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Dancing with the Daffodils in a Densely Woven World

June 21, 2012

By Greg Graham

 

In the poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” William Wordsworth saunters upon a stunning scene – “a host of golden daffodils.” He is overcome by the sight, but only later does he realize the value of the experience:

I gazed — and gazed — but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

            Two things: First, how often do I wander aimlessly about, taking in the richness of everything I see? Sure, I might do this if I’m backpacking the Appalachian trail or sitting on the steps of Sacré-Cœur Basilicataking in the panoramic view of Paris, but how often do I allow my loneliness, as Wordsworth did, to lead me into the “bliss of solitude” at the nearest wooded area, garden, or park?

 

In search of elbow room

As a child, I was drawn (like many youngsters in the 60’s and 70’s) to the narratives about Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett always pressing westward in search of “elbow room.” The poetic mythology that surrounded these men instilled in me a love of nature and the Indian way, focused more on harmony with nature than conquest. I spent my childhood in the woods near my house, returning home only to eat, sleep, and watch Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” starring Marlin Perkins. As I walked those trails and breathed in the beauty, resonating deep in my bones was the iconic image of Daniel Boone standing on a bluff, leaning on his rifle and gazing out across a breathtaking valley. He and Davy Crockett were trekking with me, joined in my teen years by Jeremiah Johnson and James Fenimore Cooper’s Hawkeye; then, when I was a young man, Thoreau, Emerson, Wordsworth and Keats were added to the group.

My mom has never forgotten my love of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, so anytime a new biography comes out, she sends me a copy. Upon reading the excellent 2007 biography of Boone by Robert Morgan, I was pleased to discover that Boone had been an inspiration to Thoreau, who had in turn been an inspiration to me. It was like discovering two of your favorite people from completely different places already know and like each other. It took me years to see the synchronicity coursing through my life, starting when I got my first genuine replica of Boone’s famous long rifle “Tick Licker” (with matching coonskin cap) for my ninth birthday, and stretching to the days I spend each semester discussing Thoreau’s concept of the “westward impulse” with my students.

 

Regarding the inward eye

Of course, the bliss of solitude doesn’t have to be limited to an excursion into nature, thus my second point taken from Wordsworth’s poem. How often do I lie on my couch “in vacant or pensive mood,” paying attention to my “inward eye”? Wordsworth is saying that the scene he beheld was available to him in his imagination; he carried it with him as a source of pleasure from which to draw when necessary. This concept bears a close resemblance to Keats’ idea expressed in Book 1 of Endymion, where he swoons “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.” The beautiful things our eyes behold, Keats asserts, “Haunt us till they become a cheering light/ Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast/ That, whether there be shine or gloom o’ercast, They always must be with us, or we die.” When we encounter beauty, Keats is saying, it nestles in our hearts and stays there for us to access and draw life.

I know this is true for me. This year when the fall colors were at their peak, I was trekking deep in the Ozark National Forest and came upon a grove of Maples whose leaves were glowing bright orange. The sunlight created a small cathedral, a space shimmering with the warmest color I’ve ever experienced. I felt I had walked upon a sacred event, like Moses’ burning bush.

I didn’t take a picture; it would have taken me out of the moment, and the picture wouldn’t have captured the experience adequately anyway. What I did was absorb that scene into my soul: the quietness, the effervescent hues, the rusty smell, the longing that rose up in me for a life more like this – each sensation resides in me now, humming brightly within even when, perhaps most of all when, I am trudging through dark times. That moment is my joy forever.

I’m buying what Keats and Wordsworth are selling, but if I’m honest, I’ll admit that I don’t take much time to sit still like Wordsworth and regard my “inward eye.” Like most people I know, almost all the spare time in my life is filled by some kind of screen – TV, smart phone, computer, tablet. We’ve got screens of all shapes and sizes, promising to keep us company and save us from loneliness and boredom.

 

In praise of boredom

When I talk about this issue with students, they don’t get what all the fuss is about. Many of them remark “man, just sitting there by yourself is depressing.” They see sitting alone as both a sign and a cause of depression. If that was the case, one would assume that diagnoses of depression would be in decline the last twenty years. In fact, the opposite is true: prescriptions for antidepressants have quadrupled over the last two decades.

To those who have grown up in the digital age, it is an automatic reflex to respond to loneliness by filling in the gap with some digital stimulation. And, of course, young people aren’t the only ones doing it. We older folks have also learned to wash our troublesome feelings away in the digital stream. Though I have that tendency, I’m also lucky enough to remember a time and place where “untethered” living was reality. I learned how to have fun “doing nothing.” All the kids in my neighborhood needed was an empty green bean can and we could play for hours. If no one was around, we even knew how to entertain ourselves alone. We didn’t necessarily want to be bored, but that boredom often served as a canvas on which our imagination was able to paint. Today’s hovering media sends a message to children: you should expect to always be entertained.

Curiosity, or the attraction to mental stimulation, appears to be a universal human trait, so it is natural for people to choose titillation over tedium. However, like many challenges in life, the blahs can pay dividends in the long run. Writer and teacher Barry Sanders describes boredom as “the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.” Sanders explains:

Underlying boredom, where nothing at all seems to be happening—opposite of the TV’s image—lays the possibility for a child to discover something of extreme importance: himself or herself. That moment of expanded quiet—and a child knows very few such moments—offers the young person an opportunity to learn what he or she believes, and thinks, ultimately providing moments of great strength. If the youngster can persist in that down time, boredom can turn into an episode of self-reflective insight.

 Our family recently dug out some old 8 MM videos shot in the 90’s and discovered a tape of our 5 year old son playing with a lady bug. He must have played with that thing on our front porch for twenty minutes (it didn’t end well for the lady bug – think Lennie in Of Mice and Men). I don’t think of my children as growing up in the pre-digital era, but it’s astounding to ponder how things have changed in just 15 years. 15 years ago, we didn’t have the internet hooked up in our home, and we didn’t have cell phones or iPods or iPads or laptops or DVR’s.

With the blazing advancement and proliferation of new media technology, fewer children every year are growing up engaging with the natural world or their own imaginations. They are getting cell phones (now smart phones) at younger and younger ages, wired to the wider world before their brains are developed enough to make any sense of it all.

 

A story uncovered

If all of this bothers you, then we agree. But even with the troubling tendencies I see in society today, I remain hopeful in the resiliency and adaptability of human beings.

I teach college freshman writing, and one of the first writing exercises I introduce to my students asks about the neighborhood they grew up in. I elicit stories from their childhood, because stories are the primary way we make sense of our lives and locate ourselves in the world. One student recently said to me that there was nothing worth telling about his life out in the country: “All I’ve ever done,” he said, “is sit on the couch and watch TV.” How about escapades in the woods? Nope, his parents were wary of snakes and bugs. A creek where you caught tadpoles or crawfish? Afraid not. A tree under which you sat to read a book or ponder life? Yeah right.

I couldn’t decide whether to hug the guy or shake him, so I just kept prodding. There was a story in there somewhere, buried behind his dull eyes. This young man was suffering from what renowned sociology professor Johan Galtung called “chronic image flicker.” Like the numb masses in Huxley’s Brave New World, a constant diet of rich digital images had clouded his inward eye, nearly disabling it. But my prodding eventually produced results, uncovering the unregarded story of his grandparent’s farm just up the hill, where he spent countless hours engaging in the life of a farm: gathering eggs, milking the cows, and feeding the horses. “Wow, you’ve got tons of things to tell us – things that most of us (a show of hands indicated that only one person in the room had ever gathered eggs) would be fascinated to hear about.” My student’s eyes brightened a bit. I think his classmates perked up too. Many of them were nodding their heads as they took pen to paper and started writing about the beautiful things they have seen or smelled or tasted – things previously unregarded, but with just a little digging recovered as the hidden treasures they really are.

As teachers, and as parents, mentors, and friends, we can encourage this kind of seeing in those under our influence. But it takes effort, it takes slowing down in order to look again, to look harder, to see, as Wordsworth did, the wealth around us.

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