On a two-mile hike with Cub Scouts along the western shore of Lake Sammamish, in a woodland dominated by cedars, ferns and a lush upholstery of moss, the conversation of the adults was consumed with real estate costs and one woman’s troubles with her GPS device, interrupted only by reminders to the boys that they “Think green!” I tried to focus the scouts on a game of “Nature Bingo,” which my son and I won by finding a conifer, a worm, “a new green leaf,” a bud, a caterpillar and “some rubbish” (two crushed beer cans). All of this was preceded by a pep talk by another adult urging the boys to “Love Mother Nature!” and “Stop and smell the roses!”
I thought about Nathaniel Hawthorne and his legacy of abstract nature worship. Much of what Hawthorne knew about the natural world he gleaned from Shelley and when he chose to pay attention, the conversation of his sometime neighbor, Henry Thoreau. He seems to have seen little with his eyes. There’s the vagueness and generality of boilerplate Romanticism about his observations. One reads them not to learn something about the world but about Hawthorne. Of course, the same is true of Thoreau’s early journals and much of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Consider this passage from Hawthorne’s “Buds and Bird-voices,” collected in Mosses From an Old Manse (1846):
“One of the first things that strikes the attention when the white sheet of winter is withdrawn is the neglect and disarray that lay hidden beneath it. Nature is not cleanly according to our prejudices. The beauty of preceding years, now transformed to brown and blighted deformity, obstructs the brightening loveliness of the present hour.”
I like the second sentence: “Nature is not cleanly according to our prejudices.” True enough, nature is messy but efficient. All that “brown and blighted deformity” is an essential component of the nitrogen cycle: Death fuels life. The closest Hawthorne comes to recognizing this follows later in the paragraph, but the thought feels inherited and conventional:
“How invariable throughout all the forms of life do we find these intermingled memorials of death! On the soil of thought and in the garden of the heart, as well as in the sensual world, lie withered leaves—the ideas and feelings that we have done with.”
I pick on Hawthorne only because I reread some of his Mosses this week, on impulse, and the lushness of the mosses in the woods reminded me of his book. I could as easily criticize the know-nothing nature effusions of Emerson (who, in We Are Doomed, John Derbyshire characterizes as “a key progenitor of modern smiley-face liberalism”). My companions on the scout hike are good people but sometimes in their company I feel as though I have entered a church in which the faithful worship a deity they neither understand nor believe in.