On Christmas Day, 1832, Ralph Waldo Emerson, newly resigned from the burdensome constraints of ministry, rather impulsively boarded a freighter bound for Malta. He had declared in writing: “I will not see with others’ eyes…. I would be free.” Over the course of many weeks, he slowly wandered up through Italy and into France. A half-a-year into his trip, he visited Paris’ botanical gardens, a place of major scientific research.
It was an experience that would redirect the course of his life. Exhilarated by the scientific classifications demonstrating relationships between species, he noted, “How much better things are in composition than alone.” And that’s when the insight arrived, a perception that, in time, would not just reorient his life, but would also introduce a new way of thinking about our human relationship to nature.
Gazing intently upon the gathered species, he felt—intuited, really—that they were not just related to one another but were somehow linked to him. “Not a form,” he’d write, “so grotesque, so savage, nor so beautiful but is an expression of some property inherent in the observer…”And, in his ecstatic state, he would affirm: “I feel the centipede in me—cayman, carp, eagle and fox. I am moved by strange sympathies; I say continually, ‘I will be a naturalist.’”
Robert Richardson, in his biography of Emerson, The Mind on Fire, reports: “He did not become a scientist or even a naturalist…. But from now on he acknowledged an unbreakable tie between his own mind and the natural world.” And that way of thinking would launch the Transcendentalist movement.
As theological descendants of that Transcendentalism, how do we understand the relationship between humankind and the natural world? Are we necessary caretakers of a less-well-equipped natural order? Is nature our gigantic big box store, a place for us to roam up and down its aisles, taking, using, drilling, harvesting at will? Is nature something we are apart from, and therefore something we need, at least on occasion, to get back to?
There are dramatic implications for how we imagine the way humans and nature are related. Our view of it and us and how the two do or don’t correlate will have significant consequences in the commitments we make, in the habits we attempt to break, in the concerns we raise, and in the things we find to celebrate.
I suggest that Emerson offers us a very good place to begin. His “original relationship” is the key. We should experience nature for ourselves, and our experiences should be trusted. Emerson was an inveterate walker, setting out in all kinds of weather to observe, to apprehend, to encounter, and to draw conclusions for himself.
To be sure, he regarded science with deep respect. He read and studied and talked often with the scientists of his day. His deepest experiences, however, were not found in books or laboratories, but rather in the woods and the streets and farms, alongside the streams and ponds all about him. Emerson bemoans: “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within [us] is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.”
That’s it. That’s the relationship: “universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related.” “We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.” The botanical garden thrilled Emerson because he discovered not just a whole new world of science there; he discovered himself.
We don’t escape to nature. Rather, there is no escape from nature; it is within us. We don’t get away to nature. Rather, there is no place to get away from nature; we are forever being drawn into that deep connection. A cardinal’s single chirp, a frog croaking in the night, the shrill cry of a hawk, the haunting call of an owl. A dogwood in bloom, an iris bursting with shameless color, a simple wildflower, a red bud gone from pink to green.
Susan Griffin put it this way: “We are nature. We are nature seeing nature… Nature speaking of nature to nature.” And in the words of Emerson’s friend and fellow Transcendentalist, H. D. Thoreau: “The creaking of the crickets seems at the very foundation of all sound… It is a sound from within, not without. It reminds me that I am a denizen of the earth.”
I was born and raised about a hundred miles from Charlotte in Greenville, South Carolina.I’m a third-generation alumnus of Furman University where I graduated with a major in philosophy. I had a very winding path in seminary that took me to Rüschlikon, Switzerland, Louisville, Kentucky, and Wake Forest, North Carolina. During the transfer of my ordination to Unitarian Universalist I completed a second Master of Divinity degree at the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California, where I also taught preaching and worked in the area of new student recruitment.
In a ministerial career of three-and-a half decades I’ve served prior congregations in Charlotte, New Orleans, Houston and Napa. Among my many community activities, I served on the Board of Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans and the Board of Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, worked as a clergy counselor at a hospice for people with HIV/AIDS and helped initiate the work of a Corporate Responsibility Committee for a major Catholic healthcare system.
I’m a Class XXVII graduate of Leadership Charlotte, was involved in North Carolina’s “Moral Monday Movement” under the leadership of Rev. William Barber, am a member of the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice, and currently chair the Charlotte Mecklenburg School Superintendent’s Interfaith Advisory Council.
In the larger world of Unitarian Universalism, I am a past-president of the Senior Ministers of Large UU Congregations and served on the Presidential Search Committee for the Starr King School for the Ministry.I currently am on the Board of Trustees and Executive Committee for Starr King.And, I enjoy a role on the Board of Skinner House, one of our denominational publishing houses.
I have a deep personal and spiritual interest in poetry, a passion that is often reflected in our services. I have a longstanding interest in the American Transcendentalists, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, an affinity that also informs the content of our services.Much of my current reading, study and teaching is the area of racial justice.
I’ve been an on-again, off-again runner, completing two marathons along the way, I love baseball and travel, especially spending time in the low country of South Carolina, have a burgeoning interest in photography and a lifelong love of music of all kinds.
My wife, the Rev. Melissa A. Mummert, is also an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. She is a graduate of the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley and is both the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Catawba Valley in Hickory, North Carolina and the Affiliated Community Minister of the UUCC. She is on the staff of Changed Choices where she works with incarcerated women and women in transition from incarceration. Her work as a documentary filmmaker includes “A Perversion of Justice” and “Life Without.”She is also a singer/songwriter with a recording of original songs called “Ready.”
We are the proud parents of a child, Emerson, who was born in 2006.