January 16, 2018

Thoreau and Walden

Like another famous New Englander a century after him, it was in Henry David Thoreau's blood to take the road not taken.

In the Spring of 1845, U.S. President James Polk was preaching expansion and "manifest destiny" to the nation; wagon trains were backing up on the Sante Fe and Oregon Trails; the cotton gin and a slave economy were fueling a southern boom; the cities of the North were hitching the steam engine and the railway and the telegraph to the industrial plow; and Thoreau, on land borrowed from Ralph Waldo Emerson, with an axe borrowed from Bronson Alcott, was building a one-room cabin on a sunny, south-facing slope of Walden Pond. "It is my choice," he would write in his journal, "not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but to stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by."

But Thoreau had no intention to stand or sit quietly by as the mind-set of materialism and progress took over. When he wrote Walden, his record of his two-year stay in the woods, it was sometimes in the voice of the detached drop-out, but often in that of the firebrand, the rustic churl:
    If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains. If the bell rings, why should we run? We will consider what kind of music they are like. Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion and appearance... through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion , till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This Is, and no mistake. . . .
Thoreau was not, in fact, the only voice in the wilderness. Mid-nineteenth century America was awash with reform movements and counter-culture experiments. There were Shaker communities just down the road. Thoreau's Transcendentalist friends had urged him to join their settlements at Brook Farm and Fruitlands. But Thoreau had always been a loner. As he put it, "I'd rather live in a private Hell than a public Heaven." As Walt Whitman put it, "he had a morbid dislike of humanity." Robert Louis Stevenson, reflecting on Thoreau's unsociability, seemed to think it best that he lived alone at Walden Pond: "It was not inappropriate, surely, that he had such close relations with the fish."

Not just the fish. At his whistle, woodchucks came to his hand and crows perched on his shoulder. A mouse living in the cabin with him was taught to come to the sound of his flute. He was not a hermit -- he often went to town for talk or dinner -- but he was happiest in forest or swamp, learning that sound acorns sink in water, or that skunk cabbage blossoms open to the south; learning "to find God in nature, to know his lurking places, to attend all the oratorios, the operas, in nature." Even hoeing vegetables became a path to the divine:
    . . . as I drew a still fresher soil about the rows with my hoe, I disturbed the ashes of unchronicled nations who in primeval years lived under these heavens, and their small implements of war and hunting were brought to the light of this modern day...mingled with other natural stones.... When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop. It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans.
If there were mystical pleasures to be had from hoeing beans, Thoreau's contemporaries were not interested, and when Walden was published, on August 9, 1854, it was, like his other books, all but ignored. In the 150 years since, it has become an international best seller and, for nature-lovers and conservationists, as much a bible as the site of the cabin has become a shrine.

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