“Nature is a mutable cloud which is always and never the same.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 - April 27, 1882) is one of America's most influential thinkers and writers, and his essays, lectures, and poems explore, among other things, the relationship between the individual and the surrounding world. He was a founder of the transcendental movement of the 1830s, which prioritized knowledge that is sensed or intuited rather than that which is solely derived from scientific discovery. He was a proponent of the favoring the individual over society, going out into nature for long walks, and one of the most influential nature writers of all time.
Emerson is one of the most frequently quoted philosophers of the 1830s, along with his contemporaries and friends Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau. Some of his popular phrases that you might have seen floating around the internet include, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail,” and, “What lies behind you and what lies in front of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.”
He was born in Boston in 1803 and went on to attend Harvard, where he first began keeping lists of books and journals. A solid middle-of-the-road student (he graduated smack-dab in the center of almost 60 classmates in 1821), Emerson was also the Class Poet.
Emerson went on to study religion and was ordained as a pastor with the Second Church of Boston in 1829. Around that time he also married his first wife, Ellen, who died of tuberculosis at 20. After her death in 1831 he became disillusioned with the ritualistic aspect of the church, and the following year he resigned from the establishment. After traveling to Europe and meeting other great creatives of the time, he eventually remarried and began his career as a lecturer and essayist in 1835.
If you are looking for a slim paperback to throw in you pack on your next overnight, consider “Nature,” an essay by Emerson that was revolutionary in its day and that suggests reality can be understood through experiences in the outdoors. It was published in 1836 and is widely regarded as marking the beginning of Transcendentalism.
The movement owes its existence primarily to Emerson and was wildly influential in shaping how people of the 19th century saw the world. It is marked by a new approach to literature, philosophy and religion, but also by an opposition to the traditional, money-driven view of success. This time period gave rise to the idea that people should be judged on their moral merit rather than their financial status.
Transcendentalism has left it’s mark on the American way of life. Emerson was a tremendous influence on John Muir, who in turn helped to shape the American relationship with public lands in the 20th century. Trancendentalism enjoyed a resurgence in America's anti-conformist beatnik lifestyle and especially in the travel, adventure and nature writing of the 1960s onward.
Outdoor enthusiasts are usually pretty familiar with these concepts, if not where they stem from. In a lot of ways, Emerson's ideas are pretty similar to those of the average dirtbag. We get out into nature to reconnect with what feels like the best part of ourselves as individuals and often prioritize adventure over other monetary pursuits.
Here’s to Emerson, the transcendentalists, and learning a little more about how the world works each time we go for a hike.