Monday, September 05, 2011

Natural religion

It was his shattering experiences in the First World War that led Henry Beston to seek the solitary repose of a tiny cabin on the outermost beach of Cape Cod. His off-and-on two-year residence there is recorded in the book The Outermost House, published in 1927, a classic of nature writing that influenced many of us who have plied that genre. A photo of Beston from about that time shows a fellow who looks rather more like a Hollywood matinee idol than the scruffier hermit of Walden Pond, but the two men had much in common. "On its solitary dune my house faced the four walls of the world," wrote Beston, and we hear echoes of Thoreau.

What were the two men thinking? Beston wrote to a friend:
The principle thing I stand for is, I suppose, not a "return to nature," which is a phrase capable of a quite childish interpretation, but the return to a poetic relation to nature. Man is out of relation to his background…When man is in a poetic relation to his background, he achieves a religious sense of life, and this is the sense that makes him Man.
My children sometimes chide me for my use of the word "religious" in these posts and in my books. They fear, I suppose, that I'm lapsing into a kind of magical thinking that characterizes most people who call themselves religious. But I use the term as Beston uses it, as a way of describing a poetic relationship to the world. And what do I mean by "poetic"? First, awareness. Trying to live as best I can aware of the world around me, a world that is as thick with mystery wherever I am as on the shore of Walden Pond or Nauset Beach. And with awareness, to cultivate a sense of wonder, reverence, and gratitude, qualities that can unabashedly be called "religious."

Our lives are lived so much in artificial environments that they end up being what Beston called "only a ghost of the human adventure." He continues: "It has always seemed to me that a normal range of physical sensation, a sense, for instance, of the fabric of earth underfoot and the sudden cold of a change of the wind, is not only a part of the discipline of life but also its reward."

I don't need magic. Or immortality. The only rapture I'm waiting for is the feel of earth underfoot and the caress of the wind.