Finding Our Way to Shore

“Walden” came to a close with two conclusions, much in the manner with which it opened with two introductions. Similarly, one served as a broad and philosophical conclusion, and the other as the conclusion to the “story” of living at Walden Pond. The chapter “Spring” served the latter function. In it Thoreau recounts the way that spring came to Walden, thus ending his recounting of his first full year there. It’s a very visual and sensory chapter, with much time devoted to observing the physical changes that occur in the world—the migration of birds, the melting of ice shelves and sheets on the pond edge, the springing forth of new vegetation, and so on. In the chapter titled “Conclusion” Thoreau zooms far out; he talks about the wideness of the world, of the way he felt he had lived a life at Walden and how returned to town because he had more lives to live. He almost seems, at times to be urging the reader to push the horizons of the world and never to settle into placidity.

I had originally intended to continue to track my investigation of simplicity this week, but upon reading the two linked articles, I want to bring my focus elsewhere, at least at first. I read Kathryn Schulz’s “Pond Scum”, and was torn between equal parts horror and fascination. These emotions were not so much geared towards her conclusions, for in some ways I found them understandable. Instead, it was her presentation of her conclusions. She denounces Thoreau’s apparent moral superiority and lack of humor all the while seeming to assert her moral superiority over him in an entirely draconian and witless manner. She denounces “Walden” for what she perceives as an elevation of individualism and self-importance, but the whole time does not allow for the possibility that Thoreau might have meant something other than the meaning she read. She assumes her reading is the only correct one, and that because she takes issue with his mode of living and because she cannot find humor in his writing that his existence is immoral and his writing is devoid of comedy. In other words, whether she is correct or not, she proves herself to be guilty of every charge she lays at Thoreau’s feet.

On the other hand, I found Purdy’s take to be interesting in that he seemed to glean much of what I did from the book, and also may have offered a solution to my wrestling with the treatment of the concept of simplicity. Purdy seems to suggest that the reading of simplicity is simply the “wrong” reading for the modern era. He quickly acknowledges that “Simple “preservation of the world,” as Thoreau named it, is not an option anymore, just as nothing today is truly wild”, and then moves on discuss why in the modern age there is another, more applicable reading of Thoreau. The reading that not only holds onto the brilliant ecology and environmental observation of Thoreau, but also elevates and investigates the interplay of the natural and the human, and how they existed in each other’s spheres even in Thoreau’s time, as when he observes that

“The book’s key passages do not just acknowledge the damage and breaking of the landscape: they seem to begin from them, to depend essentially on them. It may be that even to think of nature, let alone act on it, is to make it a joint product of human and natural activity, so that even to come to the pond is to profane it, but profanation is simply the condition of the world”.

I believe that this is the direction I will begin to move in. I am not sure I want to abandon simplicity in favor of other arguments as Purdy did, but I will, instead try to link the various spheres of the world with each other and solve simplicity through observation of them.

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There are the Stars, Behind the Clouds

This week’s set of readings spanned chapters that addressed everything from educational culture in 19th century America, to the interaction of the human and naturals worlds, to the human interaction (and lack-thereof) that Thoreau experienced in his time at Walden. These themes are from the chapters “Reading”, “Sounds”, and “Visitors”, out of Walden. “Reading” it turns out, is really less about reading than it is about education and state of the average New Englander’s intellect. Thoreau seems deeply concerned that the knowledge of the classics and thus, the truest wisdom of the world, is being lost. “Sounds” then, takes a sharp and surprising turn; after talking about the books he brought with him, and using them to frame and begin his arguments about knowledge, Thoreau acknowledges that he himself have very little time to dedicate to reading and studying his books while at Walden. Instead, he immerses himself in the ways he passed his time, and uses a moment in which he was drifting in thought after work, to discuss—partly through extended metaphor and symbolism—the way the natural and human world were increasingly bumping up against each other. While a standalone chapter “Visitors” really strikes me as a “set” that goes with the prior chapter “Solitude”. Simply by looking at the two titles, a fairly accurate picture of these chapters is painted. Thoreau ruminates on the state of his solitude in one, and in the other, recounts the visitors—from vagabonds to runaway slaves—that he received in his time. In a way, he also presents what he gained from each other these visitors, or at the very least, what attributes about these wayfarers were particularly striking to him.

In keeping with my prior investigation of Thoreau’s treatment of complexity, I found the chapter “Reading” to be one of the most captivating of those I have read thus far. I think that one reason for this, is quite simply that it directly addresses a highly tangible subject matter. It’s easy for a college student to grasp, relate to, and form an opinion, on the matter of education. But even beyond that, there are so many moments of potential contradiction in this chapter. There are far too many to investigate all of them in any detail, so I will highlight one passage that I found particularly powerful. Relatively early in this chapter, Thoreau comments that,

“However much we may admire the orator’s occasional bursts of eloquence, the noblest written words are commonly as far behind or above the fleeting spoken language as the firmament with its stars is behind the clouds. There are the stars, and they who can may read them. The astronomers forever comment on and observe them. They are not exhalations like our daily colloquies and vaporous breath. What is called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be rhetoric in the study. The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and heart of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.” (Thoreau, 77)

It’s a long passage, a whole paragraph, but in it lies the crux of my fascination with this paragraph. In the last entry, I wrote about I felt that Thoreau was decrying or at the very least, warning to be cautious against over complication. He seemed to be making a case for viewing the world in simpler, plainer terms. Here, it would seem he makes the exact opposite argument. It would appear that Thoreau is attempting to say here that there is a deep necessity to listen past the noise and try and see what is “behind the clouds”. He also seems to suggest that in writing a higher level of thought and expression can be reached, and that the understanding of this expression must be strived for through close and careful examination.

Perhaps it’s just me, but it sounds as though Thoreau is pushing the idea of “complicating” a thought, and thus countering his own argument in favor of simplification. I wonder if he is trying to build to an explanation of how one can look at a complicated thought simply? Or if he truly is using this thread as a way of sounding out his own thought process?

Simplicity

The first two chapters out of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden both feel like introductions, but different “types” of introductions. The chapter titled “Economy” reads like a very detailed forward, in some way: Thoreau establishes what I think of as the premise of the work, namely the ways in which he feels cultured, “civilized” society seems to have lost a purpose by over-advancing. In this first chapter he demonstrates this idea by establishing what he believes are the essentials for human life—these would be food, fuel, clothing, shelter—and then detailing how society has complicated each of these necessities until they have become burdensome and unhealthy to maintain.

The second chapter is more an introduction to the book itself—it is less cerebral, in a way. It discusses how Thoreau had long gone through the motions of purchasing land, and while he had never actually acquired any, he thought of himself as having, at one point, lived in nearly all the farmland that he had seen. He then describes the place where he finally lived outside of his mind; where he built his physical house. Thoreau then becomes more philosophical, and discusses the nature of the simplicity with which he lived. Even though this is a less tangible topic than the earlier part of the chapter, he still grounds this discussion in the location he chose to live, and the way he comported himself while living there.

There were a number of passages which, for one reason or another were particularly attention catching while I was reading. I will admit that some of them were simply because I particularly liked or didn’t like them, and had relatively little additional thinking initially attached to them. However, one section did prompt a stronger, immediate reaction. In the opening of his discussion of simplicity in “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” Thoreau writes,

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.” (Thoreau, 69)

By this point in my reading, I was not at all surprised that Thoreau would proclaim such a thing. It seemed like he was merely stating in plainer speech an idea he had been ruminating on throughout his work thus far. His bemoaning of the state of the homeowner, his interest in the labor of his own hands, and not of the tools which he sees as dominating his world, and many of the other things Thoreau has written up till now, can all be seen to be extended and complex versions of this simpler declaration.

And so, while it makes perfect sense, it made me wonder at something that might, at first, seem only tangentially related. I almost instantly paused in my reading to wonder at how much one’s times shapes a person. I read a New York Times article (linked below), just today, about the massive loss of species our planet is currently facing. I have read many an article and book about this topic of late, and this one was not, in some ways, any more or less novel than others. But it did impress just how magnificently huge the task of slowing—not stopping, for that ship has long since sailed—the loss of species is. The logistics and coordination involved are astronomical, global, and complicated.

Upon reading about Thoreau’s declaration of how beautiful and desirable simplicity is, in cares and thought and deed, I found myself thinking how selfish such a thing seems to me. The wildness and simplicity that Thoreau dwelt in during the time encompassed in Walden seems destined to vanish. In my experience, the necessity is to see and recognize the complexity of the world. I wonder if I am like the prince in the Hindu story Thoreau relates—too used to my concept of the world as mired in a cobweb of interconnected disciplines and confounding ethical and practical dilemmas of our time, to see that the world is much simpler than I “know” it to be. But then alternately I wonder if Thoreau might have been a product of his time as much as I am mine. Would he have spouted entirely different philosophies if he was trying to retire to Walden Pond in 2016 instead of the 1840s? Would he acknowledge today that complexity is simply the way the world works? Or would he still find a way to see the path to simplicity without forsaking the natural world to a tragic fate?

Word Count: 762

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