After a night of thunder and lightning and heavy rain, I sit on my porch taking in the wildlife that closes in around me. I watch a red-bellied woodpecker couple, a doe with her fawn stroll through the high grass, soon to be cut and dried as hay. Water drips like a metronome from the roof. I watch. And I read Thoreau.
I remember reading Henry David Thoreau in school and falling into a state of near comatose boredom. As I read him now, I have a completely different experience. Recently I came across an essay he published in 1862 after presenting it as a speech several times. I’m not going to lie; it’s long, he rambles, he covers a multitude of topics. Oh but it’s chock full of treasures! He covers everything from conservation to politics, to literature and sense of place.
TO HAVE BEEN THERE
I wonder what it must have been to be a member of the audience of that speech back in the nineteenth century. Where they bored and restless as they sat in hard chairs in their stiff attire? Did they fight a yawn? Force open their eyes? Or did they hang on his every word, mesmerized by his poetic descriptions and advanced vocabulary? Were they in awe at his predictions of future America? They should have been; he was spot on.
This essay, which I never before heard of, fell into my hands as I was doing a little research for a character in a short story I am currently writing. Indeed, it helps me to get to know the character better, but it’s providing me with so much more food for thought. It’s called Walking. Look it up if you are so inclined but be patient and allow it time.
CHARMED, I’M SURE
Like I said, he rambles. Also, he lived a charmed life, clearly. Anyone whose daily stroll lasts four hours pretty much has it made in my book. We can assume that most of the remainder of the day was spent writing and reading. So, yeah, charmed. Not everyone has such luxury. I am glad he had it though because he had some important things to say.
His discussion of conservation was far ahead of his time. He saw in the future, an America depleted of its forests and wild space. He saw, even then, how we as humans were destroying our very home. He stressed the importance of educating our youth about nature and conservation; about the need for individuals to spend time in nature (both to appreciate so we will care for it, but also for how it benefits the soul), and the dire need for public lands. “Wildness is the preservation of the world,” he says.
On the subject of America as a nation, as a culture, as a people, he sees us as being shaped by the nature around us, by the wildness and unique flora and fauna. He brings up the idea of an “American mythology” which is fascinating. With prescience he states, “Perchance, when in the course of ages, American liberty has become a fiction of the past—as it is to some extent a fiction of the present—the poets of the world will be inspired by American mythology.”
I love his take on American literature and its place in the world. Our American experience lends a special quality, unique and rich. It’s good to own that. His nineteenth century mind is hopeful for a prolific and rich literary collection inspired by the American experience. Indeed, I think we’ve got that!
NOT PERFECT JUST LIKE AMERICA HERSELF
There are some things he’s gotten wrong, or rather failed to consider. Most notably, the contributions and inclusion of Native Americans. Imagine if Natives could have influenced conservation efforts back then! When commenting on our proclivity to go west toward the new as opposed to traveling east, he tells of his witnessing “the Indians moving west across the stream (the Mississippi River),” as if they traveled willingly. But that’s a discussion for another day.
ONE LAST THOUGHT
As I said, he rambles and now I am too. It’s raining again here, and the world is green and lush. I will leave you with one last quotation from Walking just to prove how varied his subject matter is and because I just love books: “A truly good book is something as natural, and as unexpectedly and unaccountably fair and perfect, as a wildflower discovered in the prairies of the West or in the jungles of the East.”
Thoreau, Henry David. Walking. 1862. Republished by National Geographic. https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2011/11/17/walking-by-henry-david-thoreau/