“The Nature of Writing”
by Jamie Kouba
The first written languages were formed in Mesopotamia around five thousand years ago. Scribes used wooden sticks to push lines into clay slabs; it was called cuneiform. After clay slabs, came papyrus scrolls, then vellum, then paper, and eventually the technological revolution of the computer. From the earliest writings to the present day, we find that they are not just about survival or to communicate rules, but also about nature: nature as the material source that sustains life; nature as the representation or manifestation of God; nature as human nature; and, nature as the object of beauty that is as transcendent as it is inspiring. The importance of each of these meanings of nature is evident in the earliest writings that took place on American soil. Whether it be as a main character, or antagonist, or simply just a noted part of the scene, writers from every time period — from the Iroquois who spoke the Great Binding Law to Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman — have used nature in their writing. A brief reflection on these early writings will show that the importance of nature cannot be overstated. In today’s society, the access to nature is shrinking; people used to live off of farms and in the woods, but today the majority eat from grocery stores and live in condos. Those who live in large cities only see trees in city parks. However, nature is just as important to writers and readers today as it was five thousand years ago. Henry David Thoreau, who wrote that “we need the tonic of wildness” would have argued that living with nature is essential to one’s intellectual and moral health (Woodlief). Nature is thus just not good for the soul but necessary to experience and to write about because men and nature are bonded together at a spiritual level.
Early Use of Nature in Writing
Arthur C. Parker, the father of American Anthropology, in an effort to study and preserve Iroquois traditions, decided to make a record of The Great Binding Law, the Iroquois’ constitution in 1915; at this time, it was already several hundred years old. In The Iroquois League, nature is more than just mentioned, it becomes another character in The Great Binding Law. Native Americans feel that the Great Spirit or God is in everything, including the world around them. Not mentioning nature being present at a peace ceremony, would be like not inviting God. Nature was God; it was as simple as that. When Dekanawidah says “with the Five Nations’ Confederate Lords I plant the Tree of the Great Peace”, he means that symbolically the Five Nations are now joined as one, and it is the tree that is doing the binding (McMichael and Leonard 29). For the native people, the tree was more than just a resource, it was a symbol of strength, in this case, the strength of their word that they would join together. They symbolically place an eagle on top of the tree, so that it may watch for evil or danger approaching their peaceful gathering and warn them. The eagle is an honored bird for its excellent vision and hunting skills. Before the peace talks could begin, a fire was lit. For Native Americans, the smoke of the fire represents the words spoken at the fire being sent up to Great Spirit.
Nature is represented as a very real physical representation of God for Native Americans practicing their religion and is often found within their own writings. As the “white men” began interacting with Native Americans more, they began to have their “voices” recorded in writing as well; sometimes personally, sometimes through translators. When Seneca Chief, Red Jacket, gave a speech in 1805, it was recorded. In it, Red Jacket speaks of the importance of nature, as if it were a gift from Great Spirit. He says “All this He had done for his red children, because He loved them” (McMichael and Leonard 370). It bears mentioning that although the Quakers and Puritans of the time describe being vastly different from their Native American counterparts on religion, they also believed that God created nature for them. Their guiding path to God was the Holy Bible, and in it, it said “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (New International Version, Romans 1:20).
The Puritans Use of Nature in Writing
Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan minister, uses nature in a slightly different way than that of the Iroquois. In “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Edwards uses nature in a way that is more metaphorical than symbolic. When he says “as he that walks in slippery places in every moment liable to fall,” he doesn’t mean that a person is walking on wet or muddy ground and will literally slip and fall; he is talking about temptation and sin (McMichael and Leonard 156). He and other Puritans firmly believed in the power of eternal damnation and that the only way to prevent it was to “walk the right path” in life. To the Iroquois in The Great Binding Law, describing the smoke of the fire carrying their words to their Great Spirit, was more of a symbolic meaning. The smoke drifting into the sky was the physical representation of their prayers to Creator. When Edwards talks about how man’s sin would “set fire on the course of nature,” he isn’t referring to nature in the same way as the Native Americans did (McMichael and Leonard 158). He is talking about human nature, as in the behavior of man himself. To him, hell’s fire was very real and man’s natural preclusions toward sin was the only path that one should be worried about.
It should be noted that in other sermons, and later in life Jonathan Edwards does admit that nature can provide proof of God. According to Janice Knight, Edwards wasn’t all fire and brimstone; “Though scripture remained the surest guide to holy truths, in documents like these [A History of the Work of Redemption] Edwards declared his faith that nature and human history are also legitimate sources of revelation” (531). Early settlers in the colonies had a lot of contact with Native Americans through trade negotiations, and it wouldn’t have been unusual for a minster like Edwards to talk to Native Americans, and to try and convert them as part of his ministry. It’s entirely possible that through discussions about religion, Edwards was influenced by their veneration of nature and ended up using it in his own sermons and writings. Despite their differences in religious practices, Edwards would likely have appreciated the Native American belief that God was represented in nature. This was a belief that was to experience a rebirth of sort in a movement called Transcendentalism during the 1800s.
Nature is Reborn in Transcendentalism
The early nineteenth century saw the leaving behind of Puritan beliefs and nature got a reprieve from the fiery damnation. Many people at this time felt that religion and government had become overbearing and stifling. Ralph Waldo Emerson became the leader in the transcendental movement in writing in the 1830s. “As the nineteenth century came to its mid-point, the transcendentalists’ dissatisfaction with their society became focused on policies and actions of the United States government: the treatment of the Native Americans, the war with Mexico, and, above all, the continuing and expanding practice of slavery” (Goodman 3). Emerson and his fellow writers took solace in nature, and tried to encourage others to do the same. “Emerson believed in a correspondence between the world and the spirit, that nature is an image in which humans can perceive the divine” (McMichael and Leonard 545). In essence, he was saying that man could be closer to God in nature, than he could be in a church. His thoughts were nearly along the same lines as the Native Americans, except that he believed that nature was the church in which you should worship God; whereas the Native Americans believed that nature was a physical representation of God. When reading works from the Native Americans, Puritans, and Emerson, it’s clear that nature is an ever present and important theme. The topics of writing may differ greatly, yet nature is used to represent God in some form or another in all three examples.
It is interesting that Emerson credits the overbearing weight of the church as his reason for leaving it and seeking nature. Randy Friedman discusses how Emerson built his own religion in nature and philosophy, “The natural religion that emerges displaces orthodox religion, just as Emerson leaves his official pulpit and eventually turns towards the writing of Nature” (28-29). Emerson wasn’t alone in his feelings; a lot of people during that time felt that the church had become an oppressive part of their culture. In “Nature,” Emerson says “But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches” (McMichael and Leonard 547). What he is saying is that the act of being alone in nature allows a man to be separated from the negativity of society and be at peace with nature and with God. Although Emerson was a trained minister in the Unitarian Church, his writings in “Nature” are certainly a far cry from what Jonathan Edwards preached to his flock about an angry God. Yet, despite the fact that he left organized religion behind, his writing still has the influences of his original Unitarian teachings and it echoes that of sermons like Jonathan Edwards’. His pulpit was different, but Emerson was still preaching to the masses about living a good life and God.
The Less Optimistic Side of Nature
Where Emerson was celebrated during his life as “Saint Ralph, The Optimist,” Edgar Allan Poe was rarely celebrated and mostly held with little regard by his contemporaries like Emerson and Thoreau. Poe’s work may not have been appreciated at the time in America, but he is regarded today as the father of the modern detective story and one of the greatest Gothic writers ever to grace the page. Poe’s stories are dark and gloomy, yet are not much different in tone from those of Washington Irving. Irving also used the dark imagery of nature and rich details to frighten audiences. Emerson found inspiration in nature and God, “Poe found his inspiration in a world of disorder, perversity, and romantic emotion” (McMichael and Leonard 490). Many of his critics claimed that he lacked an “American voice” and that his writing was more reminiscent of European romanticism. However, many of his critics while he was alive tended to critique his writing harshly because they didn’t like the man himself, as Poe was a difficult and eccentric personality by most accounts.
The minister Jonathan Edwards also wrote about the darker side of human nature, but was never accused of being ‘un-American” in his writing. Poe was an avid reader. Perhaps he was influenced by the sermons of men like Edwards that wrote, “one that stands or walks in slippery places is always exposed to fall,” and it inspired him during his writing of “The Pit and the Pendulum” (McMichael and Leonard 156). Although his works lack the religious tones of Edwards, Poe does have a certain voice that makes a man weary of dark deeds and the consequences of his actions. In “Sonnet – Silence,” Poe says “Body and Soul. One Dwells in lonely places.” What he means is that the soul is free to roam in a happier place, while the body is stuck on earth in the “real world” (McMichael and Leonard 493). During his lifetime, Poe saw the poor treatment of Native Americans and slaves, he witnessed veterans of war, he suffered personal losses; all of those things left a mark on his psyche and on his writing. Emerson was the optimist; Poe was the realist. Poe was aware that neither nature, nor man was always pleasant, fair, or kind; and unlike Emerson, he chose to write about that fact. The American Romantic period’s use of nature, whether it be light or dark was reflected in poetry as well.
Nature Used in Poetry
Walt Whitman, the “Father of American Poetry,” wrote about nature with a touch of romanticism as well, but his subjects were that of every day urban life. “In 1855, after reading Leaves of Grass [by Walt Whitman], Ralph Waldo Emerson [wrote] ‘I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed’” (McMichael and Leonard 1032). His work, however, met mixed reviews as it challenged traditional poetic rules with free verse, and traditional cultural norms with homoerotic sexuality and vulgar language. Author Bliss Perry defends Whitman in her book, The American Spirit in Literature saying “The starting point of the book is a mystical illumination regarding the unity and blessedness of the universe, an insight passing understanding, but based upon the revelatory experience of love. In the light of this experience, all created things are recognized as divine” (2003). Walt Whitman stands today as one of America’s most prolific and popular poets; as well as, along with Henry David Thoreau, one of the best example of American writers who use nature in their writing.
When Emerson looked at nature, he asked the question “why do I feel such a bond?” but he was never able to put that answer into words. “Whitman’s theory of nature offers to explain the sense of unity Emerson feels when he looks upon a rich landscape without denying existential reality to the particular objects of that landscape. There is indeed a unity in the universe, according to Whitman, and it exists in every particular object at every moment in time” (Kepner 183-184). Walt Whitman had a knack for taking ordinary objects from nature and making them beautiful and poetic in a way that people appreciated them better after reading his words. In Leaves of Grass, Whitman says that beauty and poetry of nature is not in the writing of prose, but in experiencing nature and in all of us; “The poetic quality is not marshalled in rhyme or uniformity or abstract addresses to things nor in melancholy complaints of good precepts, but is the life of these and much else and is in the soul” (McMichael and Leonard 1038).
Whitman uses his understanding of science to explain nature in a very clear and precise way, while still keeping the romantic touches of his writing forefathers. It was said that Whitman, although born of semiliterate parents, was a “voracious reader of nineteenth-century novels, English romantic poetry, and ‘classics’ of European literature and the New Testament” (McMichael and Leonard 1032). His writing style clearly reflects those early influences, with beauty of the romantics, the appreciation of nature of the Native Americans, and the sternness in his own beliefs, like those of the Puritans. In “Poets to Come,” Whitman hails the future writers and challenges them. He says “Leaving it to you to prove and define it, Expecting the main thing things from you” (McMichael and Leonard 1097). I suspect that he wanted them to find their own version of nature and to write about it like he and those before him.
Nature in writing is an ever present character because men and nature are bonded together at a spiritual level. We as human beings seem to be very aware of our surroundings and we have recorded the effects that it has had on us through the years in so many different ways. The Native Americans chose to worship nature itself as if God were present in every tree and every leaf. The Puritans used nature as a metaphor for the behavior of man, and as a reminder of how man’s choices could lead to damnation or salvation in the afterlife. Then finally, American writers got a burst of freedom in their writing when transcendentalism was born. “American romantic idealism (a.k.a. Transcendentalism) constituted a widespread and unlimited application of ideas and intellectual practices that represented a major watershed in western thought: Transcendentalism, Modernism, Postmodernism, Pragmatism, and Deconstruction all represent family branches of Romanticism” (Robbins 11).
Today we may look back on the American writings from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth century with nostalgia for a bygone era, yet nature remains as important to us as it has been to writers (and oral storytellers) throughout human history. Henry David Thoreau’s proclamation that, “We need the tonic of wildness” is even more relevant today. We need this tonic because “At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature” (Moncur 238). As nature shrinks around us in real life today, the unbridled wilderness still exists in the works of ancient Native Americans, early Puritans, American Romantics and Transcendentalists. Today’s authors must take up Whitman’s challenge to future writers, find nature where they can, and preserve it for the next generation of writers to come.
Jamie Kouba is a double major in English and Cultural Anthropology. Her article “When Death Corresponds to the Greater Good,” appeared in Volume 2 of the Ashford Humanities Review. When she is not reading, writing, or playing in the dirt, she enjoys spending time with her husband and daughter. Along with her love of literature and history, she also enjoys spending time outdoors hiking and gardening, and with her animals. She has always been a nature lover.