Nature in Early and Latter American Literature
Both the earliest writings of Iroquois League and Jonathan Edwards and the latter works of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman contain rich expressions on nature. However, it is the different ways in which nature is presented during the puritan period (16th to 17th) century and during the latter period that sets the works apart. The purists viewed nature as a physical manifestation of God. To them, nature provided the lens through which man could see or sense and understand God. The sheer beauty of nature is in their views illustrative of a Divine Being. Man was part of nature and thus could not have dominion over it. On the other hand, the transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau & Whitman) held the premise that man must understand nature in order to increase his aesthetic, moral and intellectual knowledge. Additionally, a return to nature was the only sure way for man to invigorate his spirit and to rejuvenate his soul. Thus, it was important for man to alienate himself from society and rendezvous with nature. Nonetheless, they still held the belief on the interconnectedness between man’s spirituality and nature.
Edward’s writing during the Stockbridge era reveal much of his thoughts about nature and God. Edward’s references on nature are more of an ontological sense and prescribe certain ethics. Edward believed that nature was a physical manifestation of divinity. His belief in nature’s beauty as a physical manifestation of God is evident in a number of his works. In “Two Treatises” Edward asserts that God is “distinguished from all other beings and exalted above them chiefly by his divine beauty.” (McClymond and McDermott, 2012, p. 69). This beauty can be observed in the world around us. Not only does Edward use references to nature due to its aesthetic appeal but also as a way of describing man’s internal thoughts and inclinations. The beauty in “nature” is also seen as having good moral values. As Edward asserts, “[God] deals with man according to his nature of as a rational creature” (McMichael & Leonards, 2011, p. 36).
Edward asserts that man is rational in nature, able to make decisions and comprehend things (Lee, 2000). For this reason, God is able to deal with men. For instance, man must worship God for man is the only of the earthly creatures that is able to understand God. Man cannot hold dominion over the supernatural world. And in this light, man can also not be able to fully dominate nature, but only to some level. Man’s nature to be a rational creature gives a different meaning of “nature.” In this case, “nature” refers to a state of being, as opposed to the physical world. In the book “The Nature of True Virtue”, Edward writes that true affections of men towards fellow men only arise from “that habit or frame of mind, wherein consists a disposition to love being in general.” (Edwards and Frankena, 1960, p. 63). Thus, it is the nature or state of being for men to develop positivity towards others.
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Being a puritan himself, Edward sometimes used nature to instill fear among the congregation. This was meant to win more believers into his ideals about the world and morality, and save them from sin and eternal damnation. For instance, he asserts that “The God that holds you over the spit of hell, much as one holds a spider …. Over the fire; His wrath towards you burns like fire …” This is meant to instill fear upon people by using graphic imagery. Edward envisioned a moral world, a world free of sins as exemplified in the book “The Nature of True Virtue”. In the Stockbridge sermons, Edward wrote about God’s greatness and His unending love for mankind. He says “God’s goodness is like a river that overflows all of its bounds.” (Edwards and Frankena, 1960, p. 113). Such references reveal his beliefs on natural objects as a physical manifestation of a Divine Being. Edward’s metaphors were more than mere symbolism, but represented a standard of ethics as well as ontology. However, Edwards does not see nature as a source of right or morality. To him, nature was more of a manifestation of God’s greatness. Nature was beauty, and man was part of that beauty.
In the writings of the Iroquois, physical objects are used as metaphors for ideals or as symbols for greater truths. In most of the works of the Iroquois League, nature or references to nature were a way of showing the interconnectedness between man and the physical world. Common images used include animals, thistles, trees, stars, fire and others that all show that man is in one way or another connected to nature or to the physical world. In the “Great Binding Law”, a number of metaphors are used as symbols for strength, unity and peace. For instance the phrase “I plant the Tree of the Great Peace … Under the Shade of this Tree of the Great Peace … There shall you sit and watch the Council Fire of the Confederacy of the Five Nations” (McMichael & Leonard, 2011, p. 29). The tree is used metaphorically as a symbol of the covenant that was to be established among five nations. Trees symbolized strength and hence the covenant about to be made. In addition, they also represent durability, just as the covenant which was expected to last long.
Other metaphors used in writings such as “Roots spread out from the Tree of the Great Peace, one to the north, one to the east, one to the south, and one to the west. The name of these roots is The Great White Roots and their nature is Peace and Strength” (McMichael & Leonard, 2011, P. 29) are used as symbols of unity and strength. The roots signify that The Great Covenant would be firmly entrenched in people’s hearts. The anecdote continues explaining about an Eagle placed on top of the tree. In the Iroquois’ literature, eagles symbolized the spirits and in other circumstances acted as a symbol of courage and wisdom. In our case, the Eagle atop a tree signified protector who was watching over everything happening below. The Eagle would give warning on the sight of any danger lurking nearby. This meant that the Council would be keen to safeguard all the Five Nations that were bound by the Covenant.
The transcendentalists view on nature was rather different from that of purists. Transcendentalists (especially Thoreau and Emerson) believed that a return to nature was the only sure way man could achieve a spiritual rebirth. In his writings, Emerson asserts that: “In the instant you leave far behind all human relations, wife, mother and child, and live only with the savages – water, air, light, carbon, lime, and granite…..and I have died out of the human world and come to feel a strange, cold, aqueous, terraqueous, aerial, ethereal sympathy and existence.” (Ellen, Brulatour and Riley, 1990). In this case, Emerson believes that leaving the human society and turning to nature can be a suitable way to achieve a spiritual or an emotional rebirth.
According to Emerson, nature is good and thus can be a source of spiritual rebirth. Thoreau also held the premise that a rendezvous with nature was the only way from men to become liberated from societal constraints; a way for them to achieve their full potentials. As Thoreau notes in “Walking”, “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again … then you are ready for a walk.” He further continues: “So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever …” (Moore, Brulatour and Riley, 1990, p. 3). In this case, a man who leaves the earthly possessions and meets his death in nature is reborn.
Further, Thoreau believed that the modern society was more like a confinement to man. Had man been free from the confinements of the modern society, he would have lived a better life. For instance in “Walden”, Thoreau notes that: “Better if they [laborers] had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in” (McMichael & Leonard, 2011, p.802). Thus, according to Thoreau, the laborers were living a miserable life. Whitman was more concerned about the natural realities common in the world. Whitman’s love of nature is evident in most of his writings. It is clear that he also loved being part of nature. Whitman believed that people who were emotionally stressed could achieve happiness by reconciling with nature. For instance, taking a walk was a good way of reducing emotional stress. Whitman emphasizes on the importance of accepting the natural order of things or nature as it is. Just like nature takes everything, man should also accept everything in a liberal manner. For example, laws, natural order of things, and among others. In the poem “Leaves of Grass”, he notes that: “I exist as I am – that is enough, if no other in the world be aware, I sit content …” (Reynolds, 1995, p. 54).
The earlier works of puritan era had a profound and pervasive impact on the latter works seen during transcendentalism. Transcendentalists notably Emerson, Whitman and Thoreau seem to echo purists view on nature. According to Emerson, nature is full of beauty, just as expounded in the works of Edwards and the Iroquois. In chapter three of his book “Nature”, Emerson asserts that: “The ancient Greeks called the world xoquos, beauty.” He goes further to state: “that the primary forms, as the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us a delight in and for themselves; a pleasure arising from outline, color, motion, and grouping.” (Emerson, 1849, p. 13) Thus, Emerson sees nature as inherently beautiful. Emerson also held the premise that nature was a manifestation of a Divine Being. According to him, the stars remind generations of man about “the city of God” (Emerson, 1849, p. 5). This echoes purists’ writings on nature that assert nature’s beauty as a manifestation of a divine being.
Thoreau held the view that nature is the ultimate place where man can achieve his full potential. The modern society according to him confined man and hindered him from achieving his full potentials. Thoreau thus sees nature as good similar with the early puritan views. In “Walking”, Thoreau notes that: “I feel that with regard to nature I live sort of a border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional forays …” (Smith, 2010, p. 5). Whitman’s writings are also influenced by the earlier works. In the collection of poems “Leaves of Grass”, Whitman exalts nature and examines man’s role in nature. Whitman in particular believed that an actual return to nature would help men rediscover themselves. Whitman believed that the natural world had great power over men as illustrated in one of his great poems:
“O powerful, western, fallen star!
O shades of night! O moody, tearful night! … “
O cruel hands that hold me powerless!
O helpless soul of me!” (Reynolds, 1995).
Both the earliest writings of the puritan era and the later works during the transcendentalism contain rich expressions on nature. The puritans viewed nature as a physical manifestation of God. Their works contain rich imagery on nature. Although they associated nature with God’s work, the puritans did not believe in deriving power or spiritual rebirth from nature which was common with the transcendentalists. The transcendentalists held the premise that a return to nature would rejuvenate their soul and help them achieve a spiritual rebirth. Nonetheless, both the puritans and transcendentalists believed that man was inherently interconnected with nature, and nature was God’s creation.
Edwards, J., & Frankena, W. K. (1960). The nature of true virtue. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.
Emerson, R. W. (1849). Nature. New York, NY: J. Munroe Publishing. Retrieved from https://books.google.co.ke/books?id=G00hAAAAMAAJ&printsec
Lee, S. H. (2000). The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
McClymond, M. J., & McDermott, G. R. (2012). The theology of Jonathan Edwards. New York: Oxford University Press.
Moore, E., Brulatour, M. & Riley, S. (1990). Transcendentalists perspective on nature. Retrieved from http://transcendentalism-legacy.tamu.edu/ideas/nature.html
Reynolds, D. S. (1995). Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Smith, N. (2010). The role of nature in transcendental poetry: Emerson, Thoreau & Whitman. Retrieved from http://www.articlemyriad.com/nature_emerson_whitman_thoreau.htm