We need Thoreau’s ‘tonic of wildness’ to confront climate change. As he explained, ‘We need to witness our own limits transgressed.’
A satellite image shows Hurricane Irma as it approached Cuba and Florida on September 8. (NOAA via AP)
‘Our village life would stagnate,” our Unitarian Universalist spiritual ancestor Henry David Thoreau writes in Walden, “if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness. . . . We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks. . . . We need to witness our own limits transgressed.”
I would argue that in recent weeks this need has been amply met. I would call the fourth-largest city in the United States being underwater a transgression of human limits. I would call the evacuation of approximately 6 million people from Florida a transgression, as Irma, the most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane in recorded history, broke upon the American coastline. And the devastation Maria brought to Puerto Rico, which may leave 3.4 million people without power for months, is nothing if not a transgression of human limits.
Our own human limits are like a red stop sign standing atop a slender metal pole: the gale force winds just shred it apart.
This is what we are witnessing.
Thoreau, our spiritual ancestor, is trying to tell us something. We stagnate as human beings when we get overly sentimental or saccharine about nature. Nature is not just walks in the woods and garden flowers. Nature is also hurricanes and earthquakes and wildfires.
When we respect this fact, to the point where we feel fear mixed with awe, it is like a “tonic” to us, meaning that it comes as healing medicine. And thereby, says Thoreau, we are “refreshed,” or brought back to a state that is truer to our humanity. We become more fully human to the degree we respect wildness and recognize it as a vital dimension of our earth home.
It’s the same sort of respect you sense in the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, the way he filmed scenes of nature in The Revenant. The landscape is the real star of the show, and humans are but small parts of the larger natural vastness: icy mountains, moody stormscapes, rushing rivers, snowy trees, piercing sunsets. Not people first, but the earth first, and people a small part of the larger whole.
Respect. You hear it in the words of the former president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, in his 1995 Harvard commencement address: “We must divest ourselves of our egotistical anthropocentrism, our habit of seeing ourselves as masters of the universe who can do whatever occurs to us. We must discover a new respect for what transcends us: for the universe, for the earth, for nature, for life, and for reality. Our respect for other people, for other nations and for other cultures, can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order and from an awareness that we are part of it, that we share in it.”
Respect heals us. Respect returns us to our full humanity and truly makes of nature a home for us.
“I do not know if the air remembers September or if the night remembers the moon,” writes the Rev. Burton Carley in his wonderful “September Meditation.” Perhaps we should add, “I do not know if the earth remembers shaking the seams of Mexico apart or if the clouds remember how the land below heaved and roared.”
Then there is Carl Sandburg’s beautiful poem “Wilderness,” where he says, “There is a wolf in me . . . fangs pointed for tearing gashes.” “There is a fox in me,” “there is a hog in me,” “there is a fish in me,” and on and on. Maybe we should add, “There is a hurricane in me, there is a wildfire in me, there is an earthquake in me.”
Respect is about telling the whole story, and facing it fully.
Respect is simply being clear. Climate change intensifies nature’s pre-existing wildness. Climate change is a force multiplier. There have always been storms and winds and surges. But climate change makes them increasingly bigger and damaging and expensive. As carbon dioxide from human activity continues warming up the planet, storms will deliver more rain, higher winds, and greater storm surges.
Respect this, and it means that we begin to take nature seriously. Nature truly is not just walks in the woods and garden flowers. It is wildness, and if we keep provoking it, worse things are around the corner.
Yes, evolution has put tendencies in our minds that make it hard to grasp the danger. There is the “frog-in-the-kettle” tendency, where we ignore gradual changes even as we’re slowly being taken to an endpoint which is our doom. There is also our tendency to value the concrete over the abstract. Research shows that the weather outside a person’s front door can play a huge role in whether they believe in climate change—even though the one is a very poor indicator of the other.
These tendencies are part of our evolutionary heritage, yes. But we must draw on another part of our evolution—our ability to understand, to adapt, to plan—and face the true peril.
Perhaps fear mixed with awe can do that. Perhaps this is a time to linger on pictures and videos of the aftermath of Harvey and Irma and Maria—a form of Thoreau’s tonic that tastes terrible all the way down but in the end saves us. Scares us straight. Scares us into our humanity, because we are most definitely not masters of the universe who can do whatever we want.
I completely agree with New York Times columnist David Leonhardt, who called recently for a Manhattan Project for alternative energy or a national effort to reduce carbon emissions. Despite the terrifying potential damages that climate change will encourage, we aren’t stirred to action.
We must do better. Which means, at the very least, resisting those who would sidetrack us.
One way of getting sidetracked is to interpret nature’s wildness as a mere human, partisan ploy. Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh said that the real problem is not so much climate change as it is the illusion of danger created by the “liberal media.” On news stations, he said, “the graphics have been created to make it look like the ocean’s having an exorcism, just getting rid of the devil here in the form of this hurricane, this bright red stuff.” But why would they do this? To scare people into believing in climate change and to line the pockets of businesses that sell emergency-related goods like batteries. Nonetheless, Limbaugh fled Florida like most everyone else.
I would like to believe that no Houstonian or Floridian in their right mind could ever again believe what Rush Limbaugh said, but I worry about folks far from the coasts, whose weather right outside their doors is just fine. Let them see the pictures and the videos. Let them take in some of Thoreau’s tonic, to regain respect for nature’s wildness that is absolutely no ploy.
Nor is nature just a cover for the Apocalypse. This is another way that a lot of people today are getting sidetracked. Did you happen to see the briefly viral post that spread across Facebook and Twitter after Harvey flooded Houston? “The solar eclipse was on the 21st and Harvey showed up the 25th and started flooding on the 26th. Now look up Luke 21:25–26: ‘And there will be strange signs in the sun, moon, and stars. And here on earth the nations will be in turmoil, perplexed by the roaring seas and strange tides. People will be terrified at what they see coming upon the earth, for the powers in the heavens will be shaken.’”
This unattributed biblical commentary concludes with a short statement essentially suggesting that the Apocalypse as foretold in the Christian scriptures is unfolding around us. It’s not so much storms and wind and surges intensified by climate change as it is God working through storms and wind and surges to call unbelievers to repentance and, ultimately, to end the world.
Now, there’s a sense these days in which a person could be forgiven for interpreting things apocalyptically. The pileup of disasters, one after the other, has been relentless. Not just natural disasters, but the conflicts in Charlottesville and North Korea, which are truly horrifying. And yes, there was that total eclipse of the sun. Did you see it? Did this scene of true natural wildness make shivers run up and down your spine, as they did mine?
Some people do connect the dots here in such a way that the story becomes a supernatural drama beyond human control or influence. And that’s a real problem. Evolution already makes it difficult for humans to wrap our minds around climate change, but now we have God adding to the difficulty?
I’m not an atheist with regard to all conceptions of God, but I am definitely a proud atheist with regard to this one. Atheism in this context is liberating. Atheism in this context is empowering. I’m not going to let God interfere with what I can do—which is to get my act together around recycling, which is to eat less meat, which is to do my part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Maybe God, if there is a God, is like the wildness of nature, which is neither affected nor offended by human attitudes. God will be what God will be, like the stars, like the sun.
When Thoreau published Walden, he told the world what it meant for him to conduct his experiment in sustainable living. “I went to the woods,” he said, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear.”
I hear him saying: I went to Houston, after Hurricane Harvey, because I wished to live deliberately. I went to the Oregon wildfires, to front only the essential facts of life. I went to Mexico, to see if I could learn what the earthquake had to teach. I went to Florida, to make sure I was not living what was not life, living is so dear.
Because this is how we learn what it means to be human. Not just from walks in the woods and garden flowers.
We need to witness our own limits transgressed. We need to take the medicinal tonic, and be healed of our self-importance. We need to respect the wildness, and go in fear of it, in awe of it, if we are to truly find in it a home.
Adapted from a sermon preached September 10, 2017, to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta.
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The Rev. Anthony Makar is senior minister of the UU Congregation of Atlanta. anthonyuu.wordpress.com
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