Ruminations on Melville

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet;…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?

Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.

Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea?

That same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.

In just the first six pages of the epic novel Moby Dick, Herman Melville makes man’s instinctive inclination for exploration of that which is vast and natural seem to be an undeniable truth. His message in these pages is so clear that, when first reading it, I couldn’t help but question a claim that seemed so universal. I have scrawled in the margin of my copy phrases like “really?” and “how can you be so sure?” next to the above quotations. The novel continues on at a steady pace which excites a reader alongside Ishmael—we see “the honor and glory of whaling” along with its most gruesome detail. Reading along with this captivating tale, it can be easy to forget any speculation one once had of man’s natural call toward wild waters. Life for Ishmael and the crew is far removed from that of the “landsmen.” At sea these men face the most raw versions of themselves and the novel presents some of the most profound queries into the nature of humanity.

Yet I am reminded again of my initial doubt in the universality of Ishmael’s claim when I read excerpts of Thoreau’s Walden. Can really every person feel nature’s intense allure?

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”

This reminds me of the topic of one of our first class discussions and of my first blog post. We talked about the necessity of having both knowledge and love to cultivate an environmental education. We talked about the moment in which love for the land is first instilled, and the lasting effects of such a spark. But I remember someone in the class questioning if, in fact, everyone does have a moment like this. I certainly have. I imagine this is true of the others in the classroom, and of most of the company I keep. Perhaps that is why I often assume everyone has an almost spiritual connection with land that makes us worry and care so much. But this classroom question is not one to be ignored. It is he same question I have of Ishmael’s assumption.

In a broader application this idea seems to be coming up everywhere I look. The idea I speak of is connection to a place. I was first introduced this idea at the Mountain School. The mission statement reflects directly what is perhaps the most central goal of the program: “to [cultivate a] community of scholars who learn to know a place and take care of it.” Throughout out semester, we talked about how the phrase “sense of place,” could begin to describe how we were growing to feel. There was a deep connection not only to the people at TMS but also to the land and the place, since we were working so hard to take care of it ourselves. The idea of a “sense of place” was so central to my internal dialogue at the Mountain School, that it took me until recently to realize just how universal the idea is. When you think about it, all begins to make perfect sense—it seems only human to yearn for a place to call your own, to cultivate a sense of belonging, an attachment to somewhere.

I recently read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. In the novel she writes hauntingly on the power that a place can hold in our memory, even when much of the rest is gone. Woolf’s words describing the nuanced simplicity of Ramsays’ summer home remind me of my very own places. This is careful cultivation of a sense of place continues to ground me in times of change, as it does for members of the Ramsay family and their dear friends. My deepest sense of place, my closest connection to land comes from working with it.There is, as Thoreau described it, a certain “tonic” to wildness. It comes from harvesting broccoli from its soil and felling its trees for fuel. And it comes from watching new life sprout from the very same soil. If in fact everyone yearns for the same sense of place, an emotional attachment, perhaps this is just what we need to begin treating land with tenderness it deserves.

-Lucy Knox


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