Nature Walks


There’s no lack of news about Thoreau this year. The New York Times tells us of the forgotten outcasts, Blacks and Irish, who were his shanty neighbors at Walden.[1] A block-buster biography by Laura Dassow Walls gets lengthy reviews.[2] The July 200th Anniversary Gathering in Concord is a grand success. But Thoreau’s an odd fellow in academia. We hardly know where to tether him: Literature?  Philosophy?  American Studies? No one belittles a nice walk in nature, yet on campus, there’s hang-wringing about how, academically, to fall into step with Thoreau’s poetic walks. Inside colleges and universities, nature writing is suspect. There’s a reason for this suspicion, and to me, it reflects badly on academia. Thoreau is out to enhance our experience, to vivify and expand it, but professors and administrators place knowledge-acquisition and analytical prowess far above openness to new experiential vistas.


My field is philosophy. As philosophers we step back to take the wide and deep view of things. Or we burrow into a detail to analyze its inner mechanics.  But stepping back or taking apart for precise analysis isn’t always a good thing.  These very actions – stepping back, taking apart – decisively alter the “material” that originally caught our attention. These actions are partially destructive.

If we step back to examine the environment, nature, or creation, we destroy immersive contact. If we step back from the edge of the pool rather than dive in, we’ll miss a crucial aspect of its width, depth, temperature, and “feel.”  These are aspects we can only get through immersion. We get contact through diving in, swimming the pool’s width and depth. That immersion gives an experience denied to those who keep dry. If we erect a large doctor’s-office-style poster on the wall depicting the shape and detail of some item of nature or creation, we forego diving into the original “stuff” – or letting it dive into us. In our informal walks, we can let nature or creation overcome us, sweep us away, enter our being.

Professional philosophy is not written to sweep us away by a glorious evening sunset — or to acknowledge our being swept away. As it’s now understood, the professional stance guarantees we’ll miss the wonder of that part of nature that right now accosts or overwhelms us. Of course, from time to time we can alter our professional sensibility and writing to leave wonder alive. We don’t need to shy from words stirring us the way Annie Dillard or Coleridge can. And we don’t need to shy from calling these deep stirrings legitimate philosophical stirrings.

Professional writing that relays a sense of “immersive contact” is not a replacement for detached analysis. It’s a supplement that has a rather different goal. Take the case of philosophers making arguments for environmental concerns. The “backward step” of analysis, when sustained, occludes, wipes out, crucial aspects of whatever part of the environment — or nature – is before us. We lose what Thoreau (and others) give us:  the raw or gentle feel of things; their imaginative resonances. Focusing on immersive contact is a healthy reminder of the way many of us are attuned to nature when not writing about it professionally.  And it reminds us of the value of what we study or observe. Observation should be in the interest of things that matter. And one way we’re convinced that something matters is that it accosts us, overwhelms us, gently awakens us.


Religious, biblical writers sometimes take the backward step. From the second or third balcony they report God’s creation over seven days. We’re interested onlookers, impressed but detached, listening to regal declarations: “Let there be light!” “Let there be . . . .“ But as often religious writers immerse us, fill us with silencing awe. They can effect gentle immersions. We inwardly sing, “I lay me down by still waters.”  Or we can be swept away by more tumultuous and grandiose events. We are plunged into a Whirlwind as it’s sung toward the end of The Book of Job in what Tennyson calls the greatest poem in all literature.

Moby Dick casts us into a rough and unsettling creation, a secular-sacred immersion in turbulent waters. And the tale can turn on a dime toward serenity. Rather than attack, the crew of the ill-fated Pequod becomes immobilized, in awe:

For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers . . . . [The new-born were] as human infants [who] while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence.[3]

In nature we are embraced by both birth and death, coming into being and annihilation, and on a scale that can reach from gentleness to the catastrophic. But if you’re a professional philosopher, you can’t write of creation or nature immersively as Melville does, or sing as the Whirlwind does — until after you get tenure, and perhaps even then, only intermittently.

Henry Bugbee, a friend, author, and professor, composed by Western Montana’s streams and still waters. His philosophical writings could sweep us up in whirlwinds, lead us on forest walks, or take us on fishing adventures. His little book, The Inward Morning, was written from the Harvard Philosophy Department as they bid him good bye.[4] He was hired as an Assistant Professor to write about aesthetics, but he disliked argumentative essays and preferred to immerse himself and his readers in nature’s taste, its powers of annihilation and renewal. His title comes from a Thoreau poem.

David O’Hara teaches in South Dakota. He leads extended field trips where his students will be immersed in equatorial jungles and Alaska tundra. His informal writing pulls us into immersive contacts with nature’s particulars.[5] Of course, he can also take a backward step to write up the ecology and economics of the terrain. However, for him, and for Henry Bugbee, philosophy isn’t only theory, analysis, or knowledge.  It also models wise practice. And it’s the evocation of experiential worlds, whether they be uplifting or terrifying.[6]


Genesis gives us a succinct, declarative overview of nature or creation. Job’s Whirlwind gives us synesthetic, existential immersion in creation’s particulars. Sight is merged with smell, touch, terror, and wind. We are immersed in the feel or tang of these. Even sight, which off-hand seems detached, can have an immersive feel — say as we look down a thousand feet over the edge of a cliff.

Distance and detachment make it hard for straight-laced philosophers to rehabilitate the notion of creation, or to amend or expand pinched notions of the environment or of a re-enchanted nature. If we’re professionally straight-laced we take our domain to be objective assessment, impersonal argument, and lawyer-like policy recommendations. If we like the poetry, drama, and music of walks — the sweet blossoms and smiles that give us the feel of creation — that’s fine for off-campus. But strictly speaking, none of that is philosophy’s business.

I’d loosen the corsets and stays, let a philosopher’s body relax into wider domains, into the feel and bloom of things. I’d plea for a poetic wisdom that revels and recoils as the touch, smell, and color of creation or nature intrudes. Now and then we can refuse the backward step and convey in our writing the sense that creation touches and invades us — leaves us its colors, excitements, lilts, and tangs.

Environmental philosophy holds nature and environment at bay. It steps back for research, analysis, or policy evaluation. But the pre-analytical experiential supplement is often the impetus that gets us to think.  Neglecting that trigger means getting only an incomplete sense of nature or environment. We fear global warming because we’re exposed to evocative depictions of a warmer, eviscerated world. It’s laudatory to present the dynamics of preservation or sustainability rigorously. It’s also essential to know, beyond utilitarian considerations, what should be preserved. We need a taste of nature or creation as an ever-unfolding set of invitations to immersion in places we cherish. We need exposure to the delicate, awesome or sublime – even the numinous, sacred, or holy. Good writing can provide it, as well as first-hand experiential immersion.

Among many good nature writers, I’d invite Thoreau and Annie Dillard, Henry Bugbee and Bruce Wilshire to environmental philosophy. They wed analysis and evocation, immersive contact and wise observation.[7]  They (and their kin) can be more than suspect transients in the halls of academic philosophy. The canon can radically change. Hegel and Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer are no longer unwelcome interlopers. It has expanded in the last fifty years and can expand further.

Stanley Cavell has dramatically expanded the canon. Over the last fifty years, he has taught us, more than anyone, to loosen the borders between traditional philosophy and music, film, theater, literature, and opera. Allowing an experiential immersion in flows of art and literature is essential to his philosophical essays. He draws us into visceral exposure to the themes that capture his interest. Back in 1972, he was the first Anglophone philosopher to write a full book on Walden.[8] Nearly fifty years after this breakthrough, he tells us, 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.[9]

Thoreau shifts effortlessly between stepping back for objective reporting – and then letting creation step forward toward him. He gets immersed in the touch of simple blooms or mountain mists that evoke the numinous, sacred or holy.


For Thoreau, creation gives a touch of the holy, and that touch is as much Vedic as it is Hebraic or Christian. He celebrates the touch of the holy while dismissing any religious fundamentalism or affiliation. He has no position whatsoever about how nature – overall — was created, if it was. And he has no position on the purpose or purposes of nature or creation. He finds sufficient immediate encounters with the sublime or divine. Arguments or analysis are distracting and beside the point. We see, taste, or dance with the holy or entrancing directly, immediately, or have no access to them.

Nature beckons us to know her better, she feeds science. She also offers resources: lumber for houses, fish for dinner.  We study apple trees for science, pick their fruit for sustenance, and commodify them for financial gain. Nature also performs. She gives us wonder, terror, and simple beauty. Environmental research is valuable, and some exploitation for resources is inevitable. It’s also valuable to absorb and dwell in the lilt and dance of the world. We study the chemistry of a good tomato without diminishing its savory taste.

To savor or be awe-struck at nature’s performances can morph toward the sense that ours is a holy place. In poetic elaborations, we feel wonder drift toward holiness. Perceptions of God, the divine, or holiness may be the cognitive and historical basis of traditional articles of biblical faith or of the narrative evocations the holy that the world’s religions provide. But for Thoreau, there is no need to move toward formal articles of faith. For him, the weight of perceptions is primary and commitments to narratives, beliefs, or liturgies is superfluous. In his writing, Thoreau is happy to induce religious perceptions and leave it at that.

Heaven or the holy is in the here and now. Thoreau preaches, in his words, “The Gospel of the Present Moment.” When the world isn’t frozen or drab but alive and sparkling, Thoreau is struck by the holy or sublime at particular sites: it animates mind and body, social others and particular things in their natural surrounds. The wondrous or holy hovers over or flows through mind-body or body-soul relations – think of contemplative walks. The holy or wondrous flows through kinship, friendship, and other social relations – think of walking arm in arm.  It flows through and hovers over relations to particular things of the world – think of being stopped by a sunrise or a path-side bloom.  And the holy hovers over and flows through the placement of friends, blooms, souls, and bodies in an embracing place, landscape, or surround—think of a vista holding distant village figures, flowers close by, and clouds above.

Psyche, soma, social others, particular things, natural surrounds can appear both individually and in ensembles as instances of the wondrous or holy. A refined mind can be the site of wonderful spirit. Thoreau tells us his body is his temple.[10] We might see the wondrous or divine in Thoreau’s embrace of the woodchopper as they read the Iliad.[11] We might see it in a flight of geese, or in the infinite vista that holds geese, friends and refined minds and bodies together within a gentle shimmer.

A wondrous presence can be rendered in either secular or religious terms. Someone comfortable with religious renderings of experience will see and attest to a holy presence whereas someone uncomfortable with these renderings will see and attest to a wondrous presence, period. A wondrous presence can shuttle between renderings in secular terms and renderings in religious terms. For those who do not deny a priori that there are religious experiences but only doubt they have them, the wondrous can be an entry spot to the holy, allowing reflective access to the great religious literatures of the world. The wondrous augments the vibrancy of daily life and also reverberates with Hebrew and New Testament scriptures, with Hindu and Buddhist scriptures.

Repeatedly, Thoreau transitions from simple wonder to a holiness or divinity that has scriptural resonance. In Walden he alludes the “Maker” whose visage he sees it its waters. And he claims a role for Vedic “Intelligences” — packets of divinity streaming toward us bringing moments of illumination and ecstasy.[12]  My experience of rocks, birds, or trees — of musicians, parklands, night skies, and seas — is amplified by bridges to the hallowed or holy. These bridges are imaginative elaborations, poetically and religiously improvised. Like the biblical Whirlwind, Thoreau gives us an indissolvable mix of the wondrous, holiness, and divinity. “We need pray for no higher heaven than the pure senses can furnish.”[13]

In A Week on the Concord, Thoreau puts it succinctly:

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?[14]

The Whirlwind resonates, sounds out, holiness.  He find the sacred in Melville’s seas. In Walden, the holy flows from the pond’s “Maker,” and also from Vedic divinities — Intelligences dispersed through creation. Creation just is dispersion of divinity.


In a passage from The Senses of Walden that is nothing if not provocative, Stanley Cavell writes,

Human forms of feeling, objects of human attraction, our reactions constituted in art, are as universal and necessary, as revelatory of the world, as the forms of the laws of physics. This is the writer’s faith . . [15]

What have poets to do with philosophers or physics? What do poets and philosophers have to do with the sort of enchanting personal narratives that we find in Walden, or A Week on the Concord?  Cavell hopes for a three-fold accomplishment here, a way of writing and seeing that is at once philosophical, poetic, and autobiographical, and that reveals necessary structures of reality. His assertion that natural things speak without metaphor is as “universal and necessary, as revelatory of the world, as the forms of the laws of physics.” At least that is the poet’s faith. And how can we deny that breezes whisper (that’s not metaphorical), or that thunder crashes, or that rocks give silent testimony?

Words can be filler or chatter, or the can be more useful as reports and analyses that help to negotiate a utilitarian world. They may function as administrative or legal protocols.  Poetry is neither chatter nor information, neither practical advice nor a set of rules. We can think of poets as taking words from these hardened contexts to effect fresh, lively ways of seeing and feeling. Loosening up the routinization and practicality of words allows our talk of to come alive. Poets make sea and sky and resentment spin free of “same-ole-same-ole” rigid mortifications. Restoring new life to words and the space they animate occurs as the poet rolls out a new world, or the old world seen in new ways.

There are routine perceptions of Concord River. It’s a place on a map or it’s the river over there.  Thoreau breaks up routine perceptions. He amplifies the life of “Concord” by extending the name backward in time.  “Concord River,” we learn, is a replacement for the natives’ name, “Musketaquid.”[16] This gives “Concord River” lively historical depth, and referring to it by its ancient name gives it a poetic sheen. He lets the sands and dunes of Cape Cod drift back toward a more poetic history.  He calls the Cape an arm of New France.[17] Name-shifts poetically stretch our sense of time and place toward the endless vitality of creation.

These transfigurations are relayed in first-person narration. Thoreau verges on autobiography and secular confession, falling in with a canon that features Montaigne’s Essays, Rousseau’s Reveries, and Kierkegaard’s The Point of View of my Work as an Author.  Acknowledging this alternative canon sets aside the presumption that reason must quarrel with poetry, the personal, or the spiritual.

Cavell’s brilliant and difficult The Senses of Walden places Thoreau as a first-rate philosopher in a canon where reason is not at odds with a religious and poetic sensibility. Kant is an icon in the tradition of pursuing reason. Cavell makes Thoreau more Kantian than we would have thought, and stretches a Kantian perspective to include more than we would have thought possible: it can include a poetic-religious sensibility.

Thoreau characterizes the world as “answering to our conceptions,” an uncontroversial Kantian point.[18]  Cavell suggests that Thoreau intimates a Kantian “transcendental deduction” of the “thing-in-itself.”[19] This is a surprise. He suggests that Thoreau’s flux of vivid perceptions lays the groundwork for a “deduction,” or justification, of “the thing in itself” that Kant “didn’t provide, but “should have.”[20]

Kant’s “thing-in-itself,” generously interpreted, can clarify Thoreau’s wedding of objective research to immersion in alluring presences. The thing-in-itself, as Cavell-Thoreau would have it, is that elusive presence that holds in thrall the multiple perspectives we have on things. We know that the apple-in-itself is more than its color, taste, weight, and the side we can’t see. It is something deeper than all apple-attributes. It lies beneath them or within them as that “inexpressible something” that insures that a multitude of differing perspectives will be perspectives on something, on the same thing.

Thoreau’s objective descriptions of an “ice apple,” one that survives fall frosts and thaws in January, is supplemented by Thoreau’s poetic evocation of its exquisite fermented taste.[21] The “apple-in-itself” bundles multiple aspects underwriting that they are aspects of one thing,. This is the “thing-in-itself. The “deduction” of the thing-in-itself is a showing that no one aspect of the apple is the “apple-in-itself” yet all aspects need to be aspects of something unsayable that is deeper or other than any one of its aspects or features, or any collection of them.


Here’s another surprise from Cavell:

our images . . . of dawn and day and night, of lower and higher, . . .  of freezing and melting and moulting, of birds and squirrels and snakes and frogs, of houses and bodies of water and words, . . . are as a priori as our other forms of knowledge of the world.[22]

Images of birds and moulting, of water and dawn, give us the vital presence of things in the world. To say that they’re a priori is to say that they’re available as images of presences before the poet works them up in an expressed revelation of reality.

Only because prior images gather to prepare our reception of Thoreau’s poetic witness are we convinced — if we are — of the sublimity, of the revelation, delivered in the image of distant hills reflected on the surface of the pond. The hills shimmering on water make it seem, as Thoreau puts it, “that the heavens and the earth had met.”[23] Then there’s a culminating reverie from Walden.

Thoreau kneels by the edge of the pond, almost in prayer. He finds his own face reflected up from still waters, and finds next to his face the pond’s Maker’s, also reflected. It’s as if Thoreau, the Pond, and its Maker were in communion, in intimate dialogue:

Why, here is Walden, the same woodland lake that I discovered so many years ago; it is the same liquid joy and happiness to itself and its Maker, ay, and it may be to me. It is the work of a brave man surely, . . .  He rounded this water with his hand, deepened and clarified it in his thought, and in his will bequeathed it to Concord. I see by its face that it is visited by the same reflection; and I can almost say, Walden, is it you? [24]

We’re given a pond that draws joy into itself, a pond that enjoys a “liquid joy” that is also her Maker’s joy and Thoreau’s joy.

God, a joyful Maker, can “excite in us a pure morning joy.”[25] We become who we are through everyday smiles of joyful affirmation between friends, between mother and child, between pilgrim, creator, and pond.

She rounded this water with her hand, deepened and clarified it in her thought, and in her will bequeathed it to Concord.[26]

This moment – wondrous and holy – passes by all bare-bones scientific observation. Thoreau is immersed in the pond’s reflections and its watery mirror. He calls on the resources of poetic imagination, more or less a priori.

our images of dawn and day and night, of lower and higher, of freezing and melting and moulting, are as a priori [ that is, as dependent on a priori rules and images] as our other forms of knowledge of the world.[27]

The reflected allure of distant hills, or of a face on the waters, bursts in on us, self-evident in its glory, just awaiting its recollection, right now. It’s not a registration of factual data. It’s as if we were discovering something that had been sleeping deep in the soul, and is now suddenly brought to full life. The wonderful constellation of watery reflections of my face, the face of a Maker, hills beyond, and perhaps fish below, seems to speak from eternity, and to carry the eternity of a just-now-perceived timeless poetic necessity and impact.

Thoreau sees a “Maker” at the pond and discovers gods in the fields and forests. He steals from the Bhagavad-Gita, calling these gods “Intelligences,” packets of illumination throwing light on the world.[28]  He hears them singing, laughing, and spinning wool – a joyful family.[29] He sees workers trudging home on the road as if gods in disguise.[30] He hears his body as a musical instrument on which god plays melodies.[31] He preaches what he calls a Newer Testament, the gospel of the present moment.[32] He finds God in the moment, speaking through all things, one by one and collectively.[33]


If Thoreau has a creed it is this: to acknowledge “the actual glory of the universe; the only fact which a human being cannot avoid recognizing, or in some way forget or dispense with.”[34] An experience of full life is ultimately a full experience of the divine, of creation. This is not brand name religion. It’s not found in cathedrals or synagogues, in mosques, temples or shrines. He’s one of a kind — as it should be.

Here is Thoreau in a familiar mood:

There is nothing so poetic, as a walk in the woods and fields.  I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related.  It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging though invisible companion, and walked with him.  There at last my nerves are steadied, my senses and my mind do their office. . . I love and celebrate nature.[35]

We needn’t say that all environmental philosophy should be so poetic or allusive as this; only that the draw of the fanciful, the pull of the sublime, the allure of creation, should have a place at the table – perhaps not a privileged place, but a place nonetheless.

My own sometimes technical and sometimes exploring philosophy – whether presenting Kierkegaard on the tang of life, or Nietzsche’s dancing Gods, or Thoreau’s dreaming frogs — would be impossible without letting a muse sing.[36]

Homer beseeches, “Sing in me muse, of that man of twists and turns.”[37] We might remember, as we write of environment, nature, or creation, to ask, even in a whisper, for assistance: “Sing in me muse, of this world of many textures, presences, alluring wonders, even holiness. Sing in me muse of nature and creation.”



[1] Clancy Martin and John Kaag, NY Times, “The Stone,” July 11, 2017.

[2] Laura Dassow Wells, Henry David Thoreau, A Life (Chicago) 2017; Robert M. Thorson, The Boatman: Thoreau’s River Years (Harvard) 2017; Richard Higgins and Robert D. Richardson, Thoreau and the Language of Trees (California) 2017, rev. TLS July 4, 2017.

[3] Melville, Moby-Dick, Ch. 87, “The Grand Armada.”

[4] Henry Bugbee, The Inward Morning: Philosophical Explorations in Journal Form, Georgia, 1999.

[5] See David O’Hara, Downstream, Cascade Books, 2014.

[6] Paradoxically, even a pessimist like Schopenhauer edifies his melancholy.

[7] Cf. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Harper, 2007; Bruce Wilshire, Wild Hunger, Roman & Littlefield, 1999.

[8] The Senses of Walden, Viking, 1972.

[9] Quoted in Furtak, et. al., Thoreau’s Importance for Philosophy, Fordham, 2012, 235.

[10] Walden, “Higher Laws.”

[11] Walden, “Visitors.”

[12] See “Sympathy with Intelligence,” Concord Saunterer, 2017.

[13]  A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. ed. Carl F. Hove, William L. Howarth, and Elizabeth Hall Witherell (Princeton) 1980, 382.

[14] Week, 382

[15] Senses, 102.

[16] Week, 9

[17] Cape Cod, sect. on Provincetown.

[18] Walden, 3 para. from end of Ch. 2.

[19] Senses, 104

[20] Ibid.

[21] See “Wild Apples,” 465, the “frozen-thawed” apple.

[22] Senses, 101.

[23] Walden, “Former Inhabitants.”

[24] Walden, “The Ponds,” 10 para. fm.end.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Senses, 101

[28] See ”Sympathy with Intelligence.”

[29] Ibid.

[30] J, August 15, 1845-6.

[31] J. Oct. 26, 1851,  81.

[32] “Walking,” 4 end.

[33] Walden, “Where I Lived.”

[34] Concord River, “Monday,” 10 para. fm. end.

[35] J., Jan 7, 1857

[36] Mooney, “The Very Tang of Life: Lyrical Jesting in Kierkegaard’s Postscript Title,” Kierkegaard as an Author, ed. Westfall and Tietjan, 2018; “Nietzsche and the Dance,” Philosophy Today, 1970; “dreaming frogs” J. June 13, 1851, 253, discussed in Excursions with Thoreau..

[37] Odyssey, Fagles trans.

2 comments on “Nature Walks

  1. dmf says:

    Al Lingis’ travel monographs and lectures give this a kind of contemporary twist:

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