Ralph Waldo Emerson


“If a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from these heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson ((May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882) was a founder of the 19th-century American philosophy Transcendentalism. Nature, written when Emerson was only thirty-three, was the first time he coalesced his thinking into a treatise.

Emerson believed humans were connected to nature (by “nature” he meant that which exists but isn’t human) and we should look to this greater connection, this Unity of all beings.1 In doing so, we “transcend” our otherwise finite and lonely experience, touch what Mary Oliver, a disciple of Emerson, called “the eternal.”

The Meaning and Metaphor of Stars
“If a man would be alone, let him look at the stars,” wrote Emerson. Read more about our deep connection to stars. Photograph by photographer and conservationist Joshua Burch.

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of boughs in the storm is new to me and old.

This idea of animals and nature bearing witness and providing us acknowledgement is echoed in the science of why we keep pets and conservation arguments why we must protect endangered species.

Nature is supremely short but abounds with wisdom and penetrating observations. Ennobling thoughts such as seeing greatness and miracle in small things, a singular focus on the eternal, and meditations on solitude and interruption.

To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me.

When Emerson was surrounded by nature, even a simple path, he wrote “I am glad to the brink of fear.” To understand what he meant, and to feel the same, is one of life’s richest rewards. Emerson has influenced my spirit and writing more than most.

“White Anne” Fittonia from RHS Gardens Wisley. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us. Certain mechanical changes, a small alteration to our local positioning apprizes us of dualism. We are strangely affected by seeing the shore from a moving shore, from a balloon, or through the tings of an unusual sky. The least change in our point of view gives the whole world a pictorial air.

Pair this elegant, heartening writing with his poetic search for self, Henry David Thoreau’s more disciplined journal of thoughts while sailing up the Merrimack River or with my own tour of the pleasures of flowers as close companions.

Pleasure of Finding Things Out - Richard Feynman
“I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. I can imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty.” wrote physicist Richard Feynman. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I also highly recommend Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which, upon publication, Emerson called “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” With Emerson’s support, Whitman’s work was recognized and hailed as an exceptional work of poetry.

Ralph Waldo Emerson