Reading American Romanticism with Students after the Election

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Photo taken from Clingman’s Dome, Smoky Mountains

“What is wanted is men, not of policy, but of probity–who recognize a higher law than the Constitution, or the decision of the majority. The fate of the country does not depend on how you vote at the polls–the worst man is as strong as the best at that game; it does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.” – From Henry D. Thoreau’s Slavery in Massachusetts

Walking into my classroom after the election results were in, I saw student faces that were weathered and withdrawn. Hunter College, where I teach as an adjunct, is progressive, inclusive, and liberal compared to other places I’ve taught, so the faces looked much like those of nearly every New Yorker on the street on Wednesday, November 9th. I advised my students to take the time to go on their nature walks and heal, firmly believing that it would help them feel better because I myself take long walks to meditate and I always leave nature feeling more positive and centered. “In the woods, we return to reason and faith,” Ralph W. Emerson writes in Nature. Little did I know, Secretary Hillary Clinton, ever a model of poise and grace, would also be found walking in nature after the election, providing an example for my students.

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Photo taken Northbound on the Appalachian Trail, Tennessee

Assigning a Nature Walk in American Lit

I teach a survey course in American Literature (origins to the Civil War) in which I try to do two things: (1) show students that the nation’s origins depend on its founding mothers and people of color as much as–if not more so than–its founding fathers; and (2) bring urban students into closer contact with nature so they can see how environment shapes identity. When we arrive at the American Transcendentalists, #2 becomes more important because many of my students are native New Yorkers who haven’t had the same experience of drinking “the wild air” like Emerson and Thoreau. Yet they always find nature in New York–so much of it, in fact, that they have taught me to love this city.

Throughout the semester, I require students write a total of five blog posts, one of which is a reflection on a one-hour “nature walk” sans technology (or with their phones turned to airplane mode). I recommend they bring Emerson or Thoreau with them to get their reading done outside, and I ask them to use all of their senses. This time around, many reflected on the election and expressed doubt and despair. However, most blog posts ended peacefully and contentedly, as they usually do. It could not have come at a better time yet I certainly hadn’t predicted the outcome of the election! I had positioned this blog post near the end of the semester to help students combat despair as well as end-of-term anxiety and fatigue. If you have some time this week before Thanksgiving or after the holiday to do this with your students, I cannot recommend it enough to help with post-election depression. Either take your class to a local park or ask students to do it individually and reflect on the experience.

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Photo taken on the Appalachian Trail, Virginia

Showcase: Student Reflections on Nature, Post-Election

Students explored their local and distant environments, some taking their pets for walks, some revisiting their favorite parks, and others using the assignment as an excuse to leave New York City to go on a serious hike. Their posts revealed:

Increased self-awareness:

“I was overwhelmed by an abundance of silence, filled only by the leaves crunching underfoot. Nothing, not even a single chirp of a bird. I compared this utter silence to the “silence” I am accustomed to in Manhattan, where even in the dead of night there is some hum of activity. But with this silence, I became aware of how loud was: my footsteps, my conversation with my partner, even my breathing. The silence of the forest amplified my everyday noises.”

Increased acceptance:

“I walked the trail and tried to put everything going on currently out of my mind. I listened to the light rain hitting the leaves on the trees, or at least what is left of them. I heard rustling in the grass from squirrels running back and forth through the leaves. There are a number of benches every 100 feet or so apart, so I decided to sit on one that was facing a creek that leads into the east river. I sat there for twenty minutes or so and I didn’t know what to do, so I just concentrated on my breathing. At this point I noticed I started to get a clear head. I got up and walked further along the trail. … This is my favorite place in the world. This place brings me so much happiness and a great sense of freedom. It is calm; it brings tranquility. Then I remembered a quote [from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature:] “The sun shines today also.” It was the perfect remedy for all the distress going on. The sun does shine today, and tomorrow, and everyday after that. No matter what happens in the world, nature will always be a constant. The seasons may change, but we will always have a day and night. A sunrise and a sunset. Every single day. Life goes on. I didn’t appreciate Emerson’s words as much as I do now, because they did not make as much sense to me as they do now.”

Curiosity about how environments impact humans:

“Research suggests that whatever you are “seeing, hearing, and experiencing at any moment” not only changes your mood but also affects how your central nervous system operates. It is said that a “negative environment can cause you to feel anxious, sad and or helpless.” While positive has the opposite effect on you.   I guess it’s fitting when they say nature heals, soothes, and restores the soul.”

Increased solution-oriented thinking:

“Humans naturally attune to the environment, so more industrial and less natural environments result in problems, but a well-designed city with lots of trees and nature incorporated into the plan would suffice. People could live in a modernized community as long as there are enough trees to filter the pollution produced by cars and the negativity people sometimes carry. It’s amazing how nature filters not only physical pollution, but also mental pollution, and in a way, also aids in cleansing spiritual pollution.”

Relief from the election by returning to the familiar:

“This weekend I went on a nature walk for a class assignment and we were asked to ignore our phones or any other source of technological distraction. This was a welcomed assignment because by now I’m sure you’re all just as tired as I am keeping up with this election and the aftermath of it. I decided to go for a walk with my two younger brothers, to a park nearby in our neighborhood. Growing up I used to love going outside, there was always something new to discover with my cousins who always accompanied me to various parks. The sound of sneakers smashing against the floor was my favorite sound, we would always play freeze tag with each other and it never got old. Going on this nature walk was eye opening and ear opening because, I had forgotten what the sound of sneakers smashing against the floor sounded like.”

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Photo taken on Appalachian Trail, North Carolina

If you click on the embedded links and read the full posts written by these students on our public class blog, you’ll see more of similar sentiment. To draw from Emerson, nature is “the vehicle of thought” that allows us to explore ourselves in self-reflection. This can lead us to stronger self-reliance, something all of us are in need of as we face difficult conversations with those who voted differently. It is “unity in variety” in nature that makes us feel “part and parcel” of the world in all its concordant and discordant flows and assemblages. The awareness that difference is generative and productive–a necessary part to unity–can help us combat fear and divisiveness. And if we attend to nature, attuning ourselves in mood and pulse (for nature “wears the colors of the spirit” and it would be unwise to allow ourselves to succumb to despair), then we can, like Emerson, “expand and live in the warm day like corn and melons.” We can feel big instead of feeling small with defeat. We must remind ourselves that we are “strangers in nature” before we can get to know one another.

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Photo taken from a fire tower in North Carolina, Smoky Mountains

Is This a Good Time for Romanticism?

Perhaps this reads as too “out there” for you, like a surreal or maybe even irresponsible reaction. But let me remind you that Emerson’s words from Nature lead to Thoreau’s words in Civil Disobedience and Slavery in Massachusetts. Emerson himself finishes his essay “Experience” with this call for justice:

“Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat: up again, old heart!–it seems to say,–there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power.”

There is harmony and unity to be found in the wake of this election, and we must attune ourselves to our environments–and those environments we have avoided but must hear now more than ever–if we expect to listen and to harmonize. Of course that makes us vulnerable, but the collective call to make political change happen–the fight for social justice–is a heroic one, a romantic transformation of what we believe to be virtuous into practical power. American Transcendentalism leads to American Pragmatism. This is a time for reimagining our future but if we don’t know ourselves, if we have no self-awareness to build upon…how can we become self-reliant, inspired with a vision, without knowing what we want?

We need to ask ourselves challenging questions: What does social justice look like? Who have we excluded? What does equality feel like? Where does our sense of responsibility come from? Is it moral, ethical, humane? What does Emerson mean by “genius”?

I look to my students and tell them that they are the future, that they will have to fix the world when it is broken by previous generations, and that they will have the power to do so if they suspect their instruments, attune themselves to their environments, and seek first-hand experience and learning. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I don’t pretend to have any answers. I look to my students for answers. And they seemed more optimistic after an hour in nature. So I think this is the best time for romanticism.

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,–that is genius.” – From Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”

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Photo from Beauty Spot, Tennessee

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