Beloved Writers on Nature as an Antidote to Depression – Brain Pickings

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“It is not only on you that dark spots fall, the darkness also threw their spots on me.” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) wrote in his deepest, most visible poem. Even if the dark spots fall on me, I stand with Whitman and turn to the most reliable source of light – the natural world or what he so soulfully described as “the invigorating and floating balance of concrete nature outdoors”, the one only permanent dependence on mental health of the book or human life ”- the moon, seen through a telescope, so close and unassailable, this radiant ball of original scar tissue; the mossy trunk of a centuries-old cedar tree, surrounded by the survival of wars and famines, a silent witness to countless human heart pains; The song of the thrush and the blossom of the magnolia and the exuberant optimism of this first blade of grass through the frosty ground – these confusions of beauty do not dispel the depression, but they dispel the excess with which we humans live, our worries and by making us so selfless do, give us back to ourselves.

The tolerable lightness of being Maria Popova. (Available in print from The Nature Conservancy.)

Here are some beloved writers from the last quarter of a millennium who knew the dark spots and wrote beautifully about this permanent antidote to inner darkness, starting, as we must, with the poet laureate of nature itself.


Whilst composing Leaves of Grass – this timeless gift of light – Whitman was troubled by the darkest self-doubts: “Everything I’ve done seems empty and suspicious to me,” he worried in his diary. “I doubt whether my biggest thoughts…. are not flat – and people will most likely laugh at me. “But at an elementary level, he knew that those who are able to reach” sunny expanses and sky-high heights “tend to” live in the bare spots and in the dark “. He believed “that no first class artist or work can or can be without it.” It is a completely different concept than the dangerous myth of the suffering artist – rather it is the bold acknowledgment that one has to feel fully to make works of irrepressible truth and beauty, to use the whole spectrum of being without that suppress darkest feelings.

In Whitman’s fifty-third year, life put his creed to the test – a paralytic stroke left him severely disabled. Under the care of his brother in the New Jersey woods, he began the slow, careful recovery process. When he started to use his body again, he attributed the small, hard-earned triumphs to “daily life under the open sky” between the trees and under the stars. He finally recovered almost completely after turning the forest into an outdoor gym, but the catastrophe left him existentially shaken to consider the most elementary questions: where does one find meaning amidst the precarious insecurity of being? How do you maximize those little pockets of joy that make it possible to continue living through acute suffering and making art? What makes life worth living in the end?

The resulting meditations appear in Rehearsal days (public library) – the overall indispensable collection of his prose fragments, letters and diary entries that also give us Whitman’s reflections on the spiritual power of music, optimism as a power of political resistance and how to stop criticism from losing your creative trust, gave .

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

A decade after his stroke, Whitman looked back at what had saved him – body and soul – and wrote:

I think the trick is to tone your desires and tastes deep enough and make a lot of negatives and only daylight and sky.


After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, socializing, love etc. – you have found that none of them are finally satisfied or permanently worn – what is left? Nature stays; to get out of their lazy niches the affinities of a man or a woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changing seasons – the sun by day and the stars of the sky by night.

In another entry, he looks at the essence of happiness by locating it in absolute presence with nature and unalloyed attention with the rhythms of the earth:

I don’t know what or how, but it seems to me mainly because of these heavens (every now and then I think, although of course I’ve seen them every day of my life, I’ve never really seen heaven). I had some wonderfully happy hours this fall – can’t I say completely happy ones? As I read, Byron told a friend shortly before his death that he had only known three happy hours throughout his existence. Then there is the old German legend of the royal bell, on the same point. While I was out there by the forest, this beautiful sunset through the trees, I thought of Byrons and the bell story and the idea started within me that I had a happy hour. (Though I may never write down my best moments; when they come, I can’t afford to break the charm by addressing memoranda. I just let myself be in the mood and let it float and carry myself in its calm expanse.)


“Life has to go through” John Keats (October 31, 1795 – February 23, 1821) wrote to his closest friend: “And I’m sure to comfort myself from the thought of writing one or two more poems before it stops.” Keats’ short life has been hit by regular attacks of depression. In another fragment of his excellent in his Selected letters (public library) he writes: “I am so depressed now that I have no idea to put it on paper – my hand feels like lead – and yet it is an unpleasant numbness that does not remove the pain of existence. “

Keats found only two remedies for soul-suppressing deafness: his friends ‘love (“I couldn’t live without my friends’ love”) and love for nature. Another letter to his dearest friend is a beautiful, bittersweet will for both:

You may have once thought there was something like worldly happiness that could be reached at certain times – you were necessarily led out of your disposition – I hardly remember expecting any luck – I don’t look like if it’s not in the current hour – nothing scares me beyond the moment. The setting sun will always fix me – or if a sparrow comes to my window, I take part in its existence and look for the gravel.


That is impressive enough Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930 – January 12, 1965) – whom James Baldwin adored and described as “a small, shy, determined person … who did not try to make it”. [but just] Trying to Preserve Faith ”- revolutionized our cultural landscape of possibilities by becoming the first black playwright to be performed on Broadway, and giving civil rights a completely new vocabulary. It is triple impressive that she did so, while the gray nimbus of depression hung deep and heavy over much of her life. Hansberry largely maintained the faith by turning to nature because of his irrepressible light.

In a diary entry quoted in Imani Perry’s overall great biography In search of Lorraine: The bright and radical life of Lorraine Hansberry (public library), Hansberry observes with dispassionate distance that her misfortune has taken the form of “steady, calm, quiet misery”; She sits in a place she once worshiped and now feels “cold, useless, frustrated, helpless, disillusioned, angry and tired”. She looks tiredly at the only ointment she knows:

Hills, trees, sunrise and sunset – the lake, the moon and the stars / summer clouds – the poets were right in these centuries … even in their astonishing imperfection our earth is great.


For those who are superficially familiar with his life and work, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) could appear as an optimist with rosy lenses who is drunk with transcendentalist delusion and lives in self-chosen exile from the darker realities of the world. Such an assessment of his inner world – the inner world of a human being – is not only impoverished by nuances, but also orthogonal to the complex full-spectrum human being that rises from the sides Henry David Thoreau’s diary (public library) – this timeless source of truth that has given us over the centuries in Thoreau’s wisdom on aspects of vitality as diverse as knowledge and vision, the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of aging, the sanctity of public libraries and the creative Benefits emerge from keeping a diary and the only worthwhile definition of success.

To be sure that Thoreau lived in such close proximity to nature, he was in high spirits that could escape the spirit choked by modern civilization. In an entry written two days after his thirty-third birthday, he cheers:

What sweet and tender, innocent and divinely encouraging society exists in every natural object and thus in a universal nature, even for the poor misanthrope and the most melancholic person! There can be no really black melancholy for those who live in the middle of nature and still have their senses.

But his existential radiance was blackened abruptly when his best and sometimes only friend – his brother John – died of tetanus when Thoreau was twenty-five. He watched helplessly as his tantrum grimaced and his body twisted before the deadly bacterium claimed his life. Then he sank into a deep depression that never completely retreated and nudged him in lifelong waves.

Thoreau kept comforting himself in nature. In midsummer 1852, a decade after his brother’s death and a decade before his own, Thoreau drew a sketch of the local ridges littered with treetops on the edge of his diary and then views this natural view as a life-saving calibration of the perspective for that grief-blind heart:

Even after the low principle that misery loves society and is made easier by the awareness that it is shared by many and is therefore not so insignificant and trivial, this blue mountain outline is ultimately valuable. In many moods it is rejoicing to look over at this blue edge of the earth and to be reminded of the invisible cities and communities, which for the most part are not remembered and lie in the further and deeper hollows between me and these hills. Cities of great highland glory where part of the morning and primal strength still persists … it is good to believe that we survive or perish with such communities … The melancholy man who came out to commit suicide on this hill could be saved by remembering how many brave and contented lives are between him and the horizon. These hills expand our property on earth; They make our home valley or our deepening in the earth all the bigger.

In another article written in the fall, which Thoreau called long before the diagnostic term of seasonal mood disorder, a time when the human mind tends to experience a significant downturn, he draws a living metaphor for moving through the darkest from a particular natural creation Seasons of the heart:

If you’re suffering from melancholy this season, go into the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk cabbage buds heading for a new year. Your tombstones have not yet been pronounced. Is it the winter of your discontent? Do they seem to have lay down to die, desperate for skunk cabbage? “On and with them”, “Give it to them”, “Excelsior”, “Go through it” – these are their mottoes. Mortal human beings have to take a little break this fall of the year. their spirits are fading a little. There is a small question about fate and the thought of how cowards go where the “tired should rest”. Not so with skunk cabbage. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast under the skunk cabbage that pushes it up and lifts the dead leaves with it? They rest with their spears advanced; You rest to shoot! … See these kale buds that lift the dry leaves in this watery and muddy place. There is no can or can not be to them. You look over the forehead of the winter hill. You see another summer ahead of you.


“Last night the thoughts of all birds and other creatures and all the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a wave of deep happiness that I had now done what I could,” said the great marine biologist and author Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907 – April 14, 1964) wrote to her soul mate Dorothy Freeman about this symphonic moment when she submitted Silent Spring’s manuscript – the bold synopsis that catalyzed the environmental movement that Carson had spent a decade incubating and four Years of rigorous research to bring her to life when she died of cancer. Dorothy had been her pillar during these two superhuman parallel journeys – the only person to whom this brilliant, stoic woman entrusted the complexity of her inner world, her writing process and the loneliness of creative work, her silent struggles. (Her delicate relationship, and how she supported Carson’s academic work and extensive cultural heritage, enliven the last two hundred pages of Find outfrom which this miniature essay was taken.)

In early June 1963, a year after the release of Silent Spring, Carson climbed into the passenger seat of her Oldsmobile and had her assistant take her from her home in Maryland to Capitol Hill – the pain in the back, spine, shoulder and neck had become too unbearable for Carson to drive this short distance himself – to appear before a pesticide congress committee convened as a result of Silent Spring. Under the bright television lights, all traces of physical agony fled from the authoritative presence that took the witness stand in the windowless, wood-paneled room 102 of the Senate building. 101 years after Abraham Lincoln greeted Uncle Tom’s cabin writer Harriet Beecher Stowe with the words, “This is the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” President Senator Carson greeted: “Miss Carson … we are your name Welcome here. You are the lady who started it all. Would you please continue? “

Carson calmly spoke to the press of six microphones in front of her, delivering an impressive forty-minute testimony aimed at exposing nature’s delicate interconnectedness and tracking the far-reaching devastation caused by toxic chemicals entering an ecosystem. She called for a “strong and tireless effort” to reduce and ultimately eliminate pesticides. While her testimony was littered with facts, its elegy was noticeably poetic to ecology. She made a strong recommendation to set up an agency to protect nature – a groundbreaking development that would take the government another seven years to set up. Carson would never see the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency or the ban on DDT, the direct result of their work.

Her testimony from Congress, after which she was overwhelmed by letters from citizens thanking her for telling the truth uncomfortable to power, was a crowning moment for the sense of duty that Carson had driven through the difficult years before Silent Spring . After assuming her responsibilities as a citizen, scientist and administrator of life, she was free and restless to return to the ocean, to her summer cabin on Southport Island in Maine, according to Dorothy.

No records have been kept of the weeks in which Rachel and Dorothy spent the last few hours of summer together – the lack of letters indicates that they have spent every precious moment in mutual presence. Tidal pool excursions are now a thing of the past – compression breaks in Carson’s spine made walking and painful standing difficult. Dorothy thought she looked like alabaster. They spent the afternoons together in a small clearing in the woods near Carson’s Cottage, watching the clouds float across the sky, listening to the bird orchestra in the trees, reading to each other from their favorite books.

On a shimmering day in early September, Dorothy brought Rachel to her favorite spot on the tip of the island, where they had once seen meteors that burn transient light bridges across the Milky Way’s haze. With their arms around each other, they slowly took the short, painful walk to the wooden benches on the bank and sat under the blue sky of late morning. Above the waves, under the windswept spruces, Dorothy and Rachel sat in intimate silence and watched a majestic procession of monarch butterflies flit on their annual hike to the southern horizon – living meteors of black and gold. Half a century later, monarchs would fly aboard the International Space Station, and the game and wildlife service that Carson started with demanded their inclusion in the protection of the Endangered Species Act – one of several dozen environmental laws in the 1970s as direct and indirect consequences adopted by Silent Spring.

That afternoon Rachel Dorothy sent a lyrical “postscript” to her morning. She described the magnificence that had burned into her memory – the special color of the sky, the special score of the surf – and wrote:

Most of all, I will remember the monarchs who rushed westward from one small winged shape to another, each attracted by an invisible force. We talked a little bit about their migration, their life story. Did you come back? We didn’t think; At least for most, this was the last trip of her life.

But I remembered this afternoon when I remembered that it was a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly so – because when a living being has reached the end of its life cycle, we accept this end as natural.

For the monarch, this cycle is measured over a known period of months. For us, the measure is something else, the range of which we cannot know. But the idea is the same: when this intangible cycle has started, it is a natural and not unfortunate thing that a life comes to an end.

This is what these bright, fluttering parts of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it – so I hope you like.


I want to live on in your memories of happiness. I will write more of these things. But tonight I’m tired and have to turn off the light. In the meantime there is this word – and my love will always live.

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