Romanticism and the Return to Terra Mater

20 Mar

So I’m taking this world literature class, and last week, we covered the major Romantics – Wordsworth, Byron, et. al.  I had previously sort of snubbed these guys, having an innate aversion to their high-flown styles.  But lately I’ve come to really love a few of ’em (Shelley and Coleridge, foremost), for their personalities as well as their art.  Percy Shelley, for example was an atheist and a vegetarian, at a time where such terms were almost unheard of.  Takes some guts. The Romantics were proto-environmentalists who practically worshiped nature in their poetry, and after reading some of their exaltations of Mama Earth, I got to thinking of some of the beautiful places I’ve been lucky enough to experience in my travels.  It’s really an amazing continent we have here in North America, epic in its breadth and diversity.  And there’s this general agreement in today’s fast-paced culture that life should have more reconnection with nature, less modern distraction.  You know, the well-worn lamentations of the “rat-race”, and the yearning for a “simpler time.”  Although, as someone who once abandoned all (well, most) of the trappings of civilization in search of that “simpler” way of life, I do have a sort of ambivalence about this romanticization of the natural world.  I’ve spent several years in various modes of travel, lived in environments both strange and beautiful, and have felt moments of true connection with the wider natural world.  But I never felt that “nature” needed my devotion or attention or praise.  Nature simply is – timelessly and indifferently.

Now, I’d say most people in the modern world would definitely benefit from more immersion into what we call nature.  And that the typical first-world consumer-citizen should have more awareness of how civilization affects the planet, and act accordingly (admittedly these days, that awareness has become more common). But I also think that it does little good to idealize nature, put it on a pedestal and perpetuate the myth that it is something “other” to ourselves.  You’re already in nature.  You already are nature.

The Romantics wrote poetry that was utterly enraptured with Nature, capital N. Part of their infatuation came in reaction to the industrialization, intellectualism and political turmoil of their era (we’re talking mid-18th to mid-19th century Europe here). During the Industrial Revolution, London was such a literal cesspool of pollution and disease that it’s no surprise that poets would look to “greener” pastures for inspiration. There was also a decidedly mystical bent. Often, their approach smacked heavily of puritanism and zealous idealism, and they were in truth generally religious, and to some degree anti-intellectual.  They saw the developments of the Enlightenment and scientific revolution as something that needed to be countered.  They found the French philosophes too coldly rational, and resented that the emergence of science was taking all of the divine mystery out of the universe.  Consider the most famous line of Keats’ – “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” [emphasis mine]

It’s interesting to look at history and see how sentiments like this respond to technology, such as in the case of the Romantics. Me, I’m happy these days to star-gaze in a field or spend the day tromping around a gorge, but in the past I was much more the environmentalist, and that came from frustrations with car-culture, trash-culture, television-culture, and the general industrial pillaging enabled by our lifestyles. It was reactive personal politics, the all-or-nothing principles of youth. A noble thing, even a necessary thing, yet the more I experienced, the more I grasped the world’s complexity. As I traveled about, spending long, uninterrupted periods in feral simplicity, letting my wordless surroundings monopolize the conversation – I realized that I had idealized much, and listened very little.

It’s the process not of outgrowing perspectives, but of simultaneously widening and refining them.

My point is that nature is not an idol, or a playground, or a factory floor or a toilet bowl.  Don’t misunderstand me; it’s great when people appreciate the environment and want to advocate for it, or write stirring verses about it (hell, I’ve certainly tried).  And it’s understandable when we dream of going off, Thoreau-like into the wilderness (not that Walden was actually very wild of a place), to get “back to the land”, away from the tedious “hustle and bustle” of modernity.  But as much as we in the civilized sphere romanticize a return to Terra Mater, I can tell you that the novelty fades when you’re trying to chop up logs with frozen finger-tips after the sun has set and subzero temps are on their way.  Just some devil’s advocation for ya’ll.  The Romantics made Nature into a temple, but they also respected its chaos, its dramatic and temperamental sovereignty. Love nature, protect it, understand it, but be careful not to sentimentalize it. Nature is a magnificent and indifferent nebula – a dynamic game of life, death and all the change in between.

That said, I’m still looking forward to getting “back to the land” myself, buying some property and regaining some self-sufficiency and peace.  It’s still my goal, and I still consider it a good one.  And of course, civilized people should consistently respect and defend the environment, and strive to live smaller lives, being aware of the immediate and philosophical impacts of our civilization.  This is old-hat of course, not just for environmentalists but for society as a whole.  But more than this, I think it’s important to learn how to exist, as animals (however sentient), on this planet.  To be part of the environment, and not just a tourist or conqueror or even advocate of it.  If I ever have kids, I’d hope for them to gain not only an understanding of the world around them, but also the ability to actually survive in it in the most basic sense; to appreciate and protect it because it is their home, which they know and love.

I think we’re moving in a good direction.  Nowadays we have these “green” movements and homesteading families, local-vores and eco-yuppies and a growing social conscience of eco-politics, covering everything from corn to carbon.  It’s an interesting time, and it’s nice to see society take this deeper look at itself and its place in the world.  The basic force of civilization has always been control, and of course you can’t control something while being a part of it.  That’s why we’ve built these very elaborate (often illusory) barriers between the “civilized” and “natural” worlds – high walls of technology around our shining city, to keep out the dangers and discomforts of the deep, dark wood.  But increasingly these days, people are questioning the wisdom of those walls, climbing over to really see what’s on the other side, and I am glad for that.

Today’s the spring equinox!  Enjoy the extra-symmetrical day!




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