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Wordsworth in the Tropics

09/29/08 7:55AM By Peter Gilbert
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(HOST) Like many Vermonters, Humanities Council executive director and commentator Peter Gilbert loves the natural world and the beauty of Vermont. But he knows that that isn't the whole story on nature, and he wonders if the way we think about our relationship with nature isn't changing.

(GILBERT) This year's hurricane season has been another bad one. Although we're comparatively safe from hurricanes up here in Vermont, news of deadly tropical storms in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean reminds me that the largely peaceful nature we see around us is just one facet of the natural world. Here in beautiful Vermont, the cozy comfort of "These green hills and silver waters" (as our state song calls them) can lull us into believing that this is all there is to nature. But hurricane season reminds us each year that nature can be as terrible as it can be kind. It can inspire awe, fear, and dread, as well as peacefulness and love.

The author Aldous Huxley wrote an essay in 1929 entitled "Wordsworth in the Tropics." It's about the English poet William Wordsworth, who lived in the late 1700s and early 1800s amidst the pastoral hills and silver waters of northern England's beautiful Lake District. He was a Romantic poet, a nature poet who found in the peaceful landscape around him manifestations of the Romantic ideas of harmony, unity, and serenity. Huxley asserts that Wordsworth mistook the pastoral for the natural, forgetting that the sheep and countless miles of stone walls rolling over hill and dale are not nature, but nature tamed, nature recreated in Man's own image.

Huxley argues that it's too bad Wordsworth never left Europe. "A voyage through the tropics," he writes, "would have cured him of his too easy and comfortable pantheism. A few months in the jungle would have convinced him that the diversity and utter strangeness of Nature are at least as real and significant as its intellectually discovered unity." Huxley asserts that time in the tropics would have caused Wordsworth to love nature where love was the appropriate emotion, but also, in the face of nature's sinister, hostile, and terrifying aspect, to respect it and fear it.

I love the outdoors, and I've loved Wordsworth's poetry since I first read it in college. But I love the wild outdoors as well as the domesticated beauty of the Lake District and the Lake Champlain Valley. As a traveler, and former technical mountaineer and dog-sledder, I'm drawn also to the awful starkness of African deserts and the Barren Lands of the subarctic, the unforgiving power of precipitous mountains - and the bad weather that comes to all those places.

For a long time Westerners have had a sense that we've largely mastered nature, that we've "subdued" the earth, as it says in Genesis. But I wonder whether the way we view our relation to nature isn't changing, given concerns about global warming and fears that nature is out of balance, spinning off more and worse tropical storms, blizzards, and droughts. As Huxley points out, it's easy to love a "feeble and already conquered enemy," such as Wordsworth's defanged nature, but not "an unconquered, unconquerable, ceaselessly active enemy."
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