“It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man. We habitually presume his presence and influence everywhere. And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast and dread and inhuman, though in the midst of cities. Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste-land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made for ever and ever, — to be the dwelling of man, we say, — so Nature made it, and man may use it if he can. … What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star’s surface, some hard matter in its home! I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one … but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them.” – Henry David Thoreau, from “The Maine Woods”
We might tremble as well upon an honest encounter with our own true selves, rough and ragged and unhewn despite all our efforts to conceal ourselves from the world, and even from ourselves. Whether our fundamental nature is basically good or evil, whether in our marrow we are pure or impure, whether at heart we are whole or broken – these are questions that have long been at the core of human inquiry, explored in philosophy and theology, in literature and poetry, in songs and stories down through the ages.
It seems important to note that Thoreau, in this passage from “The Maine Woods,” doesn’t try to pass judgement on the fundamental reality of the natural world he encounters on his journey – Nature in the capitalized sense – but he does offer a potent observation: that we have not seen “pure Nature” until we have seen it devoid of man’s influence. Whether the Earth was made to be our dwelling place or not, we might just owe it to ourselves (and the world) to consider what it was – or would be – without our influence, without the refractive and solipsistic perspectives we often bring to things as they are. The resulting revelation could be enough to make us approach with proper fear and trembling, not spirits, but matter itself – even our own bodies, “this matter to which I am bound.” What would it be like to approach even our own flesh and bone in this awe-filled stance?
Likewise, whatever the truth of our own basic nature – pure or corrupted, untrammeled or enslaved, broken or whole – maybe we owe it to ourselves to consider it in its purest sense, too, and to do so without any sense of judgement or any immediate need to react or respond to what we see. Before we start crafting stories to tell ourselves and the world about who we really are, we might benefit from a long, patient, loving look within.
Who knows, if we can manage to make peace – to make friends, even – with our own complex, marvelous, and fearful inner workings (whatever motley crew of angels and demons we might find residing there), maybe we can eventually harness some of that peace and direct it outwards. The world could use more of that peace – and that quiet joy – but it might be the case that we have to start by seeking such qualities first within ourselves. Once the well has been dug, only then can the water be brought forth. Once the spring flows freely – like that spring “whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11) – only then can it satisfy the thirsty of the world.