For convenience, it is easy to distinguish nature met intentionally (as in camping, hiking, retreats) and the serendipitous and less intimidating sense of nature in one’s own backyard. But not everyone has a backyard, or, in fact, goes out into nature at all. Nature is increasingly the object or context of a specific outing, not something enjoyable in an urban or unpropertied setting, at least not as a contrivance like a park or piece of lawn, which are not natural in the first place.
The desert setting of the early Christian hermits, the forests of the starets and European hermits, the mountains of the Chinese and Japanese hermits — all were an important psychological context to the practice of eremitism. We can recreate these through books and readings, or even try to emulate them with forays into equivalent areas, but wilderness is fast becoming extinct in the world, and with it comes a threat to the re-creation of eremitism.
Hermits can survive urbanization because the cell or room or anchorhold has been the context dwelling for hermits immemorial. But many historical hermits were nurtured and thrived on the ability to make their cell or room near natural places, where they could see sunlight, hear birds, feel fresh air and smell trees, soil, and flowers. Thus Ryokan, the Japanese Zen hermit and poem, for example:
My hermitage lies in a forest all around me,
Everything is thick and green
no one finds this place,
Only those who have lost their way.
No news of the affairs of the world
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.
A thousand peaks, ten thousand mountain streams
yet no signs of anyone.
These experiences have more potential for changing the human heart and shifting it away from society and the marketplace, which is usually presented to as the only reality, or at least the reality that is “natural” and matters. A scholar may stoke the imagination reading about the natural settings of historical hermits, and we may enjoy the poets and hermits in books, but one day in the wilderness is enough to kindle or reinforce eremitic values — and with them, a philosophy of life.
Nature works by softening the heart that is made artificial and competitive in society. Society is a human contrivance built around whatever the culture values — usually strength, cleverness, competition. Hence society’s members conform their minds and hearts to those social values presented as the only ones that ultimately matter for survival in a hostile world (note all the premises about nature and life).
Thus we experience the loss of the suppleness of original human nature. When Hobbes described human existence as “nasty, brutish, and short,” it was society and not existence that he had better in mind. Similarly, the popular notion that human nature is corrupt and conniving is really a portrait of life in society and culture. The description does not apply to original human nature or to an abstracted individual or human potential, only to the socializing and competitive human being.
Nature allows this hard shell formed by life in society to soften and become unnecessary and irrelevant. Nasty behavior and misanthropy do not function in nature. They serve no purpose. They are irrelevant. Brutish behaviors, whether as glib hypocrisy or arrogant violence reveal themselves as masks of society, and we would be relieved to be rid of them. One can do so in nature, donning them again, to one degree or another, wen returning to the world.
Popular media argue that nature is “red in tooth and claw,” but this as much a projection of what we see in human society. The patterns of violence we witness in nature are not the product of a consciousness equivalent to that of humans. They hardly represent the willful behavior of beings that have evolved as far as we humans would claim. Nature does not represent values and their products anywhere near the premeditated and gruesome violence that humans perpetrate on one another.