledging their appearance, not only as wondrous but as holy lets us link the great religious literatures of our traditions to our daily experiences – not only of rocks or trees but our experiences of musicians, parklands, night skies, and seas. The Biblical Whirlwind immerses us in the wondrous and the Holy. Thus the address of storms and seas might also immerse us in the holy. Is there not even a glimmer of Holiness-aspect mixed in with the Wondrous?

Of course if we do not resonate with the Holy in the Biblical Whirlwind, we won’t hear it in Melville’s storms or late Fall Hurricanes, either. The sense of the holy for Thoreau, flows from Vedic divinities or intelligences dispersed throughout creation; creation is that dispersion of divinity. The holy also flows – Thoreau is not theoretical about this, only evocative — from a more condensed divinity, say, the “Maker” of Walden Pond, or the divinity – the beauty – that he addresses in A Week:

The eyes were not made for such groveling uses as they are now put to and worn out by, but to behold beauty now invisible. May we not see God?


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