Cosmic Consolation for Human Hardship: The Great Naturalist John Burroughs on How to Live with Life


“We share in the slow optimistic tendency of the universe… We have life and health and wholeness on the same terms as the trees, the flowers, the grass, the animals have, and pay the same price for our well-being, in struggle and effort, that they pay. That is our good fortune.”


Cosmic Consolation for Human Hardship: The Great Naturalist John Burroughs on How to Live with Life

In those seasons of being when life boughs you down low with world-weariness, when the sun of your soul is collapsing into a black hole, when you despair of humanity’s twin capacity for inhumanity and are no longer able to hold without heartache Maya Angelou’s eternal observation that we are creatures “whose hands can strike with such abandon that in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness” — in those seasons of being, there is great solace in remembering that what we call human nature, with all of its terrors and transcendences and violent contradictions, is a humble subset of nature itself: In nature, where stars are always being born and die and give us life, creation and destruction are always syncopating; in nature, the seasons are always changing; in nature, every loss reveals what we are made of, and that is a beautiful thing.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Available as a printed version.

There is great comfort and calibration in trusting, not with the faith of the pious but with the faith of the naturalist, that even the bleakest seasons pass, and even the most violent forces are counterbalanced by the forces of vitality — cosmic calculus of which the very existence of life is living proof.

Such awareness is not a negation of the need for morality, of our moral calling as human beings to right the forces that violate life, but an affirmation of it — for morality would not exist if suffering did not exist.

Humans are sensitive to each, capable of both and moved by them both.

It is exactly what nature’s great prose poet and naturalist did. John Burroughs (April 3, 1837–March 29, 1921) explores in an exquisite 1904 essay reflection titled “An Outlook upon Life,” included a century later in The Art of Seeing Things: Essays by John Burroughs (public library).

Burroughs’ closest attempt to formulate a personal philosophy was when he wrote, “The only thing that came close to Burroughs distilling his huge view of life into an eloquent credo worthy of borrowing is the following:

I was born under happy stars, with a keen sense of wonder, which has never left me… and which no exaggerated notion of my own deserts. I’ve enjoyed the shared experience and found it enough.

John Burroughs

Echoing the Whitman — who owes his cultural reverence to Burroughs and who, in the wake of his paralytic stroke, considered what makes life worth living and counseled to “tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies” — Burroughs adds:

The man born with high expectations and finds little in his life that meets them is unlucky.

A natural humility of spirit is one of the greatest gifts a man can bring to the world. About the next best thing he can bring, and they usually go together, is an appreciative spirit — a loving and susceptible heart.

A century and an epoch of discoveries before physicist Freeman Dyson observed that “our universe is the most interesting of all possible universes, and our fate as human beings is to make it so,” Burroughs exclaims that this world is “a mighty interesting place to live in” and invites the reader into the cosmic reverie that seems to have been the all-suffusing atmosphere of his own life:

If I were given the chance to choose my own celestial bodies and my life, I would take this planet. And I will be choosing these women and men as my friends and fellow travelers. This great rolling sphere with its sky, its stars, its sunrises and sunsets, and with its outlook on look into infinity — what could be more desirable? Is there anything more rewarding? Garlanded by the seasons, embosomed in sidereal influences, thrilling with continents — one might ransack the heaves in vain for a better or more picturesque abode.

Art by Daniel Bruson for The Universe in Verse: My God, It’s Full of Stars.

Half a century before the Nobel-winning founding father of quantum mechanics Erwin Schrödinger’s dazzling illumination of consciousness as a function of the universe, Burroughs adds:

While we might wish there was a better universe than this one, our minds cannot imagine one. All our concepts of value and ideas are built upon what we have learned in this current world.

More than the unsurpassable beauty of the planet, however, Burroughs celebrates the sheer sense of belonging to a world — to a totality of being across species and landscapes, a totality the German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel had given the name ecology when Burroughs was just beginning his literary life while working as a treasury clerk. He exults:

To share in the wonderful, joyful, and sunny life of this earth! To be happy like the birds! You will be as happy as the hill cattle! As the leaves that move and rustle in wind, The waters that shimmer and murmur to the sea! It is essential to be able see that all of humanity suffers from sin.

Dorothy Lathrop’s art, 1922. Available as both a printed copy and stationery card.

Burroughs added:

How could we live without death and decay? What is sin? It’s another name for immaturity. Without it and the struggles that follow, how can we develop our society?

[…]

Look at the grass, the flowers, the sweet serenity and repose of the fields — at what price it has all been bought, of what warring of the elements, of what overturnings and pulverizings and shiftings of land and sea… We deplore the waste and suffering, but these things never can be eliminated from the process of evolution. As individuals we can mitigate them; as races and nations we have to endure them… and the evolution of life on the globe, including the life of man, has gone on and still goes on, because, in the conflict of forces, the influences that favored life and forwarded it have in the end triumphed.

Part of the Milky Way, from a study made between 1874 and 1876
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s nineteenth-century astronomical drawings, observed through the era’s most powerful telescope. This image is available as both a print or as stationery cards to benefit The Nature Conservancy.

In a lovely antidote to human exceptionalism, Burroughs celebrates our shared inheritance with the rest of life, itself exceptional — a bright gift of chance against the staggering cosmic odds of nonexistence:

It is unlikely that we have special dispensations or providences, but our good fortune. [ancestors]We may believe that this is how we can escape from any evil. But our luck is that we are part of the whole scheme of things. That we share the slow optimist tendency of the universe. That we enjoy life, health, and wholeness in the same way that the animals, trees, grasses, and flowers do. And that we pay the same amount for our well-being in effort and struggle as they do. This is the source of our happiness. It is not accidental nor exceptional. You cannot make things happen by any supernatural force or favor of any god.

[…]

If fortunes fall prematurely below the currents it’s because we and our fortunes are vulnerable.

Spring Moon on Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Japanese artist Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage woodblock prints. This print is also available as an option.

Rachel Carson — the twentieth century’s great prose-poet of nature, recipient of the John Burroughs Medal, the Nobel of nature writing — would echo this sentiment in her sublime meditation on the ocean and the meaning of life; James Baldwin — the twentieth century’s great prose-poet of human nature — would echo it in his classic insistence that we must “say Yes to life and embrace it whenever it is found” because “the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, [and] the sea does not cease to grind down rock.” A century before Maya Angelou serenaded our shared destiny on this “lonely planet” adrift “past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns,” Burroughs adds:

Nature has no regard for a sun or planet, and neither does it care about the bubble in the river. What number of suns have been extinguished? How many planets have perished?… She has infinite worlds left, and out of old she makes new… Nature wins in every game because she bets on both sides. Her laws will prevail, even if her systems or suns fail. A burnt-out sun vindicates the constancy of her forces… In an orchard of apple trees some of the fruit is wormy, some scabbed, some dwarfed, from one cause or another; but Nature approves of the worm, and of the fungus that makes the scab, and of the aphid that makes the dwarf, just as sincerely as she approves of the perfect fruit. She holds the stakes of both sides; she wins, whoever loses… Peace, satisfaction, true repose, come only through effort, and then not for long.

The great comet of 1881, observed on June 26, 1:30 A.M.
Another of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s nineteenth-century astronomical drawings. This print is also available as stationery cards and a printed copy. All proceeds go to The Nature Conservancy.

With this, Burroughs returns to the animating question of his reflection — what, amid the universe’s ceaseless dance of dissolution, makes human life worth living and what, amid nature’s indifference to our notions of good and evil, backbones a good life:

The highest good is to be able to see the big truths with a wide mind and to not lose sight of all the apparent contradictions.

Complement with Marcus Aurelius on the good luck of your bad luck and Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering, then revisit Mary Shelley — envisioning a twenty-first-century world savaged by a deadly pandemic, from a nineteenth-century world savaged by the decade-long Napoleonic Wars — on nature’s consolations and what makes life worth living.


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