The Winter Woods are Calling: Channeling Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

(First four lines from “The World is Too Much With Us” by William Wordsworth, published 1807)

For some reason, this poem has been popping into my head of late. I recall clearly my high school English Literature teacher reciting Wordsworth’s poems and wondering what it meant for the world to be “too much with us.”

Wordsworth penned the sonnet in 1802 as the Industrial Revolution was cresting. I believe we all can relate to these lines as we go about our busy days and lives, with the added kinetic energy of the current season.

But the winter woods are calling. There one can find intriguing interplays of light, pattern, texture; the shape of the land reveals itself through the trees.

So many of us started out in the environmental profession because of our love of the outdoors: streams, rivers, mountains, swamps, dunes, and of course the woods. Those of us who found stormwater to be our chief professional pursuit woke up one day to realize that we spend our time exploring not so much the woods, but the parking lots, roads, and rooftops of urban and suburban landscapes. We even try to replicate mini forests in what are otherwise habitats for automobiles and buildings. However, not too far downstream, there is a forest and the forest has a stream. The stream may show the distressed signs of too much runoff. We know that our job is to fix the world, or at least this small piece of it. For now though, we observe the flowing water – always being renewed.

The winter woods are calling. Go there. They remind us that there is an edge. . .a place where the parking lots, roads, and buildings end, and there is a stream to explore. If it is not too cold, pick up rocks and see what lives there.

Wordswoth claims that we have “given our hearts away.” There are days where that seems so. There can be a numbing progression of grants, reports, spreadsheets, and ecosystems experienced only on the computer screen. Other days, we are reminded why we do it all: the dirt, stone, and plants coalesce into something called a practice, the volunteers dig in and relish the dirt, people are getting it, it is important.

The winter woods are calling. Do not give your heart away. Go to the woods and feel your heart in rhythm with the wind through the dry leaves, the crunch of footfalls on the forest floor, the sound of flowing water, maybe even mixed with the ubiquitous hum of distant traffic. Here the world can be with us, but not too much so.

I was introduced to Wordsworth’s sonnet in high school forty years ago, and I forgotten how gloomy his outlook is in the poem (he uses the word “forlorn” in the 3rd to last line). I just liked the phrase “the world is too much with us,” and still do, but am not buying into the gloom this time around. I do believe, however, that Wordsworth was onto something about Triton blowing his wreathed horn – seems like we could still use some horn-blowing these days.

The winter woods are calling. When you enter, your thoughts are a jagged line. After a while, they soften to curves, much like the stream you are walking along. Take some time during this solstice season to visit the winter woods.

The full text of William Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us,” published 1807.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

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