By: Richard Telford
The quintessentially American poet Walt Whitman, in the 1892 “Deathbed Edition” final revision of his opus 52-section “Song of Myself,” writes the following couplet in the poem’s final section:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
It was section 52 of Whitman’s resonant and deeply moving poem that I selected as one of two readings for my father’s funeral more than a decade ago. In the poem as a whole, Whitman conveys a striking duality—he extols both our individual significance and insignificance. Whitman opens the poem with his famous declaration, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume […],” but he immediately acknowledges thereafter that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” He ultimately articulates both the connectedness and the democracy of “Nature without check with original energy.” In the end, Whitman argues, we are deeply connected to the land and to each other, whether or not we fully realize it; we are all “coaxe[d]” to “the vapor and the dusk” and ultimately “depart as air.” And in this democracy of our return to earth—natural earth, atomic earth, final earth—there is, I believe, likewise a democracy of potential deep connection to the natural world, not just in the profound self-realization of facing our own deaths but in life, minute-by-minute life, from cradle to grave. That sense of connection often lies latent, largely untapped, obscured by a parade of distractions—a truth not just for our era but all eras, though each manifests it in new ways as well as old—but that potential remains. What is latent can be made vibrant, what is untapped can be tapped, what lies hidden can be made to rise—by our own conscious actions and by fostering such actions in others. Whitman and so many others who have articulated a deep connection to the land offer us hope. So too does the natural curiosity of childhood, an in-born impulse to explore which is often whittled away by the societal structures we impose upon it but need not be. In a time when we face what Richard Leaky, Roger Lewin, Niles Eldredge, and others have termed The Sixth Extinction, the unprecedented anthropogenically-driven loss of biodiversity, the fostering of that impulse to explore, both in our children and in ourselves, is essential.
During the last two decades, place-based education—championed by Laurie Lane-Zucker, John Elder, David Sobel, and many others—has risen to the forefront of the effort to foster conservation-mindedness and overall wellbeing in the general public, especially children. As Mary Rivkin has written in The Great Outdoors: Restoring Children’s Right to Play Outside (1995), “For the long-term conservation of the world, it seems reasonable that children need a strong base of firsthand knowledge.” It is the absence of such firsthand knowledge that has rightfully sounded alarms over the future of the conservation movement and of the natural world at all scales. The effects of this experiential gap have most famously, and in some circles controversially, been characterized by Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods (revised edition 2008) as Nature-Deficit Disorder. The picture painted by Louv in his many writings, by David Sobel in Beyond Ecophobia and elsewhere, and by many others, is a dire one, as it should be, but I draw hope from the literary record, from the naturalist writers who achieved in life the deepest connections to the land, leaving for subsequent generations an instructive record of those connections. If many of these writers have themselves faded from the public consciousness, it is, I think, simply one more reflection of the societal shift away from the natural world in deference to one marked by consumption, by largely vacuous electronic communication, by hollowness and unsustainability. As we consciously work to foster and to forge the latent, ready, critical connection between children and the natural world, naturalist writers can provide us a model, a guide by which we may foster and forge those connections first within ourselves. How can we otherwise give to future generations what is largely absent in us?
When naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale moved in 1959 to Trail Wood, the 130-acre home and sanctuary where he would spend the remaining twenty-one years of his life, he noted in a newly started journal, “We are more fortunate than Moses—we saw our Promised Land and entered it as well […]; our search was wide but in the end we found our Eden” (September 18, 1959). Ten days later, in a subsequent entry, he notes: “Here is place to live in and a place to die in, too.” Despite having just arrived to the place that he would later document in two books, A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm (1974) and A Walk Through the Year (1978), Teale had the vision to see the fulfillment, the sloughing off of the unimportant, that could be had in such a place. We spend our lives seeking our own Edens, and the short-term targets of that search are often the illusory shadows of success as we are led to see it: material goods, social media adulation, the outward shows of status in all its forms. What Teale and Whitman, Louv and Sobel, and many others knew and know is that it is through the permanence of the natural world, no matter how we alter it, that we can reconcile our own impermanence. What better motive can we have for valuing, embracing, and ultimately conserving the natural world? What better example can we offer to future generations?
In the early spring of 1921, naturalist writer John Burroughs was gravely ill, and he embarked upon a cross-country train trip in hopes of dying amidst his beloved Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. He died en route, and a March 30 New York Times story reported that passengers aboard the train wept openly as the nationally beloved Burroughs was taken from the train. Edwin Way Teale, dying of cancer in 1980, produced several rough sketches of a headstone to ostensibly mark his and Nellie Teale’s resting place, and to commemorate their only child, David, who was declared dead one year after going missing in action during heavy fighting along the Moselle River in Germany in 1945. The following statement appears in penciled script along the top edge of one of Teale’s headstone sketches: “Ashes scattered over The Starfield at Trail Wood.” Like Whitman, Teale wished to bequeath himself to the land he loved. For both Burroughs and Teale, their deep connections to the land guided their lives to the end. Their final acts culminated lives deeply connected to the natural world and to the respective places that had profoundly shaped those connections. Such deep connections can be found in the work of living writers, as well; consider Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Robert Michael Pyle’s The Thunder Tree or Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.
Walt Whitman opens section 6 of “Song of Myself” with the following couplet:
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
In these lines, Whitman captures the natural, exploratory curiosity of childhood. He likewise articulates well how comparatively small our understanding of the natural world truly is, rendering us, if we are honest with ourselves, always explorers. In that sense, perhaps the sum of what we don’t know can drive us to keep the good impulses of childhood that we often shed too readily. It is these impulses that allow us to make deep connections to the land, both in living life and leaving it.