The Peace of Wild Things

Tidewater swamp at St. Mary's College of MD

Tidewater swamp at St. Mary’s College of MD

Spiritual Sunday

I focus on humans’ relationship to nature in my Introduction to Literature course, and this past semester many students wrestled with the spiritual malaise that arises when we become separated from nature. Conversely, many chose to write about the spiritual nourishment that a close relationship with nature provides. In today’s post I provide a quick overview of the course to show how it gave rise to such rich discussions.

I began the course with Wendell Berry, for whom our contentious relationship with nature is a major theme. Several of the students wrote about “The Peace of Wild Things”:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

The students agreed that Euripides’ The Bacchae was an important work to read, even though it depressed them mightily. In humans’ attempts to control nature they recognized the sickness, described by the seer Teiresias, that possesses King Pentheus in his battle with Dionysus:

For you are sick,
possessed by madness so perverse, no drug can cure,
no madness can undo

And further on, this time from the chorus of Bacchae:

What fury, what venomous fury
rages in Pentheus,
the earthborn and earthbound,
spawned by the sperm of the snake!
No man,
but a monster caged up in a man,
leaping through eyes of blood
to strike at the kill,
a vicious dwarf with giant dreams
pitting his strength against the Gods.

Less melodramatic but making a similar point is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Nature has identified a disturbing arrogance in the court of Camelot, which advocates a world-denying version of Christianity. The Green Knight’s elaborate set of trials for Gawain are designed to demonstrate that he cares more for this world and for his life than he admits—and that this care is a positive thing, not an infirmity.

Shakespeare revels in young love in Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the natural flow of feelings threatens a power-obsessed older generation, which invokes “the ancient Athenian law” to prevent it. Because Shakespeare’s play is a comedy rather than a Euripidean tragedy, it ends with nature and society reconciling, but not before the mischievous nature sprite Puck has humbled the humans.

Spiritual malaise becomes an explicit theme in the Romantics. “The world is too much with us,” Wordsworth laments and talks about what we have sacrificed in order to achieve material possessions. “We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon,” he writes.

I received a fascinating essay on Wordsworth from an inner city student who talked of the powerful experience he had when he participated in a special program where students from his high school were taken to the country. He saw his experience mirrored in Wordsworth’s lyrics. For him, the world that was too much with him involved a great deal of fighting, often over things as trivial as tennis shoes. (“Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”) At times he too felt that he wandered lonely as a cloud.

After having been to the country, however, he said he brought back with him, and was sustained by, the kinds of memories that Wordsworth describes:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

I received two or three essays on the existential agonies of Coleridge’s ancient mariner after killing the albatross, a gratuitous act that (so one student argued) he perpetrates simply because he can. Cutting oneself off from nature leads us to see ourselves as “alone, alone, all, all alone, alone on a wide, wide sea.” The mariner’s healing revelation is to discover that all creatures, even the “slimy, slimy things,” are precious:

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

I’ve written many times about the spiritual vision of Mary Oliver’s nature poetry, even though she seldom talks overtly about religion. I suspect that Oliver wrestles with depression, which is one reason why her nature-based epiphanies are so powerful. In “Egrets,” for instance, she first describes going the woods right before dawn, the darkest hour:

Finally
I could not
save my arms
from thorns; soon
the mosquitoes
smelled me, hot
and wounded, and came
wheeling and whining.

All changes, however, when, as dawn breaks, she witnesses three white egrets:

–a shower
of white fire!
Even half-asleep they had
such faith in the world
that had made them—
tilting through the water,
unruffled, sure,
by the laws
of their faith not logic,
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.

Including Lucille Clifton’s poetry in a nature-themed course had the beneficial effect of drawing women’s biology into our discussions of nature (hips, menstruation, menopause). Clifton also writes traditional nature poetry, however, such as “killing the trees in southern maryland.” I don’t have access to a copy of it at the moment but it describes a neighbor in her subdivision bulldozing some trees to take care of a “leaf problem.” One tree going over she compares to an Indian chief frozen on the Trail of Tears. (You can see her reading the poem here.)

The three novels I taught in the course all deal, in one way or another, with human alienation from nature. Courtney talked about the powerful sense of peace that she got from reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior:

When I get overwhelmed by such feelings I find my peace and purpose out in the woods, in the silence of the wind, in the small bird’s song blending with the rattling of the leaves dancing with the breeze. Kingsolver portrays, through this work, how a strengthened relationship with the world of nature can influence such lost souls and change their lives for the better. Nature is the one thing that can bring peace to those who feel lost and trapped in a world that they sense they do not belong in. Once individuals realize that they are a part of something so boundless and magnificent, they begin to see the purpose behind their struggles and find the will to carry on and overcome even the most challenging of obstacles.

As I posted recently, Leslie Marmon Silko has a particularly powerful account of our alienation in her novel Ceremony:

Then they grow away from the earth
then they grow away from the sun
then they grow away from the plants and animals.
They see no life
When they look
they see only objects.
The world is a dead thing for them
the trees and rivers are not alive
the mountains and stones are not alive.
The deer and the bear are objects
They see no life.
They fear
They fear the world.
They destroy what they fear.
They fear themselves.

I ended the course with Cormac McCarthney’s All the Pretty Horses, whose protagonists venture into the wilderness to reconnect with nature. Many of my students found themselves stirred by John Grady, about whom McCarthy writes,

What he loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them. All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardent hearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise.

How my students responded to these works reaffirmed for me their hunger for spiritual connection. Many of them come to St. Mary’s College because we have an exceptionally beautiful river-front campus. The literature gave them a framework and a language for what they are seeking.

This entry was posted in Berry (Wendell), Clifton (Lucille), Coleridge (Samuel Taylor), Euripides, Kingsolver (Barbara), McCarthy (Cormac), Oliver (Mary), Shakespeare (William), Silko (Leslie Marmon), Sir Gawain Poet, Wordsworth (William) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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