87. Henry David Thoreau, Walking
There are many passages from Henry David Thoreau’s lecture Walking, published after his death in 1862, that show up in any survey of writing about walking. But there is a lot more going in in Thoreau’s text than those frequently quoted statements. Rather than being focused on walking, most of the text addresses another topic entirely: wildness. For Thoreau, the two go together: walking is a vehicle for experiencing wildness, by which he means, the natural world, or life beyond human society. In fact, the lecture begins with a short paragraph in which Thoreau states, “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society” (35). The “extreme statement” (35) he intends to make begins with the idea that humans are natural rather than social or cultural. It doesn’t matter that such an idea is impossible; what’s important is Thoreau’s intention and, I think, the way it reflects his own love of the natural world and of solitude.
From that point Thoreau moves to one of those often-quoted passages, an attempt at an etymology of the word “sauntering.” He makes two suggestions. One is that “saunter” comes from medieval pilgrimages (pretended, according to Thoreau) to the Holy Land, from the idea that children would exclaim “There goes a Sainte-Terrer” when such people walked past. Strangely, Thoreau shifts to the present tense when he evaluates these pilgrimages: “They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean” (35-36). I find the syntax of that sentence very strange, and I have a suspicion that Thoreau might prefer the “idlers and vagabonds” to those who would actually be walking to the Holy Land—or that he’s less interested in the notion of a religious pilgrimage than in one that leads into the woods, which is the site Thoreau really finds to be sacred. That’s the derivation he prefers, because “every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels” (36). By “this Holy Land” Thoreau means Massachusetts, or Concord: the place he called home. And by “Infidels,” I am assuming he means those who do not or cannot appreciate the natural world of that place; that, in any case, is an opposition he develops through the lecture.
However, Thoreau also acknowledges that some people derive “saunter” from “sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere” (36). This, he claims, “is the secret of successful sauntering”: “He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea” (36). This derivation, although Thoreau prefers the first, has the benefits of lending itself to a metaphor taken from nature, and of distinguishing those who walk, or saunter, from those who stay at home, and who, despite their stationary quality, “may be the biggest vagrant of all.”
The first derivation, though, allows Thoreau to make this apparent self-criticism, although I think it’s actually an ironic critique of his audience, and his culture:
It is true, we are but faint-hearted crusaders, even the walkers, nowadays, who undertake no persevering, never-ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearth-side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return,—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. (36)
Thoreau wants to raise the stakes, as dramaturges say; he wants walkers to take risks and walks to mean something. But at the same time, the exaggeration here (“embalmed hearts”?) might suggest he’s not entirely serious. Such hyperbole continues through the first pages of the lecture, including this passage, which Deirdre Heddon and Cathy Turner describe as an example of “nineteenth-century chauvinism” (226): “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again,—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk” (36). The joke is on the reader, of course; Thoreau never married, lived alone, and had few if any domestic entanglements. He is asking his audience to do something he wouldn’t have to do and likely wouldn’t be able to imagine. As Ralph Waldo Emerson says in his biographical sketch of Thoreau, he was “the bachelor of thought and Nature” (9).
The self-conscious drama of the notion that one must treat any walk as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, an experience likely to lead to one’s death, is (to me) sheer hyperbole, and the language in the following paragraphs supports that claim. Thoreau describes the pleasure he and his walking companion take
in fancying ourselves knights of a new, or rather an old, order,—not Equestrians or Chevaliers, not Ritters or riders, but Walkers, a still more ancient and honorable class, I trust. The chivalric and heroic spirit which once belonged to the Rider seems now to reside in, or perchance to have subsided into, the Walker,—not the Knight, but the Walker Errant. He is a sort of fourth estate, outside of Church and State and People. (37)
Is Thoreau serious here? I don’t think so, although I could be wrong. Elsewhere in the essay he criticizes any interest in what are, for him, outmoded or inappropriate European ideas and idioms, and so his use of them here might suggest exaggeration. I keep thinking that he’s giving a lecture, that he has to engage his audience and interest them not only in what he wants to say, but in himself as a speaker. What better way to accomplish those goals than to begin by making oneself something of a figure of fun who is in on the joke?
At the same time, there is a serious side to the distinction he has been making, subtly, between those who walk and those who stay home:
We have felt that we almost alone hereabouts practised this noble art; though, to tell the truth, at least, if their own assertions are to be received, mo[s]t of my townsmen would fain walk sometimes, as I do, but they cannot. No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence, which are the capital in this profession. It comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of Walkers. (37)
Again there is deliberate exaggeration here, but I think Thoreau is making a point. After all, his lack of domestic obligations; his self-imposed poverty; his friends and family, who supported his life and work (by paying his tax bills, for example); all of the factors of his life allowed him to spend hours every day going for long walks. Others, who had to work long hours as farmers or clerks, did not have that freedom.
Still, in this paragraph the butt of the Thoreau’s humour shifts from Thoreau himself to those who lack the leisure or disposition to walk:
Some of my townsmen, it is true, can remember and have described to me some walks which they took ten years ago, in which they were so blessed as to lose themselves for half an hour in the woods; but I know very well that they have confined themselves to the highway ever since, whatever pretensions they may make to belong to this select class. No doubt they were elevated for a moment as by the reminiscence of a previous state of existence, when even they were foresters and outlaws. (37)
The short period of the remembered walk (just half an hour), and the decision to “confine themselves to the highway” afterwards, and the allusion to Robin Hood, all suggest (to me) that Thoreau is having a bit of a laugh at his audience’s expense. After all, they are likely to be the kind of people who have to work and lack the leisure to wander around. They bought tickets to the lecture, after all.
Thoreau, in fact, acknowledges that he is both unusual and lucky in his need to walk and in his ability to do it:
I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least,—and it is commonly more than that,—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say, A penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them,—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon,—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago. (38)
Thoreau’s freedom to walk is also a necessity, and although it has led to poverty (for him there’s no difference between a penny and a thousand pounds, because he has neither), it has also helped him to preserve his “health and spirits.” In fact, he cannot understand how others, with jobs and obligations, manage to survive. He wonders why “there is not a general explosion heard up and down the street” every afternoon between four and five o’clock, a blast that would scatter “a legion of antiquated and house-bred notions and whims to the four winds for an airing,” and thus cure the evil of being confined “to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, ay, and years almost together” (39). Thoreau’s wonder is not confined to men working outside of the home: “How womankind, who are confined to the house still more than men, stand it I do not know,” he writes, but he suspects “that most of them do not stand it at all” (39). He remembers walking past houses on summer afternoons, houses whose occupants appear to be sleeping (39). He seems to be suggesting that they aren’t sleeping at all; perhaps they have gone out for a walk. It’s hard to say, though, what Thoreau means here, because he ends that paragraph with a paean to the architecture that doesn’t go to sleep itself, but which stands guard over the slumberers (40). The notion seems strange. What is more likely: sleeping or walking? Shouldn’t those women be walking? If they are sleeping, what does that say about Thoreau’s views on women?
Thoreau suggests that the walking he is describing has nothing to do with “taking exercise,” but “is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life” (40). Moreover, when one walks, one must think—ruminate—as Wordsworth, who famously wrote while walking, did (40). Being outside so much “will no doubt produce a certain roughness of character,” he admits, but the “natural remedy” for that roughness “is to be found in the proportion which the night bears to the day, the winter to the summer, thought to experience”:
There will be so much the more air and sunshine in our thoughts. The callous palms of the laborer are conversant with finer tissues of self-respect and heroism, whose touch thrills the heart, than the languid fingers of idleness. That is mere sentimentality that lies abed by day and thinks itself white, far from the tan and callus of experience. (41)
In other words, that “certain roughness of character,” far from being a vice, is a virtue. Given the choice between that roughness and “mere sentimentality,” Thoreau will choose roughness. I wonder if the figure who lies in bed during the day is a return to the female inhabitants of those silent houses whose occupants seem to be asleep; perhaps those women are actually sleeping, rather than walking, a suggestion which would support accusations of chauvinism.
As Heddon and Turner point out, Thoreau critiques domestic walking: “When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?” (41). I don’t think it’s the domestic that Thoreau is rejecting as much as it is the notion of wild nature that he is advocating (although they necessarily go together). It’s not enough to walk in the woods, either; one must want to walk there, and one must be focused on the experience rather than thinking of other things:
I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is,—I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? I suspect myself, and cannot help a shudder, when I find myself so implicated even in what are called good works,—for this may sometimes happen. (42)
For Thoreau, walking is an experience of attention and flow—of being, in two ways, returned to his senses: to the sensory experience of the world, and to his right mind. The reason he rejects society and its obligations, here and elsewhere in the lecture, is that he seems to require that specific kind of walking experience, and even when he is thinking about “good works,” he is not present in his surroundings.
“My vicinity affords many good walks,” Thoreau continues, “and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not exhausted them” (42). One might expect that Thoreau is interested in walking as an experience of place, in Yi-Fu Tuan’s sense of place as a location that one knows through experience, and he does, but he’s also interested in walking as an experience of space, of novelty and freshness:
An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this on any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of a human life. It will never become quite familiar to you. (42)
That experience of space, as Thoreau’s Dahomey simile suggests, is related to processes of colonialism and empire, and yet, there is also something strangely local and perhaps almost domestic in the suggestion that seeing a previously unnoticed farmhouse is “as good as” African exploration. There is a sense here that Thoreau’s neighbourhood is so rich that he will never finish discovering new things in it—although, as Emerson suggests in his biographical sketch, those new things are more likely to be plants or birds than farmhouses (22-25).
Indeed, Thoreau suggests his movements during a walk are like those of “the fox and the mink”: he moves “first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the wood-side,” through a territory without human inhabitants. The animal imagery in this paragraph is applied to other aspects of “civilization and the abodes of man” as a way of minimizing their impact on the land:
The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture, even politics, the most alarming of them all,—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. (43)
That what must have been a densely populated part of the United States could afford so much space without signs of human activity is a wonder, and perhaps Thoreau is exaggerating his experience.
Or perhaps Thoreau sees few signs of human activity because he avoids travelling on roads:
Some do not walk at all; others walk in the highways; a few walk across lots. Roads are made for horses and men of business. I do not travel in them much, comparatively, because I am not in a hurry to get to any tavern or grocery or livery-stable or depot to which they lead. I am a good horse to travel, but not from choice a roadster. (44)
He is clearly one of those who “walk across lots,” and of no use to the “landscape-painter” who “uses the figures of men to mark a road”; that artist would not be able to use Thoreau’s figure because he is elsewhere (44). Walking “across lots” is a way to “walk out into a Nature such as the old prophets and poets, Menu, Moses, Homer, Chaucer, walked in” (44). That territory is not America, nor was it discovered by Columbus: “There is a truer account of it in mythology than in any history of America, so called, that I have seen” (45). The only roads Thoreau likes are those that “are nearly discontinued,” and he includes a poem about one of those, “The Old Marlborough Road,” in his text.
Thoreau notes that most of the land in his vicinity is not private property, and so “the walker enjoys comparative freedom” (47). However, he imagines a very different future:
possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only,—when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days come. (47-48)
At this point, Thoreau begins shifting away from thinking about walking to thinking about nature, which for him primarily exists in the west—an expression of an American frontier thesis, I think, although he also makes arguments rooted in mythology (the importance of the setting sun) to defend his preference for that direction. The west is the direction of “the wilderness,” and he suggests that when he leaves the city, he is “withdrawing into the wilderness” (50). That is the American tendency, he suggests: “I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progress[es] from east to west” (50). Here he rejects history and “the old World and its institutions” (51) in preference to the west, the territory of the sun, “the Great Western Pioneer whom the nations follow” (52). Others who “felt the westward tendency” include Columbus and the “man of the Old World” who travelled from Asia into Europe, with “[e]ach of his steps . . . marked by a new civilization superior to the preceding, by a greater power of development,” until he crosses the Atlantic Ocean and resumes his westward movement (52-53). He suggests that the climate in the United States may enable “man [to] grow to greater perfection intellectually as well as physically” under its influences—that, in fact, the North American landscape will create a new kind of human:
I trust that we shall be more imaginative, that our thoughts will be clearer, fresher, and more ethereal, as our sky,—our understanding more comprehensive and broader, like our plains,—our intellect generally on a grander scale, like our thunder and lightning, our rivers and mountains and forests,—and our hearts shall even correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to our inland seas. (55-56)
I was surprised to read such an evocation to American exceptionalism in Thoreau, given that he refused to pay taxes in part because they supported a state that allowed human slavery, but he was of his time, as we all are, and he had a lecture audience to please.
There’s another reason for this apotheosis of the west in Thoreau’s discourse: “The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World” (57). “Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure,” he writes (58). He notes that according to “[t]he African hunter Cummings” the skin of the eland “emits the most delicious perfume of trees and grass,” and he would like “every man” to be “so much a part and parcel of Nature, that his very person should thus sweetly advertise our senses of his presence, and remind us of those parts of Nature which he most haunts” (58-59). That odour would be preferable to “that which commonly exhales from the merchant’s or the scholar’s garments,” which is a smell “of dusty merchant’s exchanges and libraries” (59). “Life consists with wildness,” he contends. “The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. . . . Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps”—the wildest place, it seems, that Thoreau can imagine (60). “Give me the ocean, the desert or the wilderness!” he exclaims (61)—places, like the swamp, that are dreary (because they are frightening to civilized humans, or because they don’t conform to codes of visual beauty). And yet, the American economy depends on agriculture, which requires draining swamps (63-64). “The weapons with which he have gained our most important victories, which should be handed down as heirlooms from father to son, are not the sword and the lance,” he argues, “but the bushwhack, the turf-cutter, the spade, and the bog-hoe, rusted with the blood of many a meadow, and begrimed with the dust of many a hard-fought field” (64).
“In Literature it is only the wild that attracts us,” Thoreau continues, suggesting that “it is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in ‘Hamlet’ and the “Iliad,’ in all the Scriptures and Mythologies, not learned in the schools, that delights us,” in the way that a wild duck “is more swift and beautiful than the tame” (64). He wonders where “the literature which gives expression to Nature” is (65):
He would be a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him; who nailed words to their primitive senses, as farmers drive down stakes in the spring, which the frost has heaved; who derived his words as often as he used them,—transplanted them to his page with earth adhering to their roots; whose words were so true and fresh and natural that they would appear to expand like the buds at the approach of spring, though they lay half-smothered between two musty leaves in a library,—ay, to bloom and bear fruit there, after their kind, annually, for the faithful reader, in sympathy with surrounding Nature. (65-66)
Strangely, though, this evocation of “the literature which gives expression to Nature” is premised on figures of human domination of nature, particularly through agriculture. Would that literature necessarily be a hybrid between the human and the natural? In any case, it doesn’t exist:
I do not know of any poetry to quote which adequately expresses this yearning for the Wild. Approached from this side, the best poetry is tame. I do not know where to find in any literature, ancient or modern, any account which contents me of that Nature with which even I am acquainted. (66)
The literature that comes closest seems to be Greek mythology, “the crop which the Old World bore before its soil was exhausted, before the fancy and imagination were affected with blight; and which it still bears, wherever its pristine vigor is unabated” (66).
“In short,” Thoreau continues, “all good things are wild and free”:
There is something in a strain of music, whether produced by an instrument or by the human voice,—take the sound of a bugle in a summer night, for instance,—which by its wildness, to speak without satire, reminds me of the cries emitted by wild beasts in their native forests. It is so much of their wildness as I can understand. Give me for my friends and neighbors wild men, not tame ones. The wildness of the savage is but a faint symbol of the awful ferity with which good men and lovers meet. (67-68)
The influence of Rousseau on Thoreau is obvious here. “Undoubtedly, all men are not equally fit subjects for civilization,” he writes, and just because some can be tamed, “this is no reason why the others should have their natures broken that they may be reduced to the same level” (69). Nature, he writes, is “this vast, savage, howling mother of ours,” and she possesses “such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man” (71). It would be better, he continues, that “every man nor every part of a man” should be “cultivated, any more than I would have every acre of earth cultivated”: the greater part of the earth should remain “meadow and forest, not only serving an immediate use, but preparing a mould against a distant future, by the annual decay of the vegetation which it supports” (72).
Thoreau then critiques the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, suggesting that a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance or “what we will call Beautiful Ignorance” would be more useful “in a higher sense,” because what is called knowledge is “often our positive ignorance, ignorance in our negative knowledge” (73). “A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful,—while his knowledge, so called, is oftentimes worse than useless, besides being ugly,” he argues. “Which is the best man to deal with,—he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?” (74). That question suggests that Thoreau was a pioneer in the study of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
“My desire for knowledge is intermittent; but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant,” Thoreau continues—a strange thing for someone interested in walking to say, it seems to me. “The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence,” he writes:
I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before,—a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun. (74)
The insistence on “sudden revelation” and on something beyond knowledge suggests something about Thoreau’s Romantic predisposition, I think.
Thoreau suggests that “almost all men feel an attraction drawing them to society,” but “few are attracted strongly to Nature” (76). For that reason, he considers most men “lower than the animals,” because they are incapable of appreciating “the beauty of the landscape” (76). “For my part,” he continues,
I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the State into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a moss-trooper. Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will-o’-the-wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no moon nor fire-fly has shown me the causeway to it. Nature is a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features. (76)
At this point, he suddenly returns, in the middle of the paragraph, to walking:
The walker in the familiar fields which stretch around my native town sometimes finds himself in another land than is described in their owners’ deeds, as if it were in some far-away field on the confines of the actual Concord, where her jurisdiction ceases, and the idea which the word Concord suggests ceases to be suggested. (77)
What is that other land? Where did the reality described in the property deeds he refers to go? He gives an example:
I took a walk on Spaulding’s Farm the other afternoon. I saw the setting sun lighting up the opposite side of a stately pine wood. Its golden rays straggled into the aisles of the wood as into some noble hall. I was impressed as if some ancient and altogether admirable and shining family had settled there in that part of the land called Concord, unknown to me,—to whom the sun was servant,—who had not gone into society in the village,—who had not been called on. I saw their park, their pleasure-ground, beyond through the wood, in Spaulding’s cranberry-meadow. The pines furnished them with gables as they grew. Their house was not obvious, to vision; the trees grew through it. I do not know whether I heard the sounds of a suppressed hilarity or not. They seemed to recline on the sunbeams. They have sons and daughters. They are quite well. The farmer’s cart-path, which leads directly through their hall, does not in the least put them out,—as the muddy bottom of a pool is sometimes seen through the reflected skies. They never heard of Spaulding, and do not know that he is their neighbor,—notwithstanding that I heard him whistle as he drove his team through the house. Nothing can equal the serenity of their lives. Their coat of arms is simply a lichen. I saw it painted on the pines and oaks. Their attics were in the tops of the trees. They are of no politics. There was no noise of labor. I did not perceive that they were weaving or spinning. Yet I did detect, when the wind lulled and hearing was done away, the finest imaginable sweet musical hum,—as of a distant hive in May, which perchance was the sound of their thinking. They had no idle thoughts, and no one without could see their work, for their industry was not as in knots and excrescences embayed. (78)
Why does Thoreau imagine that the forest is the home of this family? Is that family a metaphor for the ecosystem of Spaulding’s farm? Or is he recording some mystical vision experienced while walking there? I don’t know. He states that he finds it hard to remember that family: “They fade irrevocably out of my mind even now while I speak and endeavor to recall them, and recollect myself” (78). Regardless, he concludes that “[i]f it were not for such families as this, I think I should move out of Concord” (78). Perhaps that family is a way of giving shape to the thoughts he has while walking. He suggests that “few and fewer thoughts visit each growing man from year to year, for the grove in our minds is laid waste,—sold to feed unnecessary fires of ambition, or sent to mill, and there is scarcely a twig left for them to breed on” (79).
“We hug the earth,—how rarely we mount! Methinks we might elevate ourselves a little more” (79). Those words lead into a literal description of climbing a tall white pine, which leads Thoreau to “discover new mountains on the horizon” which he had never seen before (79). At the top of the tree, he saw “the fertile flower of the white pine looking heavenward,” which he picked and took to show the villagers (80). “[N]ot one had ever seen the like before,” he writes, “but they wondered as at a star dropped down” (80). The moral of this fable seems to be the importance of attending to the natural world, but even more, the importance of allowing ourselves, or our imaginations, to soar.
“Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present,” Thoreau writes. The past is without interest. “Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barn-yard within our horizon, it is belated,” he continues, suggesting again the importance of attending to what is around us. That rooster’s philosophy, Thoreau states, “comes down to a more recent time than ours,” because he rises early and is “in the foremost rank of time” (80-81). The rooster’s crow “is an expression of the health and soundness of Nature, a brag for all the world,—healthiness as of a spring burst forth, a new fountain of the Muses, to celebrate this last instant of time. Where he lives no fugitive slave laws are past. Who has not betrayed his master many times since last he heard that note?” (81). So many things are combined in this description—Peter’s betrayal of Christ, the controversy over fugitive slave laws (with which Thoreau was concerned), “a new fountain of the Muses,” and I find it hard to understand how paying attention to the present moment brings all of them together. But “[t]he merit of this bird’s strain”—and, remember, he is still talking about attending to the present—“is in its freedom from plaintiveness,” its “pure morning joy” (81). When Thoreau hears a rooster crow, he states, “I think to myself, ‘There is one of us well, at any rate,’—and with a sudden gush return to my senses” (81).
The next paragraph provides an example of attending to the senses while walking, and that example becomes what can only be described as an epiphany:
We had a remarkable sunset one day last November. I was walking in a meadow, the source of a small brook, when the sun at last, just before setting, after a cold gray day, reached a clear stratum in the horizon, and the softest, brightest morning sunlight fell on the dry grass and on the stems of the trees in the opposite horizon, and on the leaves of the shrub-oaks on the hill-side, while our shadows stretched long over the meadow eastward, as if we were the only motes in its beams. It was such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before, and the air also was so warm and serene that nothing was wanting to make a paradise of that meadow. (81-82)
This is an experience of paradoxes: warm air on a cold day, a sunrise at sunset, a slumbering meadow (it’s November, after all, and winter is quickly approaching) becoming “a paradise.” More importantly, Thoreau continues, “[w]hen we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever on an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there, it was more glorious still” (82). How can that be? How can such a singular event be infinite? It seems impossible, but Thoreau is certain that it’s the case, even though it is, for him, clearly a special and unique experience:
We walked in so pure and bright a light, gilding the withered grass and leaves, so softly and serenely bright, I thought I had never bathed in such a golden flood, without a ripple or a murmur to it. The west side of every wood and rising ground gleamed like the boundary of Elysium, and the sun on our backs seemed like a gentle herdsman driving us home at evening. (82)
This is the approach to the Holy Land, he suggests, returning to the place where he began:
So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bank-side in autumn. (82)
Enlightenment is possible, it seems, if we walk long enough, and far enough, and it will take the form of the “great awakening light” of the sun.
Thoreau’s optimism at the end of the lecture is something of a surprise, given the discouragement he sometimes expresses, but it’s clear that for him walking is more than a way to experience nature—it is a path towards some kind of enlightenment. I was also surprised by the lecture’s circularity, but the way it circles back to the etymologies with which it began. In a way, I think the key to Walking is Thoreau’s brief introduction, where he suggests that he’s not interested in humans as social creatures, but as “part and parcel of Nature” (35). If that’s his starting point, then it’s not surprising that our enlightenment will be natural, experienced by walking in the sunshine. And if that’s his starting point, criticizing him for (jokingly, I suspect) suggesting that walkers need to abandon their friends and families misses the point. For Thoreau, those social and familial ties are unimportant; what is important is one’s experience of nature. He might well be wrong about that—and I think he is—but that suggestion is consistent with the rest of his argument. In the end, Thoreau was what he was–a nineteenth-century Romantic–and we can only take what we can from this odd text.
Anderson, Matthew Robert. “Why Canadians Need the ‘Right to Roam.’” The Conversation, 29 July 2018, https://theconversation.com/why-canadians-need-the-right-to-roam-100497.
Heddon, Deirdre, and Cathy Turner. “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” Contemporary Theatre Review, vol. 22, no. 2, 2012, pp. 224-36.
Ilgunas, Ken. This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Get It Back, Plume, 2018.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walking, 1863, Watchmaker 2010.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, University of Minnesota Press, 1977.