Matthew.kowal, CC BY-SA 3.0 US , via Wikimedia Commons

A Backyard Walden

“Life consists with Wildness,” Henry David Thoreau writes. “Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him.” By the first week of April, my spouse Eleanor and I were definitely in need of some refreshment. We’d survived February’s deadly Texas freeze and blackout. With the weather warming, the trees leafing out, the wisteria along the fence heavy with blossoms and fragrance, it was just too nice to be indoors. However, the pandemic and our teaching obligations kept us from heading off to real wilderness. So we made our own humble Walden in our backyard, pitching our two-person tent and spending the next five nights sleeping among the oaks and elms and hackberries, the nandina and privet bushes.

Yet there’s far more to Nature than mere refreshment (as Thoreau surely would have agreed). Precisely because it is not subdued by humanity, there is a stubborn, intractable otherness to nature. And in that alienness we can glimpse and reconnect with a divine presence from which we hide ourselves in our climate-controlled, artificially-lighted dwellings.

Thoreau says he took up his hermitage in the Massachusetts woods because he wanted “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” Our motives for the backyard campout were far less weighty: to fall asleep watching the circling stars through the mesh of the tent walls; to awaken to bird calls and the first glimmerings of dawn light filtering through the trees. 

Eleanor and I are fortunate to live in one of those increasingly rare corners of the urban landscape where the wild still hangs on and even thrives. We inherited our 1930s home from Eleanor’s parents when we were both struggling grad students. Nestled in a relatively quiet Fort Worth, Texas, neighborhood, the house came with a bounty of mature trees and barely-tamed shrubbery. Even better, the lot behind ours is heavily wooded and hasn’t yet been chainsawed and bulldozed to make way for one more tedious lawn — or worse, a parking lot. 

Each morning of our campout, we woke up a little before sunup, before the birds took voice and before the rumble of traffic on the cross-street nearby. In the quiet of the pre-dawn half-light, the whole earth seems to breathe more slowly. There is a coolness in the air, a coolness even in the colors of the leaves and in the clouded sky. Through the tent mesh, I could see budding twigs reaching tentatively toward the sky. As Thoreau writes, “Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild.”

Most mornings, the low sun was hidden behind grey clouds scurrying across the sky. Morning light filtered through the leaves, which danced gently in a slight breeze. Soon a cardinal made its cheer-cheer-cheer call; further off, a smaller bird: fee-bee fee-bee. A little later, a fluttering of red wings as the cardinal arrived at the copper-domed bird feeder. Others soon followed: Carolina chickadees, titmice, blue jays.  Squirrels began to stir and chitter and scuttle through the branches. From somewhere in the distance, the mournful cooing of a dove. Perhaps Thoreau’s contemporary Margaret Fuller felt a similar joy and wonder in her own experience of the wild: “It seemed not necessary to have any better heaven … than in the mood of nature here.”

The Otherness of Nature

But of course, nature isn’t just birdsongs and beautiful sunrises. It also has a hard side—indeed, an inhuman, alien side. As experienced campers know, to sleep in the outdoors is to put oneself at the mercy of nature and the elements. Though tent and sleeping bag offer some shelter, camping out entails giving up the security and convenience we’ve built into our air-conditioned, comfort-focused houses.

Not that Eleanor and I were “roughing it.” Our house and its bathrooms (and perhaps most important, its coffeemaker) were only a few steps away. (Like Thoreau here too, then;  his cabin was but a mile’s stroll from town.) Yet even our own modest venture outside everyday domestic comforts brought reminders of the fact that nature is neither designed for nor interested in human comfort.

It meant feeling the hard, uneven ground through the thin tent floor and the sleeping bag (we’ve never invested in an air mattress). On all but one of the nights we camped out, an overcast sky blocked the view of the stars: so much for the stargazing we’d planned. Another night, a south wind gusted all night long; the sound of trees thrashing about kept waking me up, much as it must have troubled squirrels and birds in their swaying roosts. On yet another night, after Eleanor and I had drifted off to sleep, two of the neighborhood’s feral cats got into a yowling, spitting argument. And Eleanor tells me that one night she awoke to the cries of prey struggling with a predator, perhaps a coyote or a fox. The wild is red in tooth and claw.

That’s the thing about nature. You can’t set the thermostat. You can’t adjust the lighting or the airflow or the scenery. It isn’t made for our pleasure. We didn’t create it. We don’t own it. We fancy ourselves its master, but in fact we don’t control it, though we can certainly do it harm.

Nature isn’t there for us. It just is.

The beauty of a butterfly or the majesty of an oak do not exist for our delight; they are products of billions of years of evolutionary processes we only dimly understand.

In theological terms, we can say that nature transcends the human: It is prior to us and beyond us. Though we are part of it, and it a part of us, Nature is also radically other—vast, impersonal, unconcerned with our petty desires and designs. Perhaps Thoreau had a similar idea when he described nature as “a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features.” It is with good reason that Thoreau’s patron Ralph Waldo Emerson defined nature as the “NOT ME.”

The Otherness of the Divine

When we open ourselves to the wild in all its radical otherness, we also open ourselves to the divine, whose handiwork nature is and whose character is stamped upon it like a potter’s fingerprint on a clay vessel. 

According to my religious tradition, Christianity, the world isn’t itself divine; God transcends all of creation. However, nature is revelatory of the divine. It is, as Thoreau says, “the art of God.”

Many find God in the beauty, order, or grandeur of the natural world—birdsongs, sunsets. And rightly so. But the divine is also revealed by nature’s brute is-ness. In the alienness of the wild, we glimpse the transcendence and radical otherness of One who, quite unlike us, is eternal and infinite and ineffable. 

“As the transcendent source of all being, God is qualitatively different from humans and other beings,” I write in No Longer the Same (2011). “While Christians hold that God can be known through the divine self-revelation in Jesus Christ, God nevertheless remains beyond whatever finite humans can conceive or imagine. … As fundamentally other, God can never be fully represented or explained, let alone controlled, by mere human systems or constructions—even those of Christianity itself.” Emerson puts it this way: “when we try to define and describe [God], both language and thought desert us.…That [divine] essence refuses to be recorded in propositions.” Thoreau is more concise: “God is silent and mysterious.”

The transcendence and mystery of the Ultimate is recognized in many other religious traditions as well. For example, the Daodejing teaches that the Ultimate (the Dao) is beyond words; it is “Mystery of mysteries.” In Judaism, the transcendence and mystery of the Divine is reflected, for instance, in the prohibition on pronouncing the four-letter name of God (the Tetragrammaton), believed to be “too holy to say aloud.” Similarly, the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition refers to God as ein sof (“without end,” infinite), to convey the fact that “God is unlike anything we know.” We can come to know God’s personal or human-like aspects, the sefirot (which include God’s lovingkindness and splendor); yet the ein sof, God-in-Godself, remains inaccessible.

This talk of God as radically other may puzzle or disconcert some of my fellow Christians. Especially in its more popular forms, our religious tradition strongly stresses the personal aspects of God, and Christians tend to image God in human-like roles. For some, God is a stern parent or judge, dispensing punishment on those who do evil; for some, God is liberator, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. For others, God is a compassionate friend, forgiving our every failing and wiping away our tears; still others see God as a wise teacher, guiding us in the paths of righteousness and wisdom. Sadly, there are also perverse imaginings, such as God as a hypermasculine MAGA über-patriot.

While that MAGA vision of God is a mere idol, the divine may play some or all of those other roles. But it cannot be reduced to any of them. To do so is to remake God in our own image—turning the eternal and infinite Godhead into nothing more than a souped-up version of our own finite and fallible selves, and making ourselves the object of worship.

Humanity is not “the measure of all things,” and nothing drives that home like immersion in the radical otherness of the wild—even a modest immersion like our backyard campout. Lying on the hard ground watching old oaks 10 or more times our size flail in the wind, or staring up at stars that are 10 million times older than a human lifetime, should disabuse us from fancying that we puny humans are masters of the world. And if we dwindle to insignificance amid the majesty of a vast universe, how much more so do we diminish in relation to a divine that transcends even the universe itself?

Paradoxically, this realization of human impotence and insignificance can be a source of comfort, even delight.

On the one night the skies cleared, I laid on my back staring up at Arcturus, a bright star near the Big Dipper. This red giant has existed for billions of years, long before I was born, long before our species evolved in east Africa. It will remain for billions more years, long after I’m gone, long after Homo sapiens has vanished, long after our planet is consumed by an expanding sun. And when Arcturus has dwindled to a white dwarf, the Ultimate, God, will remain. In the famous Walden passage in which Thoreau calls time “the stream I go a-fishing in,” he goes on to say that time’s “thin current slides away, but eternity remains.”

Thoreau also writes that each part of nature is “content to be part of the mystery which is God.” For this instant in the vastness of eternity, I too am content to be a small part of it all, a tiny thread in a web of being that includes the wind-tossed trees, the twittering birds, the distant stars—all watched over by an infinite, eternal, ineffable Divine. 

What a privilege to be part of it, here in our own backyard.