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Inside Looking Out: The privilege of life

Last week, my friend and I rented a place for three nights in Rome, Pennsylvania, that the homeowner calls Timberframe Cottage.

At first look, we were astounded by the unobstructed panoramic view of the Endless Mountains from the cottage’s backyard. The sky always seems bigger when it looms above the tops of mountains. The morning mist that drifted across the horizon captured our attention with a magical event that no motion picture or video game could ever reproduce with its artificial reality. To use a common expression to describe the beauty of the distant farmlands painted by the Creator of this scene - it took our breath away.

At night, the stars gleaming through the blackened sky reminded me of a poem by Walt Whitman. In his masterpiece he titled, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” Whitman sits in an astronomy class listening to a renowned teacher define the stars in terms of charts, diagrams, proofs, figures, and columns. Whitman says, “How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick till rising and gliding out I wandered off by myself in the mystical moist night air, and from time to time looked up in perfect silence at the stars.”

As we sat by a roaring fire that took the chill off the night’s air, I could feel Whitman’s poem come alive inside of me. You can spend much of your life forging an identity that you hope will make a significant mark upon the world. You work hard every day to attain the attention that is necessary to acknowledge your importance. You stand upon the mountain top and beat your chest with your fists. “Look at me world! I give you the gift of myself!”

And yet, if you spend just one silent night looking up at the stars or a few hours underneath the vast umbrella of the afternoon sky, you realize how small your existence is in this universe. This experience humbles you, removes your sense of self-importance, but then leaves you, as Whitman suggests, with extraordinary peace of mind. You learn that no matter what circumstances have shaped your life, that whatever accomplishments you have attained, you have come into this life without asking why, without knowing why until you discover that you were supposed to be born as a child of Mother Earth.

To know that you share this world with the stars above, the mountains beyond, and the trees that stand before you, and that you breathe the same air with every creature that is here with you in a moment of mortal time to live within an immortal universe, moves you beyond the limits of what the mind can think and the heart can feel.

American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson spent much of his life writing about the spiritual relationship he had with the universe. Nature helped him discover his life’s purpose and that purpose was to share his phenomenal ideas with us. His time spent in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts, empowered his ideas about life. “Don’t be pushed by your problems,” he wrote. “Be led by your dreams.” From his transcendental brotherhood with his natural surroundings, he said, “All that I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.”

In the early 1800s, just like today, we seek to escape our ordinary lives. We want something to thrill us from another dimension, the next technological advancement to wow us by its artificial intelligence. Emerson said we need only to look out our window for the real “wow” in what we seek. He wrote, “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”

After disappearing through devastating storms, torrential rainfalls, and blinding blizzards, the sun always returns to light a new day. Emerson says, “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in. Forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. Begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

Nature befriends the lonely, excites the child, embraces the isolated, and brings comfort to those in her company. No one knew this better than Henry David Thoreau. He made the decision to live in secluded solitude for two years in a one room cabin he built in the deep woods owned by Emerson, his friend. Why did Thoreau make the decision to remove himself from all social contacts and modern conveniences?

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” he wrote. “And see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

It may be impractical for us to live in the woods for two years, but we have the same opportunity as Thoreau to learn what nature has to teach us.

As I sat inside Mother Earth’s classroom behind Timberframe Cottage that she dressed in a kaleidoscope of colors signifying the emergence of autumn, the early morning breeze swept over me with an exhilarating blanket of fresh air, and I learned the lesson she had come to teach me.

What a privilege it is to be alive!

Rich Strack can be reached at richiesadie11@gmail.com