Most summers since 1993 I have attended The Jefferson Symposium at the University of Virginia. (More about this in the next posts). One of the pleasures of attending is that I drive my BMW convertible from Chicago and enjoy the scenery as I cruise along the Interstates and side roads. Traveling almost straight south through the pleasant Indiana farmland on I-65 leads to I-64 in Louisville. This must be one of the most beautiful Interstates in America as it goes east through the horse country of Kentucky, the hills and valleys of West Virginia, and the mountains of Virginia. There isn't an ugly stretch along the way. This year I made such good time the I decided to squeeze in a visit to the Natural Bridge, which Jefferson had bought so he could share this " most sublime of Nature's works" with all who would make the trek to see it, and his second home at Poplar Forest.
I've been to both places several times, but something new and unexpected occurred to me at the Natural Bridge. The Bridge is a massive stone archway over a small stream and Jefferson wrote eloquently (as usual) of it: " It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime to be felt beyond what they are here; so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing as it were up to heaven, the rapture of the spectator is really indescribable!" Tourists now walk the trail underneath , as an invisible highway crosses over the arch above. More than 200 years after he bought it, it still inspires awe at the beauty and majesty of nature. It is still, and always will be, a natural wonder, yet many of us have had the opportunity to view far more spectacular natural sights that were unknown to TJ.
As I walked under and past the arch I noticed the stream near the paved path; it was just some water passing over and around some rocks. Nothing special, I even have a man-made stream and pond in my backyard, except it too seemed beautiful. I suspect it is a common enough response to see a stream as beautiful, or at least attractive ( how often do we see nature photos of streams?), that there is no need to try to describe it. Perhaps you can picture one in your mind. So, why do we find such simple scenes in nature so appealing? Why do we humans feel such an attraction to nature, not just when its grandiose like the Natural Bridge, but when its basic and almost commonplace. Is it because we sense we belong there in nature, that we are at home, and thereby comforted by its presence? For myself, I would say "yes", but also add that in TJ's terms, a Benevolent Creator seems to be expressed in such natural scenes. One of the reasons I was drawn to TJ is that despite living when nature was often viewed as a threat to be conquered he cherished its beauty as an expression of Nature's God. There is a serenity and awe that many feel in this house of worship. Of course, these aren't original thoughts, but I was struck by how they were stirred in me at the sight of a little stream more so than at the sight of the great stone bridge. Or, perhaps it was the presence of both that made the impact.
After having these thoughts, as I neared the end of my walk, there were several children who were very excited by the sight of large numbers of yellow butterflies, fish in the stream, and, especially, a snake resting on a rock. It was clear that whatever the attraction of nature is it begins long before we can analyze it. It seemed so appropriate to have these thoughts on my way to learning and conversing about Jefferson, because the foundation of his life and thought, and hence of Jeffersonian Democracy, were his conception of "the laws of nature and of nature's God", as he phrased it in the Declaration of Independence. I was starting my visit to his "country" of Virginia with a vivid reminder of his and America's first principles.
What does nature and its laws say to you? Were you aware of the critical connection between TJ and nature?
Natural History is my passion. 1791