Walking with Thoreau

Walking on a trail in the Hoh Rain Forest, 2019…

Henry David Thoreau wrote an essay called Walking, which was published as a long article in The Atlantic in 1862. Although some of the words he used are dated — we seldom use “methinks” anymore — his ideas are still clear and fresh today, and it is very readable. In this essay, he expresses his need for long walks in nature, and laments the loss of “wildness” in our culture and the encroachment of private ownership of great parcels of wilderness areas. Looking back at his world of 1862, when there were still great areas of unsettled land, and where woods and forests still remained right outside of towns, easily accessible for long rambles, it makes me sad to realize how far away we have come from that closeness to nature.

He reveled in the beauty of nature on those walks, a phenomenon that was mostly unknown to the village dweller who sat indoors all day:

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 hillside, while our shadows stretched long over the meadow east-ward, 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. When we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever, an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there, it was more glorious still.

And he prized “wildness” over “civilized.”  Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him.

In short, 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.

He used the word “sauntering,” and gave the history of the word from the Middle Ages, which basically meant a type of “crusade.” So walking was not merely taking a walk, but was a devotion, a commitment to immersing oneself in wildness.

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.

I enjoyed his musings on being in nature, and I admired his commitment to living in wildness. He was a unique individual with unique circumstances that allowed the freedom he had to devote his life to nature. I’ve always been a bit intimidated by what I perceive as his fanaticism, but he reminds us of what we have almost completely lost today: the incredible restorative power on the human soul of being outside, in the wild, in nature.

 

I chose to read this book as one of my 50 books in 5 years for The Classics Club, Round 2.

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