“Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us… Hence arises a pleasure mixed with awe; I may say, a low degree of the sublime is felt from the fact, probably, that man is hereby apprised, that, whilst the world is a spectacle, something in himself is stable….In a higher manner, the poet communicates the same pleasure. By a few strokes he delineates, as on air, the sun, the mountain, the camp, the city, the hero, the maiden, not different from what we know them, but only lifted from the ground and afloat before the eye. He unfixes the land and the sea, makes them revolve around the axis of his primary thought, and disposes them anew.”

An excerpt from “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson


What a pleasure it is to bask in Emerson’s words, even if his style from the mid-nineteenth century requires slow, close reading. When I reread this essay, it brings me back to my first meeting (with his work) in high school. I still feel that intimacy of recognition as if he is speaking directly to me, tapping me on the shoulder, creating the “bling!” moment of a new idea. This was my introduction to what a poet might be doing – unfixing nature and experience. Until then, I hadn’t a clue and I hadn’t expected to fall in love with a man ten times my age.


I was fortunate to have an English teacher in 1962, Miss Whalen from California, who not only immersed her students in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, but also hired a bus and took us on the three-hour trip from Connecticut to Concord, Massachusetts. She wore the same spike heeled shoes that day as she did for school and she didn’t seem to mind when they sank down into the boggy shore around the pond.


Walden Pond looked like any other watery New England setting, but I was enthralled with the notion that my new patron saints of literature, Emerson and Thoreau, had looked at the same scene and even swam there one hundred and fifty years earlier. I brought back a jar of the sacred pond water as if I had been on a pilgrimage to Lourdres.


Emerson was the first writer whose work began to ease me out of the bindings and blind faith of the fundamental Protestant teachings of my childhood.  I remember feeling elation and relief, at age fourteen, when I read his work because it seemed a more unfettered way to consider spirituality in relation to being human. He was concerned with intuition as the way to comprehend reality. He stressed the essential unity and interrelatedness of all things. He believed in beauty and said, “the world globes itself in a drop of dew.”


I’m not sure why I am so touched by these words. They seem delicious, delightful. I think perhaps it is the simplicity and kindness and generosity. He was my nineteenth century Dalai Lama. When Louisa May Alcott, his neighbor, wrote that Emerson, “… was beauty in look, in word, in thought and in every way,” she was right. What a lucky person she was to live in the house next door. And, thank you, Miss Whalen, wherever you are, for my introduction to a special person.