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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