Famous in life and death, Ralph Waldo Emerson is considered one of American history’s most noted writers, influencing countless people, including Heroes of Sustainability like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir.
The Harvard-educated lecturer, essayist, and poet — who also worked as a pastor in his younger years — had a way of inspiring his readers that was widely admired. As American poet and critic James Russell Lowell wrote in 1871’s My Study Windows: “We look upon him as one of the few men of genius whom our age has produced, and there needs no better proof of it than his masculine faculty of fecundating other minds. Search for eloquence in his books and you will perchance miss it, but meanwhile you will find that it has kindled your thoughts.”
Man and Nature
One of Emerson’s greatest works was Nature, an 1836 essay that delved into his thoughts on transcendentalism, the literary, political, and philosophical movement he was at the center of in New England in the 1830s and ’40s. One of the core ideas was that both people and nature are inherently good, and Emerson was keen on exploring this connection between the two.
To Emerson, nature was as important as it got, as it was tied to God in a way that couldn’t be separated from the deity. “In the woods, we return to reason and faith,” he wrote. “There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, —no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, —my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, —all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”
A Far-Reaching Legacy
Many credit Emerson’s writing with influencing the foundation of today’s environmentalist movement and the creation of national parks. By writing so eloquently about the world around us — and showing through vivid description that it’s worthy of being preserved (a sample sentence: “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration”) — Emerson set the stage for others, like Muir, to take steps to protect the environment.
It’s tough to deny the insight in his words. As Emerson astutely wrote: “He who knows what sweets and virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens, and how to come at these enchantments, is the rich and royal man.”