Cherry Hill Seminary Column
Holli S. Emore
Whitman and Muir as Guides to Restoring Connectedness
by Holli S. Emore
Roiling, unfolding individualism in
dynamic tension with cooperative community has characterized the ongoing story
of America. Hardly more than a lifetime
past, the North American continent was still wild, tantalizing those who felt
the restrictions of an old world and stale way of life. By the time of poet Walt Whitman and
naturalist John Muir, the scores of refugee religious movements had dispersed
beyond their original settlements and the American psyche seethed with
In her social history of spiritualism
in America, Weisberg articulates the dilemmas faced by many in the country:
Ordinary Americans in the 1800s had great opportunity for social, economic, and geographic mobility. They faced a number of questions that perhaps can be summed up in a simple query that had rarely been so pressing in the past: “Where are we going?”Shall we pack our worldly goods and journey westward? Or leave the farm behind and head for the city? Are our struggles moving us upward on the social ladder, or have our risks only pushed us down a notch? Is our society advancing toward utopian perfection? Or under new pressures such as urbanization, is it descending into chaos?
Most believed in the so-called
American Dream that the average person could strike out alone, finding success
which was only limited by hard work and determination. Ironically, the opportunity to stake such a
claim rested in a fragile web of social cooperation, a web dramatically tested
throughout the nineteenth century. If
the swirl of change during this period, including the Civil War and westward
expansion, were not enough to provoke self-questioning, Charles Darwin’s
landmark mid-century publication, On the Origin of the Species, further pressed
those anxious to reconcile their faith with science.
Pagans of the twenty-first century
also find themselves driven by reaction to the religious culture of their
childhood. “Witches and Pagans construct
their identity in contrast to that of the dominant American culture,” notes
The post-modern cult of individualism both enriches and threatens the
social fabric which makes the individualism possible. The dominant voices of American Paganism came
of age during the space race, taking for granted that science could provide
absolutes in times of social upheaval.
At the same time, they rejected the emotional sterility of scientific
realism, readily embracing occult philosophy and practices in reaction to the
predominant culture of the Eisenhower generation.
Magliocco continues framing the
dilemma of modern Pagans:
The anti-imagination discourse relegates the numinous to a state of unreality. Since according to this paradigm, numinous experience is unreal, those who claim to have experienced it are considered outside the norm and out of touch with the culture’s constructs of reality. They are marginalized, their voices are silenced, and narratives of their experiences are delegitimized. Neo-Pagans resist this construction of reality based on materialism, pragmatism, and rationalism (as distinct from rationality). Neo-Pagans do not reject rationality, but rather the exclusion of certain ways of knowing and operating in the world deemed “irrational,” and thus inferior.
Like the early Christians, Pagans are
“in this world, but not of it,” or socially, at least, they are often
ostracized and experience discrimination.
To complicate matters, they prey upon one another with a dismaying
ferocity. One way to cope with feeling
delegitimized is to develop an attitude of oppositionality, the far spectrum of
individuality. In this usage, “oppositional”
refers to defining oneself by what one is not, rather than what one is. Oppositional behavior may erupt unexpectedly
during any cooperative endeavor since for many it is a core belief about themselves. Because Pagans in locales across the United
States report anecdotally that they are fragmented and unable to achieve a
cooperative community climate, this oppositionality would appear to be a
The failed relationships endemic to
Pagans, among both individuals and groups, appear to be evidence of the
destructive effects of oppositionality.
Following the end of a failed relationship, many people create a strong
protective emotional barrier. If left
intact indefinitely, such barriers effectively starve the individual who has
lost their connection to the nourishment of emotional porosity.
Vulnerability may be perceived as a threat by such a person, but the more
significant threat is emotional and social isolation.
Both of our writers (Muir and
Whitman) had a keen understanding of the essential nature of sensing and
nurturing our connectedness. Muir says,
in his classic My First Summer In the Sierra, “When we try to pick out
anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Indeed, Whitman seems to merge with his
surroundings, as in these lines from “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life”:
As I ebb’d with
the ocean of life, As I wended the
shores I know, As I walk’d where
the ripples continually wash you Paumanok . . . I musing late in
the autumn day, gazing off southward, . . . Was seiz’d by the
spirit that trails in the lines underfoot, The rim, the
sediment that stands for all the water and all the land of the globe.
As I wended the
shores I know,
As I walk’d where
the ripples continually wash you Paumanok . . .
I musing late in
the autumn day, gazing off southward, . . .
Was seiz’d by the
spirit that trails in the lines underfoot,
The rim, the
sediment that stands for all the water and all the land of the globe.
Despite Muir’s mild derision of the
tourists who disturbed the peace of the Yosemite wilderness, he strongly
advocated for wilderness preservation, hoping to maintain the wilds in part so
that all the tourists of the future might visit and be transformed.
Roszak suggests that emotional
isolation between humans is deeply linked to human relationships with the
We readily recognize that [dominance
and submission] is at the root of many broken families, broken marriages,
broken relationships. What's the
alternative? Well most therapists would
say there has to be trust, there has to be mutual respect. Now in an eco-psychology you would take that
same insight into human relationships and try to read it into our relationship
with the natural world. Is there some
other way to find security in our relations with nature than by way of
dominance and submission?
He goes on to point out that “sanity
and madness” have typically been defined by indigenous peoples in relationship
to natural habitat, with insanity perceived as an imbalance between the
individual or tribe and nature.
We may readily acknowledge that the
loss of perceived interpersonal connections will foster a myriad of social
dysfunctions, but the voices of the relatively new ecopsychology field (e.g.,
Roszak) press us to look further along life’s web to the collateral damage to
our natural environment which can result from these fractures. When one human sees himself as different and
separate from the rest of humanity, the disconnect results directly in damage
to the community. Someone who does not feel his intrinsic connection with
others will be jaded at best and pathological at worst.
When humans – only one species among
millions of life forms – see themselves as different and separate from the rest
of the cosmos, this disconnect results directly in damage to the
environment. Even the concept of good “stewardship” of the environment
comes from the idea that humans own and control the earth. Someone who
does not feel that the earth is part of her will not feel the pain of
environmental degradation, and may never identify her lack of engagement with
the natural world as a source of personal malaise.
Uncommonly sensitive to the divine
aspect of all of existence, Whitman describes a new world which is spiraling
creatively outwards from the old European hierarchies, wars, and failed
movements. He rejects any artificial separation
of physical and non-physical life, describing “Santa Spirita” (Holy Spirit) as “Including
all life on earth, touching, including God, including Saviour and Satan.” Like a god himself, Whitman exults in “Song
of Myself,” “I am large . . . . I contain multitudes."
Muir sought to claim wild lands
before they could be claimed for commercial or personal “development.” Partly in contrast, Whitman made little or no
distinction between what is called the natural world and that referred to as
man-made. The lines of “Manahatta” wheel
rapidly between descriptions of the city, the people and the landscape.
. . . I see that word [Manahatta] nested in nests of water-bays, superb, Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships, an island sixteen miles long . . .
Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies,Tides swift and ample, well-loved by me, toward sundown,
The flowing sea-currents, the little islands . . .
Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand a week,
The carts hauling goods, the manly race of drivers of horses, the brown-faced sailors,
The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft . . .
The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes . . .
A million people
. . . City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts! City
nested in bays! My city!
Both Muir and Whitman demonstrated an
antidote to emotional isolation. Both moved forward from childhood
difficulties with apparent openness to life experience. Muir immersed
himself in the wilderness, Whitman in the human landscape. Each practiced
what today might be called “mindfulness,” simply being in the wilds, simply
being with others (a notable example being Whitman’s hospital
chaplaincy). While these practices may appear somewhat passive, they
resulted in very practical change far beyond their individual experience:
wilderness preservation, increased public awareness of the importance of
wilderness, comfort to hundreds (at least) of dying soldiers, and no doubt
better health outcomes for many of them.
Despite their own iconoclasm, neither
Muir nor Whitman represented isolation, but rather the healing respite of
solitude, and the meditative habit of mindfully observing what was around
them. Muir implies profound therapeutic
possibilities when he says, “. . . for the mountains are fountains – beginning
places, however related to sources beyond mortal ken.”
The wild temples of Muir, much like
the ancient temples of Asklepius, are capable of serving as places of
restoration. As patients came to the
ancient temples to wait, rest, listen and dream until they were visited in
their sleep by the god, so in our time, nature has the ability to serve as a
sanctuary, a place of safety and shelter for the human who suffers from
disconnectedness. Our parks and
wilderness areas, city greenways, backyards and gardens may all be seen as a
sort of hospital network for the soul. Just as every community recognizes
the necessity of access to medical care, so we should apprehend our need for
access to these green places of healing.
Whitman might point out the
importance of recognizing that the urban landscape, while not the same, is no
less valid a life form than the wild. To separate the two would be to
continue the false dichotomy of separation, perpetuating
disconnectedness. Those who respectfully and joyfully embrace all of
existence much as did Whitman consequently are more likely to live in ways that
preserve the wild. Again he praises New
York City in Drum Taps: “My own Manhattan with spires, and the sparkling and
hurrying tides, and the ships, the varied and ample land . . . ,” never
distinguishing with so much as a line break the natural and the man-made.
Despite its pervasive disconnectness,
Paganism is uniquely positioned to help modern society heal its relationship
with the earth, according to Magliocco.
Unlike vernacular magic, Neo-Pagan
magic is a self-conscious attempt to revive and re-create a sense of
interconnectedness in the world, a sacredness of time and space that Pagans
locate in pre-industrial cultures.
Whitman and Muir urge us forward in the work of re-connection. “Thus I pressed Yosemite upon him [Shepherd Billy] like a missionary offering the gospel . . .,” he says in Sierra, and indeed, President Theodore Roosevelt told their mutual friend John Burroughs that he found Burroughs a “more comfortable” traveling companion, since Muir filled his time with Roosevelt advocating for wilderness preservation.
Even more dramatically, Whitman
writes, “I know my words are weapons full of danger, full of death, For I
confront peace, security, and all the settled laws, to unsettle them.” Not one to placidly write poetry from the
comfort of his desk, Whitman spent countless hours helping thousands of
soldiers during the Civil War, and decried slavery with nuances often lost on
contemporary readers. His career as a
journalist no doubt reinforced his dedication to the power of the written word.
But the greatest gift Muir and
Whitman offer is subtle. Muir attends
the land the way Whitman attends the wounded and dying soldiers. Each of
them pays attention, simply observes, listens, rather than attempting any
particular action. Their gift to the land and to the soldiers is to be
there, notice the details, to care. This
caring attentiveness can serve as a model for those attempting their own
re-connection, as well as the nurturing of others who suffer from
disconnectedness. Furthermore, the
healing of emotional isolation clears the way for the human psyche to
rediscover the vital cause of environmental care and action.
Muir, especially, voiced the benefit
of using nature to restore the understanding of connectedness. “Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain
days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything
seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God.”
Contemporary Pagan philosopher
Brendan Myers writes in Loneliness and Revelation that the process must
The beauty of the earth is there to
be seen. It is something that you must
deliberately look for, and perhaps also something you must learn to see . . .
Not without evidence did Schopenhauer say that the will is universal, and that
a human will is but an instance of a cosmic will which dwells in every moving,
changing, and living thing in the world.
In the wonders of the natural world, it can seem as if there are
spiritual beings in the earth and the sun, asserting their presence to us,
telling us that life is beautiful and good . . . Any and every movement of
energy which sustains and empowers the life of organisms and even whole ecosystems
can be a Revelation that life is beautiful and good.
Whitman, for all his love of the
crowds of New York, retreated frequently to the solitude of nature. While gregarious and sociable, Muir’s own
immersion in the wilderness underscored the value of such treks. Myers returns again to the importance of
The idea of spiritual knowledge
discovered in solitude and silence is a prominent part of many ancient
spiritual cultures . . . Perhaps the voice of the universe . . . is always
calling out to us, but we hear it only in the rare moments when all
distractions have been put aside.
Muir and Whitman heard the voice of
the universe, gifting us with their own accounts of re-connection in both prose
and poetry. Whitman’s enigmatic words
from “Song of Myself” is a hymn to connectedness:
These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.
This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This the common air that bathes the globe.
Weisberg, Barbara, Talking to the Dead, 2004, HarperSanFrancisco, page 6.
Magliocco, Sabina, Witching Culture, 2004, University of Pennsylvania Press, page 185.
Magliocco, page 200.
John 15:19, Holy Bible.
Muir, John, My First Summer in the Sierra, 1911, Houghton Mifflin Company, page 211.
Whitman, Walt, “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” from The Portable Walt Whitman, ed. by Michael Warner, 2004, Penguin Books, page 184.
Roszak, Theodore, ed., Ecopsychology, 1998, Thinking Allowed Productions.
Whitman, “Drum Taps  and Sequel To Drum-Taps [1865-66]”, page 270.
Whitman, pages 228-229.
Muir, page 212.
Magliocco, page 120.
Walker, Charlotte Zoe, ed., Sharp Eyes: John Burroughs and American Nature Writing, 2000, Syracuse University Press, page 88.
Whitman, page 255.
Muir, page 82.
Myers, Brendan, Loneliness and Revelation: A Study of the Sacred, 2010, O-Books. pages 103-104.
Myers, page 47.
Whitman, page 21.