The central question Emerson poses in his seminal essay—the cornerstone of his philosophical vision—is: “To what end is Nature?” This is a question of final cause, of telos, of the ends and purposes that Nature serves.
In answering it, the Transcendentalist discusses four ways in which Nature serves human beings: commodity, beauty, language, and discipline. The upshot will be that Nature is the phenomenal expression of Spirit—that is, the world is primarily Spirit and Nature is the putting forth of Spirit. Universal Being manifests itself through the action of Natura Naturans, and thus Natura Naturata, the material cosmos, is derivative. The details of Emerson’s exposition are mesmerizing and inspiring, and so really engaging to teach!
But there are experiences and lessons related to Nature that I keep in my heart of hearts. I don’t share them, so that my students can have their own epiphanies.
So I have been reflecting silently upon a passage about sea-beaten rocks from Emerson’s discussion of Nature as discipline—that is, of Nature as teacher of intellectual and moral laws to human beings. The philosopher-poet writes:
The moral influence of nature upon every individual is that amount of truth which it illustrates to him. Who can estimate this? Who can guess how much firmness the sea-beaten rock has taught the fisherman?
I have been contemplating and pondering the rocks at Playa Colonia. What moral truths—what spiritual laws—do they reveal to me?
Over the course of several days, while I sojourned in Bahía Ballena, I visited them in the morning and in the afternoon, during my walks along the beaches of the park.
In the morning, I would find the rocks shaded and wet. The hills at the beach’s southeast end cast a shadow over the rocks until the sun climbed high enough in the sky to shine on them. The sea had washed them during high tide and left them wet and opaque as it ebbed.
The shade and wetness darkened the rocks. Even so, I could see the beauty of their colors suggesting themselves, provoking me to look closer. I saw purples, reds, yellows, greens, and ocres wanting to shine through. They invited me to study the mineral composition of rocks—thus disciplining my mind to search for intellectual truth.
I discovered the rocks as shelters for snails and crabs. I followed the scurrying crabs to their hiding nooks. And I admired both the perseverance of the snails, clinging to the rocks, and their hopefulness—their faith!—as they waited for the tide to rise again, for the flow of the sea to rescue them with renewed freshness, life.
With their shy morning beauty, the rocks also summoned me to return in low tide, when the sun had dried their surfaces. So I would visit in the afternoon, when the sun had begun its descent towards the horizon line where the Pacific Ocean met the azure sky. New shapes and colors revealed themselves to the attentive, loving eye.
Beauty unabated by an overcast afternoon sky
Renewed attention to surfaces also helped me to appreciate the cracks—sometimes deep-cut fissures, and yet the rocks would not split or crumble; the textures—the various ways to be rough and scratchy or smooth and caressing; the figures and shapes that would suggest themselves, as if wanting to be sculpted by Artist or Sea.
In the evenings, as I watched the starry sky from my hammock and listened to the Ocean’s lullaby in the distance, I imagined the very same rocks standing firm in the dark, allowing the powerful waves to sculpt them at full tide but remaining steadfast in their groundedness.
The sea-beaten rocks were firm but receptive to the elements, a la intemperie. They were solid earth exposed to the ebbing and flowing water, the singing and flowing air, the burning fire of the sun, and the cool, soothing fire of distant, ever-shining stars.