On the bank of the Elwha River, Olympic National Park, Washington

Going into nature to become undisguised and naked

I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked” —Walt Whitman

I recently heard an old recording of the opening stanzas of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself  (you can read the poem on the Poetry Foundation website), and the above line grabbed my attention. Whitman goes to the bank by the wood to find what so many of us seek in nature: a liberating opportunity to become “undisguised and naked.” In the social circumstances where we spend nearly all of our time, life can become a series of performances enacting the expectations that the modern world demands. The poet imagines the solitudes of nature as relief from the heavy weight of these social expectations. At the bank by the wood he fancies a place to find his truest self, unencumbered, without expectations, without demands, naked to the world of nature.

On the bank of the Elwha River, Olympic National Park, Washington
On the bank of the Elwha River, Olympic National Park, Washington (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2017)

But is nature the salve that Whitman imagines? It seems to me that the presumed therapeutic value of the natural world may have more to do with escape than discovery; in my observations, many people seem to go into nature to escape who they have become rather than to find what they might actually be underneath the facades of their daily lives. We have made nature into something for us, “the bank by the wood” where we can unburden ourselves from the unnatural expectations of our human lives. But anyone who has spent much time in the wild knows that nature has its own expectations, demands, and dangers. One can be equally as stressed at the bank by the wood as they are standing in line in the lobby of their hometown bank.

Still, the stresses are different, and the novelties of nature’s demands bring us alive in ways we can never experience in the social realities of our cities and towns. Nature allows us to be undisguised and naked, without judging us or demanding that we be something other than the vulnerable, frightened animals that we are, quivering beneath the masks and pretenses of the brave, strong faces we wear for the worlds we live in.

[Daily post 014 of 260 in my year-long challenge.] ♨

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