Advice for Congress this first day of spring: To improve leadership, go outside

Thoreau’s suggestion that Congress might be improved by a greater awareness of the natural world was a serious one. Being outdoors this first day of spring should remind leaders and voters of a calendar beyond the election cycle – and a web of connections that transcends party.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Cherry blossoms bloom on the Tidal Basin in Washington on March 19, framing the Washington Monument in the background. Op-ed contributor Danny Heitman urges Congress to get outside and take a walk this first day of spring: Connecting with nature improves political leadership.

On this first day of spring, as another cherry blossom season arrives in Washington, I find myself thinking of Henry David Thoreau, who once wryly observed that “much more is adoing” in the world than Congress knows about.

Thoreau’s comment, first published in 1842, is a useful reminder that low opinions of Congress are really nothing new. But Thoreau’s dim view of lawmakers had nothing to do with tax law, foreign policy, or the federal budget. His real concern was that Congress wasn’t connected enough with nature.

That’s just the kind of comment one might expect from a dewy-eyed Transcendentalist like Thoreau, and as Washington marks the centennial year of its cherry blossom season this month, even the less sentimental power brokers on Capitol Hill might be cheered by the notion of spending more time out of doors.

But Thoreau’s suggestion that lawmaking might be improved by a greater awareness of the natural world was a serious one. He believed that in the vastness of creation, politicians might be able to grasp how narrow their politics seemed by comparison. Seen merely as a series of political subdivisions, America looked puny and depressing to Thoreau. But viewed as a part of the much larger web of connections evident in nature, the country of Thoreau’s vision seemed rich with real promise.

“The merely political aspect of the land is never very cheering; men are degraded when considered part of a political organization,” Thoreau told his readers. “On this side all lands present only the symptoms of decay. I see but Bunker Hill and Sing-Sing, the District of Columbia and Sullivan’s Island, with a few avenues connecting them. But paltry are they all beside one blast of the east or the south wind which blows over them.”

The idea that political leadership might be improved by connecting with nature is an old one. The men of influence who ruled the Roman Empire often celebrated the ideal of the rural retreat. Cicero noted with satisfaction that in the glory days of his republic, senators hailed from farms. This classical idea informed the thinking of Washington and Jefferson, too.

In more recent times, Theodore Roosevelt’s love of the outdoors seemed to impress him with the brevity and smallness of a single human life when measured by the cosmic calendar of the universe. That insight lent urgency to Roosevelt’s ambitions, but it also tempered them. Even a man of Roosevelt’s ego was certainly humbled by the sight of the Grand Canyon. “To Roosevelt,” says biographer Douglas Brinkley, “the Grand Canyon was an immortal landscape.”

Roosevelt could be a romantic about nature, but he was also, at base, a shrewd pragmatist. His legacy suggests that a political culture informed by the outdoors has practical benefits, reminding leaders and voters alike of a calendar beyond the election cycle – and a web of connections that transcends party.

“Politicians and other movers and shakers have long been known to gather at confabs under trees and stars to exchange ideas and plan campaigns,” author Richard Louv notes in his recent book, “The Nature Principle.” But Mr. Louv suggests that as fewer of us connect with the natural world, our perspective suffers, our imaginations dim, our sense of possibility shrinks.

All of which makes me wonder: Is it any surprise that as our familiarity with trees and sky and seasons has weakened, our politics has grown smaller, meaner, more divisive?

The lesson for today’s leaders on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue seems clear. Step outside. Take a walk, scan the horizon, savor a few cherry blossoms along the Potomac. Acknowledging spring might be just the thing to thaw the present winter of our political discontent.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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