Nature and Doing Good

March 8, 2008 | 14 comments
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Among my many other vices, I like to read poetry. Mainly, I just leaf through The Oxford Book of English Verse, but lately I have been on a Wordsworth kick. He is a good early-morning-walk-with-your-dog-along-the-James-River kind of poet, and anyone who loved Milton as much as he did can’t be all bad. I have to confess, sometimes, however, that I find myself a bit skeptical. Consider the following lines from “Tintern Abbey.”* The speaker, after a long absence, has returned a beloved nature spot and now expatiates on what the memories of that spot — and the feelings it provoked — meant while he was elsewhere:

. . . . Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is the landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration: – feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As my have had no trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life;
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.

It is the claim in the last few lines that interests me. Wordsworth seems to suggest that experiencing nature — particularly in rapturous and self-forgetful yet exquisitely self-conscious way that he favors — makes one a more moral person. There is something about the memory of nature that leads our souls to “little, nameless, unremembered acts/ Of kindness and love.” Do we think that this is right? Does tramping through woods, mountains, or deserts really make you a better person? I’ve seen versions of this claim before, but I confess that I tend to associate it with a certain kind of Birkenstock-wearing self-righteousness that I find particularly annoying. On the other hand, I can buy into a theology of nature that sees its beauty as a reflection of the love of God, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that the memory of such love would make one a better person. Hmmmm….

*The full title is “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798.” Writer of snappy titles, Wordsworth was not.

14 Responses to Nature and Doing Good

  1. Barb on March 8, 2008 at 10:43 am

    Hey, I think that reading poety is a virtue. As a former poetry moderator and one who likes to write poetry, I need to say that and believe it! I’m not good at reading flowery verses such as the one you list or Milton as I have trouble holding too much information in my working memory at one time or concentrating. Or maybe my problem lies elsewhere. But I can write up a storm.

    I worry that sitting in front of the computer at work and home and also watching t.v. will dampen my ability to appreciate nature. I heard a talk in General Conference that said that the ability to enjoy nature is part of being spiritual. I’m going by memory, but that struck me so I think I got it right. I took it to mean that I need to get more worhty. I also worry that my ultra introspective and analytical nature will keep me from enjoying nature. I used to not think non stop in the manner that I do now. Sometimes, I just want to be…

    It is a beautiful world at that. I think that I saw a man that found purpose in his life when he saw the ocean or something for the first time. Sorry that I am sketchy on details but I think he was very angry person and seeing nature made him realize that there is more to life. Also, I think my mom said that children interviewed in gangs had no aspirations and even desire to conceptualize going to scenic places or other life goals. That is a vague memory so I hope I got that right too.

    I do like the work of Anzel Adams who is the ultimate catch moments of nature on film photographer.

    Although I don’t get a chance to go many places, last year my parents cajoled me and pushed me in a good natured way to go behind a privacy fence that I was afraid to go due to anxiety. We had so many zinnias elsewhere in the yard that were so stunning. However, the view behind that area of tall Zinnias on somewhat of a multi level was a closer pretty amazing. It gave me something to think about.

    While on the subject of nature, I remember being in my third area and seeing the trees in the hills of Tunkhannock, PA area in Autumn. I could shut my eyes and see them. I felt like I needed to pinch myself as it was so unreal. And I don’t know if it made me a better person. Nature does make me feel that God loves me and others. Also, it gives me something to think about that gives me peace.

    Well, this is long and hopefully makes some sense. I haven’t commented here for ages and hope it is okay.

  2. Kaimi Wenger on March 8, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    *The full title is “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798.” Writer of snappy titles, Wordsworth was not.

    When it comes to titles, I just don’t know if he gets his words’ worth.

  3. Joe Done on March 8, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    The sidebar on my blog quotes last 4 lines of Nate’s quotation: “such, perhaps,/ As my have had no trivial influence/ On that best portion of a good man’s life;/ His little, nameless, unremembered acts/ Of kindness and of love.” I think the essence of a Christ-centered life is ones “little, nameless, unremembered acts/ Of kindness and of love.”

  4. Edje on March 8, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    “Does tramping through woods, mountains, or deserts really make you a better person?” Possibly. A few ways this might happen:

    (1) Wholesome recreational tramping and the memory thereof make me feel better; when I feel better I am more likely to treat others better. Although this feeling does not actually make me better (the truly converted treat others well even when they don’t feel like it) it does make it easier to practice being good–and possibly set up social reinforcements to do so–which might contribute to my becoming better over time.
    (2) Correlating circumstances might make us better. That is, it might not be “nature” at all but the fact that I turned off the radio and thought about the purty mountain instead of myself. In that situation the spirit may transform me more readily.
    (3) “Nature” can inspire awe, which awe _can_ lead to humility, which humility _can_ lead to converting growth. If I can skip persecuted poverty like the Alma 32-ers, I’d much rather go hiking.
    (4) “Nature” can inspire us to reach out to others. Frequently, when we see something beautiful we want to share it. Cultivating that desire appropriately can help us become more as God would have us be.
    (5) Garbage in, garbage out; beauty in, beauty out. We are what we eat. “Nature” can be part of a healthy spiritual diet. Also, the more we fill our lives with God’s beauty, the more likely it is that things that are unbeautiful in ourselves or our communities will grate on us and we will act to change them.
    (6) “Nature” can help us get out of the habit of commodification and into the habit of finding beauty. If we see a gnarled tree while on a hike, most of us don’t think, “that tree is ugly because it can’t be made into lumber.” I imagine that mostly we enjoy looking at the tree for what it is and are happy to include it in the forest–a habit that might serve us well in our human interactions.
    (7) Holy is as holy does, and as it does becomes holier. The vigorous exercise, the fired imagination, the sweet companionship, the grateful prayer that can be united in a nature hike can bring a whole soul into a closer walk with God, which communion is holy in itself and usually makes us better also.

    Obviously, none of these paths lead to results exclusively or necessarily available through Wordsworthian jaunts, but I am comfortable with the statement that “”tramping through woods, etc. _can_ contribute to making us better people.”

  5. Peter LLC on March 8, 2008 at 7:24 pm

    Wenn du vom Kahlenberg
    das Land dir rings besehen
    wirst du was ich schrieb
    und was ich bin verstehen.

  6. mlu on March 8, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    Shades of transcendentalism!

    The romantics (on both sides of the Atlantic) believed nature could improve and instruct us. Emerson in particular argued that nature could substitute for scripture. In the midst of their celebrations, Darwin’s work appeared, making a case that has been more influential than Wordsworth, Coleridge, Emerson and the rest that nature could more properly be understood as material arranging and rearranging itself.

    I side with those who believe nature is a mirror in which we tend to find what we bring with us. I think experiencing nature is of enormous importance in living a good life and at the same time I’m made nervous by such claims because I’ve so often encountered them in arguments that were decidedly headed in bad directions.

    I doubt expansive claims about what nature might accomplish with the human heart. Hedonists tend to love nature’s beauties and to seek them out, and this love coexists quite easily with many lusts, including blood lust. Still, a good person who sees nature as God’s creation can be lifted and instructed by contemplating the sublime and attending to the details.

    A current preoccupation of mine is how children are affected by growing up in urban, artificial environments with little direct experience of nature. My belief is that they are a bit insane, and sometimes more than a bit. This seems mostly because those artificial environments are unintelligent and constructed partly of lies, but I can’t help thinking that regular experiences outside of those artificial environments would help them feel that the world they know is not all the world that is, which would be a move toward sanity.

    I believe regular experiences of tramping through the woods have helped me and my family live better lives, though without regular Sunday school the effect might have been quite different.

  7. Ronan on March 8, 2008 at 8:07 pm

    Chris McCandless.

  8. Ben on March 8, 2008 at 10:33 pm

    Thanks for posting this, Nate. I am an English Romantic at heart, and Wordsworth is among those whom I love the most. My MHA paper will be comparing Joseph Smith’s thoughts to Wordsworth, Keats, Blake, etc.
    An interesting twist on this poem is that less than a decade later, after experiencing the loss of several people he loved and realizing that nature does not recompense everything, he renounces these views in, among other poems, “Resolution and Independence.” He ended up believing that nature didnt have the certainty he was searching for, and he turned to Christianity because he felt in had more hope. He would continue to struggle with this dilemma, and eventually held strong that nature was just a “help-maid” to lead us to be a better person.

  9. comet on March 9, 2008 at 1:43 am

    From an entirely different and unrelated poetic culture. Japanese
    poets and nature in their poetry. BTW God in Genesis used the word “good”
    for the natural world, and apparently the gods (including our God) have a things for
    mountains and groves. Anyway…

    Basho on his own poetic travels

    Stillness–
    penetrating the rock,
    cicada’s cry.

    Saigyo, after discussing the Buddha’ law with a fellow monk-poet.

    Linked worlds,
    linked lives:
    on an upright shaft of bamboo,
    every joint is strong and straight.

    Anonymous death poem:

    Autumn gusts–
    I have no further business
    in this world.

  10. just me on March 9, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    Comment # 2 is a keeper! (Did you just make it up?)

    I’m reminded me of the famous story about Chuang Tzu and the logician. Chuang (who has much in common with a nature poet) and a logician (who also moonlights as a doctor of laws) are walking along the dam of the River Hao. Chuange rapturously says, “Look at the school of tiny fish darting about wherever is their pleasure!”

    “Is it not as likely that these fish are just blandly doing what fish do? You’re only anthropomorphizing; as you are not yourself a fish, how would you know of their pleasures?”

    “By your same argument, you’re not me, so how would you know that I would not know of the pleasures of fish?”

    “True, I’m not you and would not know what you know; but neither are you a fish and so would not know of the pleasures of fish.”

    “Return to your original question: you asked me how would I know of the pleasure of fish; notice that you have admitted of my knowledge by your very question. And how I know of the pleasure of fish is by my standing here by the Hao.

  11. Chad Too on March 9, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    True Haiku simply can’t be separated from nature. It is as intrenched as coffee at Starbucks.

    In one of my favorite cases, Basho used nature (or the retraction thereof) as a chastisement for some of his poetry students. He had noticed that some of his devotees were so obsessed with experiencing nature and turning it into poetry that they were neglecting their wives and children. I often refer to this one when business (church and vocational) forces me away from home:

    For the men who say
    “I can’t abide my children!”
    There are no flowers.

  12. smb on March 9, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    Having just hiked up the back of Mount Helena to honor the Sabbath, I’m going to vote with Wordsworth, though I’m glad to be a little less florid in my language.

  13. gst on March 11, 2008 at 11:31 am

    I don’t know whether it makes them more moral people or not, but I insist that my children march about the grounds breathing deeply. Also, they line up when I toot my bosun’s whistle.

  14. Steve Evans on March 11, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    Someone’s gunning for a Niblet.