This is an abridged proposal for my PhD dissertation, the conclusion of which you can read here. To read my complete dissertation proposal, click here.


“Lying between the earth and the heavens”:
Spirituality of Place in 19th and 20th Century
American Nature Writing

“All sites of pilgrimage have this in common: they are believed to be places where miracles once happened, still happen, and may happen again.”

–Victor & Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture

In Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, Victor and Edith Turner discuss the manner in which Christian pilgrimage is rooted in place and time. Sites such as Guadalupe, Lourdes, and Knock presumably point to the historicity of God, the fact that the infinite, ineffable Absolute is found in particular places at particular times by particular people. In her reflections on “The Present,” Annie Dillard concurs with this notion, calling it a “scandal of particularity” that events such as Christ’s birth “occurred improbably, ridiculously, at such-and-such a time, into such-and-such a place” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek 80). In suggesting that natural landscapes can be the site of spiritual power, revelation, and enlightenment, 19th and 20th century American nature writers subscribe to what I call a “spirituality of place,” a belief that Divinity is made manifest at particular times in particular natural places. Henry David Thoreau points to such a spirituality when he notes in Walden that “God himself culminates in the present moment” (399) and that “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads” (547).

The Turners note the liminal nature of pilgrimage: similar to tribal initiation rituals in which youngsters are isolated in an enclosure representing the threshold between adolescence and adulthood, Christian pilgrims reenact the via crucis—the way of Christ’s cross—as a way of “crossing” the divide between the secular and the spiritual. In describing Walden Pond as “Lying between the earth and the heavens,” Thoreau likewise points to the liminal nature of his natural sojourn: isolated from society in the sacred space around Walden Pond, Thoreau is able to cross the threshold between heaven and earth via the pond which “partakes of the color of both” (Walden 463). Spiritually-minded nature writers such as Thoreau consistently describe religious experience as transpiring not merely in the wild but in nature’s liminal spaces, on the edges between land and water or on the summits which separate land and sky. In defining his quest as being an attempt “to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line,” Thoreau describes spiritual awakening as occurring in a liminal space temporally between past and future and physically between land and water (Walden 336).

In discussing spirituality of place in 19th and 20th century American nature writing, I will explore such liminal images in texts by writers such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Annie Dillard. In describing sojourns into nature’s liminal places— watery shores and rocky summits—such writers suggest that in such places the sacred is made manifest in the mundane and the eternal culminates in time. Far from being an abstract theological ideal, the boundary between nature’s here-and-now and the supernatural realm of the Hereafter is described in tangible spatial terms: in this particular natural place, heaven and earth become one, time blends with eternity, and the individual finds her or his place within the larger ecological community.


Section I: Introduction

Chapter 1: The Writer as Pilgrim: Henry David Thoreau’s “Walking” and Mary Austin’s “Walking Woman”

Section II: Shorelines

Chapter 2: “The Stream I Go A-Fishing In”: Time, Friendship, and Art in Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It

Chapter 3: Writing on the Edge of Time: Suffering, Eternity, and the Body of Fellowship in Thoreau’s Cape Cod, Henry Beston’s The Outermost House and Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm

Section III: Summits.

Chapter 4: “The Remembered Earth”: History, Myth, and Conversion in Thoreau’s The Maine Woods, John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierras, and N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain

Chapter 5: “Expect Nothing”: Renunciation, Failure, and the Present Moment in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard and Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums

Section IV: Conclusion

Chapter 8: River and Mountain Are One: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony

Copyright 2001 Lorianne R. DiSabato (formerly Schaub)
Revised January 7, 2003