The last unit of work I taught as an English teacher was Romantic poetry; specifically, the ‘Lyrical Ballads’ of Wordsworth and Coleridge. And as I sat at my desk planning my final lessons, I came to realise that the Romantic poets have a great deal to say about wilderness therapy. In fact, they practically invented it. In 1798. Bear with me...
What is Romanticism?
The Romantic movement has nothing to do with love, and instead was a radical reaction to the eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment, and in protest to the modernity of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. The Enlightenment had valued reason as an authority, while the Modern period was beginning to focus on rationalization and efficiency. The Romantics instead revered aesthetics, individual experience, and the emotions; they harked back to the medieval period as inspiration, and loved above all else, nature.
But this was not a wistful ‘oh, isn’t that rose pretty’ kind of love of nature. It was rugged, hearty, wholesome, invigorating and transformative. Essentially, the Romantics thought that Nature (and they did often capitalize it, with a pantheistic reverence akin to Native Americans) was profoundly beneficial for mankind; that being in nature could have powerful physical, moral, educative effects on a person.
21st Century Romanticism?
It seems to me that the pedagogical climate of the early 21st century shares a great deal with this attitude of the Romantic poets. From the millennial optimism of Ben Fogle and the Taransay experiment, to the Noughties popularity of Robert Macfarlane, Chris Packham, Forest Schools and mindfulness, to the new developments in forest bathing and wilderness therapy, sociologists, psychologists, teachers and politicians know, deep down, that Nature is good for children, for all of us, and that screens are, mostly, bad. Our sensibilities in post-modern, post-industrial Britain, are profoundly Romantic at heart.
How does it work?
The Romantics believed in the power of nature to cause fundamental transformations in the heart and mind of man. The recipe seems to be to place oneself in a specific, tranquil spot, opening one’s senses to the information of the natural world, and thereby reach a moment of epiphany or transcendence.
The poem ‘Lines’ by Wordsworth epitomises this process. The full title of the poem is ‘Lines composed at a small distance from my house, and sent by my little boy to the person to whom they are addressed’. The person to whom the lines are addressed is William’s sister Dorothy; he is calling for her to leave her writing indoors and to join him in the garden; “My Sister!... Come forth and feel the sun”.
The long title and the first line of the poem; “It is the first mild day of March” make the setting and occasion of composition extremely specific. The poet goes on the describe the sights, sounds and impressions he can absorb from his surroundings; “red-breast sings…bare trees…mountains…green field”. In his persuasion, he rejects “reason” and “forms” which “regulate” and instead suggests that they should “drink at every pore/The spirit of the season”, even going so far as to rip up their “calendar” and “date the opening of the year” and set “the temper… for the year to come” … “from today”. This intention epitomises the Romantic process and the poet is building up to the moment of transcendence:
“And from the blessed power that rolls
About, below, above;
We’ll frame the measure of our souls,
They shall be tuned to love.”
This exhortation shows the euphoric desire to model oneself on and to take instruction from nature; to construct the human spirit in keeping with the tune of the natural world; to be inspired, literally, by the same energy which animates nature.
In the contemporaneous poem ‘Tables Turned’, Wordsworth summarises the profound transformations in mood, spirit and attitude that he believes immersion in nature can engender, encapsulating neatly the objectives of wilderness therapy:
“[Nature] has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless -
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by chearfulness.”
Wordsworth's friend and co-publisher Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a political poem called ‘The Dungeon’, in protest against the policy of incarceration as punishment; an example of “what man has made of man”. Read as a 21st Century educator, this could be an argument against SATS, phonics training, and soulless exam factories:
“Each pore and natural outlet shrivelled up…
His energies roll back upon his heart”
And the remedy Coleridge suggests is, of course, nature, who “healest thy wandering and distempered child” and “pourest on him thy soft influences” until:
“His angry spirit healed and harmonized
By the benignant touch of love and beauty.”
The Romantics knew the cure, long before the disease was diagnosed. Richard Louv’s book ‘Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder’, shows that nature immersion can assist in treating Attention Deficit Disorder in children. Richard Mabey’s ‘Nature Cure’ surely has its roots in a Romantic sensibility, and therapists today are alive to the curative potential of the wilderness.
John Muir, the American naturalist, grew up in the Romantic period, and one can scarcely read a sentence of his writings without tripping over a phrase which trills with the same vivid sensibility as that of the poets, as he encourages us to journey into the wilderness:
“In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks”
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
“Earth has no sorrow that earth can not heal.”
One of Wordsworth’s most iconic poems is ‘Tintern Abbey’. Again, the title is much longer and intensely specific; ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798’.
Oddly, the abbey is not mentioned at all in the poem. It isn’t about the abbey at all; instead it’s a long poem about memory-making and how the memory of pure communion with nature as a child works upon the mind in adulthood. Nature, and the recollection of natural scenes, can help us “see into the life of things” and as an adult, Wordsworth feels he has learnt to:
“look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity”
The poem is about the meaning of nature; how there is profound semantic content to time spent in nature, which can best be appreciated by an adult sensibility, informed by a childhood spent in blissful communion with the natural world. The poem is filled with words that carry literary as well as geographical meanings; “lines…plots…scenes…pastoral”. To Wordsworth, it is a landscape filled with stories, memory and meaning. The poem rejects an aesthetic emphasis on turning the world into a series of pleasing pictures, and reveals instead the significance of the place. In Romantic poetry, landscape doesn’t just ‘be’; it means.
Similarly, wilderness therapy seeks to make landscapes meaningful too. Facilitators take the features of landscapes and draw out the isomorphic connections between the scene, and the lived experience of the client. We make meanings for life out of experiences in nature, and fore-ground the ways in which we can all learn lessons from the experience of moving through the natural world, with our senses and minds open to its wisdom.
The finest symbol of this process is that of the Eolian harp; an instrument which creates meaning from the invisible breath of nature. The harp stands on a hillside, and its strings are plucked by the wind, creating it must have seemed to the Romantics, organic music from the divine breath. One of Coleridge’s most famous poems is named after this instrument and imagines:
“what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?”
What if all of us are brought to life by the breath of nature? What if there is a soul to each of us, which responds to the sensations of the natural world? What if there is actual meaning to the elements of nature? What if we are most alive when in nature?
Wilderness therapy is predicated on the belief that there are lessons in nature for all of us to imbibe, if we are willing to “drink at every pore”. Not airy-fairy, ‘oh, isn’t it pretty’ thoughts. Real, fundamental, life-altering, heart-opening, practical lessons. We can be taught how to heal, how to listen, how to be at peace. But also, how to understand the world, others and ourselves. In the words of John Muir:
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown,
for going out, I found, was really going in.”
There is a reason why wilderness therapy organisations all use the same quotations on their literature. This is not mere poetic frippery; the Romantics truly invented this work, and we operate in homage to their instruction:
“Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher."