Do the Mountains Still Call?

This week’s medley of readings, with the exception of Emerson, consisted of writers who became prominent in the years and decades following Thoreau’s death. Of these writers, I will focus on three—Emerson, Muir, and Leopold. Emerson and Muir have in common, along with Thoreau, that they are amateur naturalists, and their writings are celebrations of the awe-inspiring sublimity of nature. Leopold is a trained scientist, and his writings do, in some ways reflect this, often investigating specific aspects of the natural world and how they are connected.

The obvious questions are how Emerson, Thoreau’s contemporary, compares to him and how environmental writing seems to have developed since these two earlier writers. In some ways, the answers to these questions seem just as obvious. Emerson shares some notable similarities. His discussion of the stars and of the ownership (or lack thereof) of land are remarkably reflective of some passages out of Walden. Leopold is markedly different in content, being far more scientifically bent. In terms of subject, he is less philosophical than Thoreau or Emerson—he is tangible and rooted in the physical, measurable world. Muir falls somewhere between these two, in my estimation. He begins to move towards Leopold in statements such as his declaration in My First Summer in the Sierras, that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”. This is a clear allusion to the interconnectedness of nature, a key principle in the natural sciences, from ecology, to cell biology, to biochemistry.

So the differences are apparent and obvious. However, if you’ve been paying close attention to the brief discussion above you have probably already noticed that the differences highlighted are mostly derived from the content the authors write about. In other areas, their writings are actually quite similar. Thoreau by far, uses the most intricate and convoluted literary conventions. His sentences are long and winding and his writings are deeply steeped in metaphor and symbolism. But other stylistic and tonal aspects are held in common between all four writers—particularly Emerson, Muir and Leopold. Perhaps the most obvious of these traits is the tendency to use vivid, powerful imagery. Even Leopold is high descriptive in a way that is far more poetic than we would probably associate with scientific writing today. How many evolutionary biologists have you heard saying or writing “the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution”? Few, if any, I would imagine.

In many ways, I feel like the deep interconnectedness between celebrating and studying nature, and poetic, engaging writing is lost on many researchers today, who bemoan that the public is losing interest science and discovery. They expect the facts and innovations they uncover to speak to the general public in the same way that the scientists themselves view them. By now, we should be learning that it doesn’t work this way. I firmly believe that a large part of bringing science back to the forefront of the public’s mind is returning to a way of writing about the natural world that has been left behind. The mountains are calling, but unless a new Muir or Leopold tells us, there’s no way most of us will ever know.  

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The Wildness of Simplicity

It is easy to think of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as a celebration of complete wildness—after all, it was Thoreau who penned the now-famous saying “in wildness is the preservation of the world”. On first glance, or after only a cursory reading, Walden can seem filled with similar sentiments. It cannot be ignored that the book catalogues season upon season spent away from regular human company. Upon closer inspection, however Walden can be read a different way; a way that contains a far more complex message.

The scenes of nature and wildness throughout Walden are tempered by references to a more human and conventionally unnatural presence. In Jedediah Purdy’s 2013 blog piece for the Huffington Post, he reflects on this observation, saying: “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.” The ways that Thoreau does this are myriad. In almost every chapter that includes scenes of ecological observation or pastoralism, there is an accompanying reminder of human interference—or, to use Purdy’s word, profanation. Some of these references are more powerful, more visceral, than others. One of the most striking comes from the chapter “Spring”. Thoreau writes:

“At the approach of spring the red-squirrels got under my house, two at a time, directly under my feet as I sat reading or writing, and kept up the queerest chuckling and chirruping and vocal pirouetting and gurgling sounds that ever were heard; and when I stamped they only chirruped the louder, as if past all fear and respect in their mad pranks, defying humanity to stop them. No you don’t—chickaree— chickaree. They were wholly deaf to my arguments, or failed to perceive their force, and fell into a strain of invective that was irresistible.” (230-231)

The cursory read of this passage might seem quite wild—Thoreau is among the animals, after all. His house is among them and he depicts himself as wholly powerless to impose his will upon them. How many of us, born in cities and suburbs, or even in farm country, have even found ourselves in the presence of red squirrels, let alone witnessed their breeding season antics? In today’s world, this rust-colored, thick-furred relative of our familiar gray squirrel is often as much a hermit as Thoreau thought of himself. They stay away in the deep pine woods of New England and only venture south along the wild spine of the Appalachians, where humans are much fewer and further-between.

But then one reads more closely. Thoreau records the cheerful, if odd, music of squirrel courtship and then, if the narrative can be trusted, attempts to quiet the sound. He stamped to disturb them, to see if he could convince them to quiet themselves, or at least to continue their amorous activities elsewhere. Furthermore, the only reason that Thoreau is a witness to the scene is that he has placed himself among the squirrels. They are under his house, one has to assume, since there had been no house there for years. The newcomer is Thoreau, not the squirrels, and it is his presence that causes the tension and drama that is portrayed. When taken in context with the rest of Walden, Thoreau’s presence among the squirrels is, in this reading, the harbinger of the coming suburban sprawl. Thoreau is but an early intruder into the squirrel’s world, simply the member of human society that has struck out furthest from the village first, and will soon be followed by many more.

It is not surprising that this reading is not popular among some. As I write, I can hear generations of self-declared environmentalists and conservationists before me crying foul—how can the great the environmental and ecological saint that is Henry David Thoreau be forerunner to the tremendously destructive building practices of today? And I have a response to those who say this, or rather Thoreau does. In the same breath that he uses to describe his efforts to quiet the squirrels living below him, he says, almost wondrously, that the neighbors were beyond his ability to silence. He goes so far as to describe how they seemed to curse him with their “strain of invective” (pg 231), and pronounce their irreverent tone towards him as being irresistible to hear. The significance of this would be that even as humanity creeped into the woods at Walden Pond, nature was pushing back—thus the wilderness that Thoreau praises is not truly wild because of its purity. Instead, it is wild because it manages to retain a touch of wildness despite the impending violations at the hands of the human world. And in Thoreau’s world, a creature as small and seemingly inconsequential as the button-eyed red squirrel is the focal point of the natural world’s rebellion against the looming threat of human oppression. A Thoreauvian metaphor if ever there was one.

Perhaps only slightly less famous than Thoreau’s proclamation on the crucial nature of wilderness is Thoreau’s proclamation on simplicity. In Walden he declares, “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” (69). This declaration has probably been taken at face value, just as the statement on the necessity of pure wilderness has been. The reader who is unprepared for the commitment and deliberation needed to read can read that statement and assume that they have read all they need to know about Thoreau and simplicity. However, I would argue that there is as much room for conflict in this proclamation as there is in any other Thoreau wrote.

And yet, Thoreau betrays his truer purpose. He does not truly believe in simplicity as we would be expecting to understand it. He may not even truly believe that simplicity is simple. In “Conclusion”, he writes the following of the person who is willing to engage in an experiment as he did with his stay at Walden Pond:

“He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.” (241)

He presents simplicity as being the gold standard and a pure thing in one line, and in the very next explains how the act of complicating one’s life is what allows for simplification. The ideas he plays with here—the “expansion” of former knowledge, a newer more “liberal” set of ideals, a “higher order”—these are not the words to describe that which is classically thought of as simple. These words describe deep and complicated thought and reflect what the reader knows to have been long and tumultuous meditation during his time at Walden Pond. Furthermore, the ideas that solitude is not truly to be alone and that poverty is not truly impoverishment are not ideas that are easy for anyone to wrap their heads around. Yet Thoreau claims that these experiences are the signs of having reached a true simplicity in life.

And here lie the ironies of Thoreau; complexity is the key to living simply and understanding plainly. Similarly, wilderness is not truly about being pure and untouched by humans, but about how the wilds of the world push and pull against the encroachment of the human world. The fact that Thoreau presents these two facts in terms that are almost paradoxical is, I think, the saving grace of Walden. In our world, it is easy to be lost in the complexity of the world, and to view our place in that world as hopelessly muddled. It is easier still to decry the loss of wilderness as the greatest crime of our era, and in some way these things are both true. But then Thoreau steps in to remind us that, in order to preserve wildness, the must be something to preserve it against. Without complexities beyond measure to wade through, we can’t reach a simpler understanding of the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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