Sunday, October 01, 2006

The little green book

In 1992, Shambhala Publications issued an abridged edition of Thoreau's Walden in their Pocket Classics series. This sweet little book was about the size of a deck of playing cards, and proceeds from sales went to the Walden Woods Project, a nonprofit organization working to preserve the historic and environmentally sensitive land around Walden Pond. Michael McCurdy's wood engraving of "Thoreau at the Cabin" graced the cover.

It made an ideal gift for students in my Naturalist class (we walked, we studied, we read, we wrote -- and wrote -- and wrote). It fit handily in a pocket, and was, I thought, a sort of woodsy equivalent of Mao's Little Red Book. On a bright October day each year we made our way to Walden Pond, and sitting at the site of Thoreau's cabin we read aloud selected passages from the book. My Shambhala Walden is still flagged with passages to read, a nostalgic reminder of those unsurpassable times.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived...I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.

"In wildness is the preservation of the world," wrote Thoreau, and we emblazon his words on T-shirts and posters, and imagine him deep in a primeval forest, his solitude disturbed only by the cry of a loon or hoot of an owl.

Well, not quite. During Thoreau's lifetime, the mid-1800's, southern New England was more intensely cultivated than at any time before or since. Two-thirds of the land was open fields and pasture, interspersed with small woodlots and crisscrossed by roads. From his favorite vantage points on Conantum Cliff or Fair Haven Hill, Thoreau looked out on a tidy patchwork of agricultural plots -- cultivated fields, orchards, woodlots and water meadows -- that stretched as far as the eye could see, and loved what he saw. His landscape was not all that different from the woods and meadows I explored with my students.

We sell ourselves short when we posit an irreconcilable opposition between ourselves and wild nature. Human intelligence is, like it or not, the crowning achievement of natural selection, and properly applied it can sweeten nature's raw grandeur with the added grace of art. On returning from the Maine woods, Thoreau wrote: "It was a relief to get back to our smooth, but still varied landscape. For a permanent residence, it seemed to me that there could be no comparison between this [Concord] and the wilderness. The wilderness is simple, almost to barrenness. The partially cultivated country it is which chiefly has inspired, and will continue to inspire, the strains of poets."

As I sit at my window this summer afternoon, hawks are circling about my clearing; the tantivy of wild pigeons, flying by twos and threes athwart my view, or perching restless on the white-pine boughs behind my house, gives a voice to the air; a fish hawk dimples the glassy surface of the pond and brings up a fish; a mink steals out of the marsh before my door and seizes a frog by the shore; the sedge is bending under the weight of the reed birds flitting hither and thither; and for the last half hour I have heard the rattle of railroad cars, now dying away and then reviving like the beat of a partridge, conveying travelers from Boston to the country.

Many people take Thoreau at his word when he says he dines happily on woodchuck, or that he would rather sit on a pumpkin than a velvet cushion. We sat on sandy earth where Thoreau sat, and the railroad is still but a few hundred paces away. When we closed our eyes, the tantivy of birds and reeds and wind-bowed white-pine boughs was still to be heard -- once we had learned to listen. It was worth traveling to Walden to learn from the master, but what we learned is that Walden is everywhere -- anywhere -- if we make it so.

It is time to stop dining on philosophical woodchuck and recognize that it is our own wild nature, rapacious and selfish like that of all other creatures, that threatens biodiversity and poisons the environment. If we have hope for a gracious future, it will be civilization, not wildness, that saves us.

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves...The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels.

If we learned something sitting together in Walden Woods, it was to suck the marrow out of our wee green Shambhala and move on. Castles in the air are fine, says Thoreau, but only if we put firm foundations under them. And the foundations will inevitably be creations of the human imagination because it is imagination above all else that makes us human.

Thoreau scholar David Foster writes: "Despite the cleared forests, the dwindling animal populations, the dammed and polluted rivers, and the declining numbers of waterfowl and fish, Thoreau was able to find wildness in a thousand scenes, each one shaped by human activity...And, of course, he could turn Walden, a cut-over and 'tamed' woodlot, whose shores had recently been desecrated by one thousand workers building the railroad to Fitchburg, into a symbol of solitude, natural values, and wilderness."

This apparent contradiction leaves us with two ideas to ponder, says Foster. The first is that wilderness can be found within oneself. The second is that we inevitably live in a culturally conditioned landscape that can be appreciated for both its natural qualities and the human story it contains.

What we can learn from Thoreau is not a nostalgic longing for the forest primeval, but how to love the "tamed" landscape we have inherited, how to cultivate its civilizing qualities, and how to live within it in ways that are spiritually and morally awake.

Further Reading

A look at the web suggests that the little Shambhala Walden is no longer available. I own at least half-a-dozen editions of Walden, but no other that will fit in my hip pocket.

Michael McCurdy's marvelous wood engraving "Thoreau at the Cabin" captures the writer's spirit perfectly: the flute, the pen, the white page, the pond. I own a framed copy and value it greatly. You can obtain this and other of Michael's Thoreau prints at his website. It was my pleasure to make Michael's acquaintance when he was commissioned by Simon & Schuster to illustrate The Soul of the Night.

David Foster's Thoreau's Country: Journey Through a Transformed Landscape (Harvard 1999) is a wonderful book. Foster is Director of the Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts and teaches ecology at Harvard University. He is a clear-eyed interpreter of the "hermit of Concord" - - no rose-colored glasses, no sentimental gush.

W. Barksdale Maynard's Walden Pond: A History (Oxford, 2004) is essential reading for any fan of Thoreau.

If you know kids of picture-book age, D. B. Johnson's Henry Hikes to Fitchburg is a charming introduction to Thoreau. The book was so popular, it inspired a series.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.