Dante depicts heaven with close attention to environmental detail. There are cantos filled with pastoral images and beautifully rendered descriptions using the senses to illustrate the environment of heaven. In The Paradiso, Dante calls heaven “that garden made to be man’s proper place” solidifying the connection between man, nature, and heaven (I 56). The relationship between humans and nature remains strong today. Annette and Rhiannon wrote about their views of and concerns about our environment, and nearly every opinion of heaven expressed in class involved nature in some way.
My own experience of heaven on earth involves nature profoundly. When I think about heaven on earth, an amalgamation of beach memories floods my brain. It’s interesting because I actually don’t like the beach very much; a paralyzing fear of water and the bracingly cold currents of the Oregon coast keeps me out of the ocean, but there’s something about lying alone on the sand that makes me peacefully joyful. I remember dozing on my back and feeling the heat of the sun on my skin while the powerful wind sent sand skimming over my body at a very exfoliating speed. I couldn’t open my eyes for fear of getting sand in them, so I just listened to the waves crashing, birds calling, and children shrieking their delight at having their kite finally take flight. I felt meditative. I’m reminded of how Dante describes things through his senses. I find that if I want to experience something really intensely, I close my eyes and just listen. The experience seems more personal that way.
For some reason, every time I’m on the beach at night, I spin. I close my eyes, throw my arms to the side, open my face to the sky, and just spin around and around until I can’t do it anymore. It’s especially effective during a full moon when the tide’s just gone out. When my vision has stopped whirling, I see a vast empty plain with only the imprints of my footprints spiraling around. That view reminds me of how small my personal impact is on the earth. I’m not just talking about that stretch of land, but on the planet in general. And yet there’s something about seeing the tide wash over those footprints and carry them into its enormous mass that simultaneously makes me feel like a part of something bigger.
The beach makes me feel small and insignificant, but more connected with the larger world, which is, I guess, my idea of heaven. I imagine heaven as a joyously meditative place. One in which we can enjoy our own communion with the environment while also being part of a larger community. I think these ideas of solitude, nature, and community are important to Dante’s Paradiso as we can see by his recent independence from Virgil, the garden/heaven metaphor, and the great community of souls who inhabit each sphere.