Recently I took a three-week hiatus back to Western Mass. I walked every day on trails I never knew existed, under (and up) hemlocks and pines I’d never seen, leaped streams and sipped from them without terror of gastrointestinal retribution, looked over cliffs I’ll maybe never look over again. I used to live here. There were days, especially in February, during which every year I’ve been here but this one there’s been two and a half inches of ice covering all the paths and bruises waiting at the base of every hill, when I never left my house. I took it all for granted.
I’ve been reading Thoreau again. I’ve long considered this to be something of a mistake, since pretty much everything he said is what I’ve always already been thinking, with the same flaws, only he said it more eloquently and eruditely 180 years ago. I’m too influenced by him already, and I’ve avoided reading him for years. I loved him in high school to the point that teachers assigned me his last name as a diminutive. I hitched the wagon of my identity to his with no consideration whatever for the consequences, and the failure of a theory of Thoreau to function as a guiding principle for my existence deeply informs my own alienatingly close relationship with hypocrisy, my desperate-to-be-disproven agnosticism and my halfassed hedonism of opportunity. His writing is pretty much talking to hear himself talk, shouting eloquently into the aether to justify his own not-entirely-hypocrisy-free lifestyle choices. What could demonstrate this better than his legacy? Walden tries to sell its readers on the joys of a life of contemplative privation and near-total solitude. Now it costs $5 to park at Walden Pond and its shores are encased in chickenwire and netting to prevent the hundred thousand annual followers in his footsteps from trampling it into lifeless desert. By succeeding so well at making us want to emulate him, he’s made it impossible to do so except in the shallowest fashion.
Still, of late I have found myself in need of him, warts and all: a validation, however guilty, of my way of thinking. I could quote him here at length year in, year out and cease needing to write a blog.
I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust, and when sometimes I have stolen forth for a walk at the eleventh hour, or four o’clock in the afternoon, too late to redeem the day, when the shades of night were already beginning to be mingled with the daylight, have felt as if I had committed some sin to be atoned for, I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.
They who have been traveling long on the steppes of Tartary say, “On re-entering cultivated lands, the agitation, perplexity, and turmoil of civilization oppressed and suffocated us; the air seemed to fail us, and we felt every moment as if about to die of asphyxia.”
I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the state into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a moss-trooper. Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will-o’-the-wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no moon nor firefly has shown me the causeway to it.
Nature is a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features.
Where is the literature which gives expression to Nature? He would be a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him; who nailed words to their primitive senses, as farmers drive down stakes in the spring, which the frost has heaved; who derived his words as often as he used them, transplanted them to his page with earth adhering to their roots; whose words were so true and fresh and natural that they would appear to expand like the buds at the approach of spring, though they lay half smothered between two musty leaves in a library—aye, to bloom and bear fruit there, after their kind, annually, for the faithful reader, in sympathy with surrounding Nature.
I do not know of any poetry to quote which adequately expresses this yearning for the Wild.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walking
I should add that, appropriately, I think, Walking is the very first book I’m reading on my new e-ink reader.