The Collegiate Laws of Life Essay Contest asked Penn State students to explore ethical values and intercultural issues, and their talent for expressing their views in writing.

Steven Schneible, ’21, Paterno Fellow in English, won First Place for his essay, below, responding to this prompt:

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” John Muir
In this age, when many people are becoming increasingly disconnected from the natural environment, what is the role of nature in society and everyday life?

For Dust Thou Art

Human beings are, simply and somewhat embarrassingly, animals. Our dominion over the Earth could not have occurred if not for the establishment of tribal cohesion among hunter-gatherers, groups little more than primates gifted with thumbs, fire, and the latest and greatest in evolution’s brain advancements. We can tend toward selfishness and wrath, coils not easily shuffled off, for they were forged with the will to survive amid even the most brutal of conditions. As fundamental products of its machinations, nature still calls to us in a voice of Elysian beauty and perfection. Transcendentalism did not gain traction simply because people enjoyed reading about Thoreau’s bean-planting methods; the messages of poetic unity with the Earth described in Walden appealed to the desire in all of us for a transcendent harmony found only in the natural setting. Who can deny the tranquility of the mountain forests? Who can contest the heartbreaking ease with which the sun sets over the swells of the ocean? In a world of perpetual hustle and bustle, we often forget our species’ humble origins and the importance of the natural setting from which we emerged. Nature may not be readily accessible to many, but small efforts toward respectful gratitude for the Earth make life, at the very least, more worth living.

For better or for worse, our fundamental separation from the natural world, in many ways, offers us more than survivalist self-sustainment ever could; the triumphs of science, art, and philosophy, the hallmark achievements of the human race that give us pride, simply would not exist without our fundamental mastery over the natural system via agriculture. One can hardly expect men to come together and puzzle out the techniques of calculus when there are nuts to be gathered and animals to hunt. The more idealistic might argue that we ought not to have strayed from our humble origins as hunter-gatherers, that such a lifestyle achieved more for the individual than our workaday lives behind computer monitors and cash registers ever could have, but to write off the greatness of humanity’s strides toward ever-growing heights of scientific and artistic greatness as mistakes is to rely upon the false wisdom of hindsight. Yet we cannot deny that modern Americans face a certain emptiness when confronted with the monolithic, steely cities or the sprawling bleak asphalt of suburban shopping centers, in which the grass on the meridians is invariably sickeningly brown and unhealthy-looking. Sunlight’s dance upon the water brings a deep and lasting calm; sunlight’s dance upon the roof of a Tractor Supply Company, highlighting in shades of splintered gold the cigarette butts and long-discarded soda cans strewn along the cracked asphalt, brings the uncannily hollow sadness of feeling fundamentally not at home. Humanity has learned how to game the natural system to some truly remarkable ends, but not without cost.

It would be unreasonable to hold ourselves to too high a standard with respect to nature appreciation; after all, for many in this nation, the stresses of making the rent payments and giving the kids a decent meal justifiably reduce this upper-middle-class writer’s abstract musings regarding society’s seeming apathy toward wilderness to privileged, irrelevant, and horribly pretentious snobbery. Camping has largely become a luxury activity with expensive barriers of entry, from the equipment involved to the time required to travel to a site, to say nothing of the actual fees incurred for the privilege of sleeping in deliberately minimalist conditions. We cannot call for a grandiose, TED-esque cultural upheaval about nature’s role in everyday life without alienating the blue-collar urban population for whom natural exposure would probably be the most beneficial. Rather than overrunning National Parks for all our vacations or hurling our smartphones at the wall for causing tech-driven anguish, we might consider more swallowable solutions to nature starvation: taking work breaks outside to get some sun and air; walking through a park more regularly; consciously appreciating small details, from sunsets to foliage, on a daily basis. In minor acts of mindfulness, we can have our cake, i.e. the modern lifestyle, but we can set it down and appreciate some spiritual health food, too.

Transcendentalist ideals painted the natural world as a divinity in its own, articulating many of our longings for the wind and wood. However, we must remember that such a philosophy is just that: idealism. In these United States, we probably rely on technology too much for entertainment; many of us are simply stressed and overworked human beings. Running away, even into the arms of nature’s beauty, doesn’t solve life’s problems. But if we remember our humanity and the animalism involved in it, we will learn to turn to nature for some daily perspective. One day, unto the dust we shall return. Until then, may we always remember our beginnings… for in them are our ends.

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