Category Archives: Essays

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.

Books About Books

Isaac Israels – Girl Reading on Sofa, 1920

My early Saturday morning reading is fun! I am reading two books about books, and both came into my possession without any planning at all. My husband preordered one of the books as a lovely surprise for me, and it arrived in the mail this week. 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List, by James Mustich,  weighs a ton and is filled with wonderful information about authors and books. It’s like an encyclopedia for readers, a wonderful resource to have and an enjoyable read! With 948 pages and small type, I don’t know when or if I will ever read it all the way through, but I will certainly use it a lot over the years, if I can wrestle it away from other family members!

The other book is from the library, found while perusing the shelves this week. A serendipitous find, considering that I didn’t know my husband had ordered the other book for me. This book is called Vintage Reading: From Plato to Bradbury, A Personal Tour of Some of the World’s Best Books, by Robert Kanigel. For many years, the author wrote a newspaper column for the Baltimore Sun called “Vintage Reads.” This book is an extension of those articles, and is full of fun and very readable essays on classics that appealed to him.

I love reading books about books, and these two are both fun reads and excellent resources!

Wise Words

mary-oliver

Mary Oliver

It’s been an emotionally draining week, this election week in the United States. Wise words from an author and from a blogging friend are helping me through the emotional maze. Mary Oliver‘s  profound wisdom, as shared in her new book of essays, Upstream, is helping me to understand the bigger picture of what is happening right now. And my friend, Nan (Letters From a Hill Farm) shared an insightful comment on my Instagram post about why I have turned to Mary Oliver this week: “Because she talks about what really matters; what is real; what has been here through all the various presidents, and will continue on.

As a retired elementary school teacher, I have been very concerned about the impact of this election on all our children. We are seeing reports now of an increase in bullying and hateful rhetoric by young people in our schools and communities. Some are simply mimicking the behaviors of the adults around them, but others are acting out from feelings of powerlessness and confusion.

Adults can change their circumstances. Children are powerless, and in difficult situations they are the victims of every sorrow and mischance and rage around them, for children feel all of these things but without any of the ability that adults have to change them…

But the essay goes on to describe the pathways she, herself, found that took her “beyond such circumstances.”

…Whatever can take a child beyond such circumstances, therefore, is an alleviation and a blessing.
I quickly found for myself two such blessings–the natural world and the world of writing: literature. These were the gates through which I vanished from a difficult place.

In the first of these–the natural world–I felt at ease; nature was full of beauty and interest and mystery, also good and bad luck, but never misuse. The second world–the world of literature–offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it. I relaxed in it. I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything–other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned:  that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness–the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books–can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.

Her wise words give me hope that we can find positive ways to help our children, and ourselves, through these circumstances and alleviate that feeling of powerlessness…and re-dignify our worst-stung hearts.