His friends knew him as Waldo. We remember him as Ralph, or simply Emerson. But herein lies the problem: DO we remember him? I wonder sometimes that outside a few memorable quotes heard in a high school or college English class, does anyone really remember Emerson?
I began teaching my latest class on naturalists Muir and Burroughs (giants of the environmental tradition who were deeply inspired by Waldo) by reading the opening lines of Emerson’s 1836 book, Nature.
“Our age is retrospective. . . . The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes.”
He’s only getting started. . .
“Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?”
“The sun shines today also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new [human beings], new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.”
Radical words. Radical for 1836. Radical in the history of Religion. Revolutionary in the face of peculiar American spirituality, then and now. Radical words, rooted, planted and watered for a harvest of American freethought and early environmentalism.
Where’s Waldo? Where is the philosopher, lecturer, former minister, essay-writer who stirred generations to think–to think higher and deeper and wider and out of the box of any and every boxy belief system? Where is this Pioneer of Ideas who, in the midst of the Westward stampede of pioneers, warned us never to be settlers to homestead sectarian thoughts, to claim the gold of one idea over others? Where is the confident minister who walked out of the confining pulpit of tradition (with its hand-me-down creeds and scriptures) to preach an open wilderness of thought and reasoning and just living. . .a gospel of Nature?
Without Ralph Waldo Emerson who knows if his friend Henry would have shacked up by Walden Pond for a couple years and who knows if his colleague Margaret Fuller would have founded the Women’s Movement and who knows if anyone would have ever seriously read Leaves of Grass by the wild poet Walt Whitman and who knows if John Muir would have taken to heart a deep love for Nature quite as much without the man he called “a sequoia”?
I sense we need to find him. I think we’ve forgotten a thinker. It seems we don’t know where this wise man of Concord has gone and haven’t much of a clue what we’re missing. HE isn’t missing; WE are. We’re missing that sense of “an original relation to the universe” because we too live in an age that is retro. . .”retrospective”. . .or so future minded we are no present good sometimes. Where is our reverence for Life, for Nature, for our present Home?
I stood in Emerson’s home not long ago. My wife and I were in Concord, Massachusetts and visited the “Old Manse” by the Concord River where Waldo lived for a time and where he wrote his first book, Nature. I touched a small writing desk made by Henry Thoreau in the very room where the Sage of Concord penned the words above. I felt I was a pilgrim, privileged to stand in the presence of greatness. Later, while walking around a glistening Walden pond, I reflected on the reality that Waldo and Henry and all of them are in the past. I want to remember them and be inspired by their words, but as Waldo himself taught, we can’t be trapped in the museums of a foregoing age. We need to be present now and live as new people. I will return to Concord, but I remember touching the gravestones of Emerson and Thoreau, under the tall trees of Sleepy Hollow, and sensing it was up to me, up to us, to remember. . .and make memories for our world today.
“The sun shines today.” The fields are open for harvest. Not ripe with the souls of old but the green sprouts of new minds. New crops for new people; fresh home-grown ideas for a new time. The preachers and thinkers and leaders of the past are past–dead and gone. We pick out seeds of wisdom from them. But they are gone and we are here. We are the unsettled pioneers of today. And it may be good to BE unsettled sometimes. We are still looking for the “West,” for the frontier of ideas, that continually opens before us, explorers of a world Emerson only dreamed of.
Waldo is gone. Yet, he can never be lost. But we can. And our lostness is a challenge to do better, do more, be more. I hope we find him, learn from his wisdom, and move on beyond the traditions that would hold us back.