Leaving Walden

After two years, two months, and two days, Henry David Thoreau left his cabin in the Concord woods on September 6, 1847. As explained in the concluding chapter of Walden, Thoreau made his decision to move out in the same spirit of adventure as his decision to move in:

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 and insensibly 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. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.

Recent books, many of them published in honor of this year’s bicentennial festivities — Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817 — certainly reflect his “more lives to live” determination, as well as the diversity and intensity of his interests. In his award-winning Thoreau the Land Surveyor, Patrick Chura shows how the profession Thoreau took up after Walden so deeply influenced his environmentalism and his writing. In The Boatman, Robert M. Thorson describes a man as happy on New England’s rivers and streams as he is tramping her woods. Geoff Wisner’s Thoreau’s Animals, like his earlier Thoreau’s Wildflowers, is arranged to reflect the seasons and Thoreau’s wonder about them in his journals, as in this May 27, 1841 entry:

I sit in my boat on Walden, playing the flute this evening, and see the perch, which I seem to have charmed, hovering around me, and the moon travelling over the bottom, which is strewn with the wrecks of the forest, and feel that nothing but the wildest imagination can conceive of the manner of life we are living. Nature is a wizard.

It may surprise some that Thoreau liked to play his flute for his friends, human and otherwise, and even liked a good sing-along. Scholar Laura Dassow Walls, author of the new biography Henry David Thoreau, cautions against trying to compartmentalize the man or failing to see the continuity in his worldview. In contrast to the more polarized approaches to Thoreau, Walls finds that his nature and political writing are connected by a common vision, and that the hermit-nag aspect of his personality is balanced by his “lively and charismatic” attributes. Walls also emphasizes the fundamental optimism that she finds in Thoreau — even given that the data-rich records he kept “help us measure the arrival of the Anthropocene epoch that threatens to overthrow everything he believed”:

Thoreau could look to “Nature” as an eternal fountain of renewal and regeneration, a sacred force capable of healing even the deepest acts of human destruction, including slavery, war, and environmental devastation . . . That the actions of human beings and the ancient fossil fuels they dug out of the ground to feed the engines of industry could fundamentally alter those natural processes — changing the chemistry of the atmosphere and of the encircling oceans, melting the poles, killing winter, killing life itself — was beyond Thoreau’s reckoning. Can his faith live on after nature, at least nature as he knew it has ended?

I think it can and will.

Walls notes that Walden ends with “an ecstatic vision into the regenerative forces of the Cosmos,” excerpted below. The new video game Walden is scheduled for commercial release this year; offering players “a kind of stillness at its core,” perhaps the game may guide a new generation to Thoreau and hasten the work of his wood bug:

Every one has heard the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer’s kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts — from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn. Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb — heard perchance gnawing out now for years by the astonished family of man, as they sat round the festive board — may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society’s most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!

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