Paul Andersen: Indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature
February 15, 2004
Now they want to charge us for solitude? They want to charge us for freedom? For beauty? For nature? They want to charge me for entering my church and practicing my religion?They are the federal government and the charge is the proposed Fee Demonstration program, which would collect fees for access to public lands administered by the Forest Service and BLM. The idea is to make up budget shortfalls at every trailhead, parking lot, forest road, and facility in the nation.This is such a bad idea that it will probably fall on its face and not rise again for a very long time. Still, it is indicative of the loony notions emanating from our nations capital at a time when crazy people are in charge.The federal government spends billions on homeland security, foreign wars, weapons of mass destruction, entitlements for corporations, tax cuts for the rich, space programs to Mars … you name it. The proposal to charge the American public for walking on public land, the land we own collectively, is proof of national dysfunction.About 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau equated access to wild nature with personal freedom and soulful redemption. This is a delicious evening, wrote Thoreau from his cabin, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature …This strange liberty is a central idea in his essay Solitude, where Thoreau describes the serenity of Walden Pond where he lived alone, his only company the natural world, which was company enough. Solitude was a vital and cherished part of Thoreaus life.I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time, he wrote. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.For many Americans, solitude is available only in bits and pieces, usually in their cars. That isnt exactly what Thoreau had in mind when he extolled the virtues of solitude. Nature is an important part of the equation; it provides grounding, an element of sanity.Thoreau understood that the stresses of modern industrial life exacted a toll on man, that civilization, for all its gentrifying influences and technological conveniences, strained the human psyche. Solitude in nature became the rejuvenating elixir he widely celebrated.Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendentalist philosopher who mentored Thoreau, valued wild nature as more than just a repository of resources, a scenic attraction, or a backdrop to commerce and culture. Emerson said that wild nature represents the spark of divinity. He and Thoreau viewed nature as an antidote to the perils of civilization.Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist, wrote Emerson, urging us to question the dictates of convention and explore our personal truths. With this directive, Thoreau went into the woods to confront the essential facts of life.When Thoreau first came to Walden Pond, he felt a tremor of loneliness. For an hour, he wrote, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was something unpleasant.Then a giddy mood came over Thoreau. In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in nature … an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since.Few of us will go as far as Thoreau, but we ought to have the opportunity to distance ourselves from the craziness. To do that we need free and ready access to public lands. That access should be a universal right, at no cost other than physical effort. Charging fees to walk in wilderness is contrary to everything wild nature conveys. Free access to public lands is the birthright of every American, a necessary ingredient to a sense of personal freedom and individual balance.Wrote Thoreau: The indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature of sun and wind and rain, of summer and winter such health, such cheer, they afford forever!Paul Andersen thinks the federal government and the American public need more contact with the spark of divinity. His column appears on Mondays.