In a Grain of Sand

Although Emerson’s essay “Nature” seems somewhat formal and stilted when seen in the light of Thoreau’s masterpiece Walden Pond, it is a remarkable document in and of itself and reveals the importance of “Nature” in transcendentalism. Emerson begins with the simple assertion that beautiful, natural places heal a man and make him feel better and, at their best, such places seem like sacred places. He then goes on to suggest that great man-made places are great because they integrate nature into those places. The great works of the mind, literature, poetry, and science, are also really a tribute to nature. Over time, however, man has fallen while nature, in contrast, still seems whole. Emerson argues, though, that man and nature are inseparable for “man carries the world in his head.” It is because we have lost sight of our relationship to nature that we come to identify ourselves with our thought and overestimate that thought. According to Emerson, the only way to recover our true selves, and our true greatness, is to rediscover our identity with nature and to once again feel nature running through us.

In the 1850’s, as today, men, particularly men who live in cities, seem to seek out nature as an escape from city life:

The solitary places do not seem quite lonely. At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he makes into these precincts. Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes. Here we find nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her.

It seems a little amazing that people in the 1850’s were doing exactly the same thing people are doing today, except that today there are so many people trying to escape to nature that it has become nearly impossible to escape man and his civilization.

Emerson argues, though, that you do not have to truly escape the civilized world to find nature’s sanctuary:

It seems as if the day was not wholly profane, in which we have given heed to some natural object. The fall of snowflakes in a still air, preserving to each crystal its perfect form; the blowing of sleet over a wide sheet of water, and over plains, the waving rye-field, the mimic waving of acres of houstonia, whose innumerable florets whiten and ripple before the eye; the reflections of trees and flowers in glassy lakes; the musical steaming odorous south wind, which converts all trees to windharps; the crackling and spurting of hemlock in the flames; or of pine logs, which yield glory to the walls and faces in the sittingroom, — these are the music and pictures of the most ancient religion.

I suspect that this is the very reason you find so many web sites that include a picture of a flower that has just begun to bloom. People have rediscovered nature’s beauty in their own yard. It may not be a total escape to a beautiful location, but it connects us with “the most ancient religion.”

In fact, our attempts to create beautiful yards, temporary sanctuaries from work and the craziness of the city, are really little more than attempts to tap into this ancient knowledge:

He who knows the most, he who knows what sweets and virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens, and how to come at these enchantments, is the rich and royal man. Only as far as the masters of the world have called in nature to their aid, can they reach the height of magnificence. This is the meaning of their hanging-gardens, villas, garden-houses, islands, parks, and preserves, to back their faulty personality with these strong accessories.

Many cultures, particularly those cultures where land has been at a premium of taken the art of gardening to new heights. For me, the art reached its peak in the Japanese Gardens.

Though Emerson seems to be exaggerating for rhetorical effect, he argues that:

Literature, poetry, science, are the homage of man to this unfathomed secret, concerning which no sane man can affect an indifference or incuriosity. Nature is loved by what is best in us.

While this is an obvious overgeneralization, the great Romantic literature of the time certainly took this advice to heart. For that matter, Romantic literature is probably the only literature that really interests me, so maybe Emerson isn’t exaggerating too much.

Emerson argues that because man has fallen nature seems so grand to us.

Man is fallen; nature is erect, and serves as a differential thermometer, detecting the presence or absence of the divine sentiment in man. By fault of our dulness and selfishness, we are looking up to nature, but when we are convalescent, nature will look up to us. We see the foaming brook with compunction: if our own life flowed with the right energy, we should shame the brook. The stream of zeal sparkles with real fire, and not with reflex rays of sun and moon

This quotation also suggests that when we rediscover the “nature” within us we will be as grand as nature itself. This is probably the most radical idea in the essay: that nature and man are one, that any division is merely a division of a mind run astray. Seen in light of later essays, this sense of nature suggests the Oversoul that is the essence of all things.

Emerson, like Blake, feels the world is whole, that it is possible to see everything in its parts

If we had eyes to see it, a bit of stone from the city wall would certify us of the necessity that man must exist, as readily as the city. That identity makes us all one, and reduces to nothing great intervals on our customary scale. We talk of deviations from natural life, as if artificial life were not also natural. The smoothest curled courtier in the boudoirs of a palace has an animal nature, rude and aboriginal as a white bear, omnipotent to its own ends, and is directly related, there amid essences and billetsdoux, to Himmaleh mountain-chains, and the axis of the globe.

For the poet, this is virtually the same as Einstein’s Unified Field Theory, the one Einstein apparently was unable to find. Of course, I think Blake has expressed the same idea more succinctly:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour

Emerson extends this idea, suggesting that all knowledge of the world first comes from inside man’s head:

Man carries the world in his head, the whole astronomy and chemistry suspended in a thought. Because the history of nature is charactered in his brain, therefore is he the prophet and discoverer of her secrets. Every known fact in natural science was divined by the presentiment of somebody, before it was actually verified. A man does not tie his shoe without recognising laws which bind the farthest regions of nature: moon, plant, gas, crystal, are concrete geometry and numbers.

I must admit, though, that the scientist in me still has a hard time accepting this view of reality. I, like most people, still have the feeling that there is an objective, physical world outside of us that operates according to the laws of physics, though, of course, we are both subject to the same laws.

If Emerson asserts that man is one with nature and that both are perfect, then he has to account for how man has lost the ability to recognize this:

But the craft with which the world is made, runs also into the mind and character of men. No man is quite sane; each has a vein of folly in his composition, a slight determination of blood to the head, to make sure of holding him hard to some one point which nature had taken to heart.


Each prophet comes presently to identify himself with his thought, and to esteem his hat and shoes sacred.

In essence, man has cut himself off from nature through his thinking. Instead of being one with nature, man contemplates nature as something separate, something outside of himself. The more man thinks about it, the more cut off he feels. And, still, we sit at our computers writing about nature instead of going outside to work in the garden.

If we are foolish to fight with nature or to attempt measure our strength against her, we may well feel alienated. In such a world we may feel like those modern artists whose philosophy was ironically labeled “Naturalism.” These artists felt man was merely a victim of natural forces over which he had little or no control. In a time of despair, it’s easy enough to adopt such a philosophy:

We cannot bandy words with nature, or deal with her as we deal with persons. If we measure our individual forces against hers, we may easily feel as if we were the sport of an insuperable destiny. But if, instead of identifying ourselves with the work, we feel that the soul of the workman streams through us, we shall find the peace of the morning dwelling first in our hearts, and the fathomless powers of gravity and chemistry, and, over them, of life, preexisting within us in their highest form.

Emerson argues that the only way to avoid feeling like a victim of “destiny” is to re-identify with the forces of nature and to realize they are part of us. By doing so we can overcome our feelings of helplessness:

After every foolish day we sleep off the fumes and furies of its hours; and though we are always engaged with particulars, and often enslaved to them, we bring with us to every experiment the innate universal laws. These, while they exist in the mind as ideas, stand around us in nature forever embodied, a present sanity to expose and cure the insanity of men.

In the end Emerson seems to come full circle, arguing that, though it is our thinking that cuts us off from nature, “nature is the incarnation of a thought:”

The reality is more excellent than the report. Here is no ruin, no discontinuity, no spent ball. The divine circulations never rest nor linger. Nature is the incarnation of a thought, and turns to a thought again, as ice becomes water and gas. The world is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping again into the state of free thought.

Nature, in essence, isn’t a thing, but, like thought, is an essence. The “things” of the world are “mind precipitated.”

Sounding a little like a Zen priest, Emerson advises:

Every moment instructs, and every object: for wisdom is infused into every form. It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure; it enveloped us in dull, melancholy days, or in days of cheerful labor; we did not guess its essence, until after a long time.

In other words, Be here, Be now. Live the moment, and you shall have no need of further wisdom.