Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"In wildness is the preservation of man."

Last night, I finished reading The Thoreau You Don't Know, Robert Sullivan's new biography of Henry David Thoreau. It took me a while to get through it. My previous conception of Thoreau was most influenced by the memoir of essayist John Gould, Maine's Golden Road, in which Gould both compares himself to Thoreau a lot and also makes fun of him mercilessly as a clueless, Harvard-educated character, a guy who brings an umbrella to climb Mt. Katahdin and uses it to measure the dimensions of a moose along the way. It's very funny, although, in hindsight, it's a bit unfair to Henry David.*

This is exactly the kind of preconception this book tries to change, and though it took some effort on my part, it was worth it. For me, the high point came near the end, in a chapter where Sullivan visits Walden Pond State Reservation. Here's a passage:
The problem - if I have not said this too many times already - with the Thoreau so many people know is that he perpetuates a separateness between man and nature. We see the nature of Walden Pond as separate from the nature of the railroad tracks. We see that nature at the beach on the pond, which we try to keep litter free, as separate from nature in our driveways, where our car has a leak and the oil seeps out and down into the street and away to who knows where ... We see our individual actions as separate from the actions of our community... when we are all creatures in the same landscape, a herd, a mass of men and women. With a Thoreau who is separate from us, then we don't see our actions, the how we live, as relating to Thoreau's nature, which is in town, right where we live.


The understandable human tendency in nature writing to celebrate the extraordinary in the natural environment makes other places seem less than extraordinary, or bad, or ratty... But exceptionalism ends up being anti-Thoreauvian, as well as unfair and unjust, as applied to other species, or places, or even neighborhoods. Exceptionalism leads to trash incinerators being sited in low-income neighborhoods and eventually to the loss of the mundane that makes the extraordinary possible.

I was getting the feeling more and more that in the city I might find nature in a lot more places than I might have looked for it before, that the wildness was more important than wilderness, that wildness was everywhere, if I looked for it, the search being part of what makes wild wild. "In wildness is the preservation of man."
The Thoreau You Don't Know reveals a Thoreau who is more interested in finding nature inside the unremarkable town where he lives - in the cut of a railroad embankment, in managed woodlots, and in the industrial ice-harvesting operation that runs on Walden Pond during his time there. The real Thoreau called on us to embrace a more honest relationship with nature and each other, so that both our souls and our economy could prosper.

Sullivan's book makes me feel as though I've found a kindred spirit in plain sight, and it successfully convinced me to give Thoreau's books and essays another chance after my shallow and partial high-school-era reading.

*Footnote: Speaking of high school reading, Gould's daughter, Mrs. Christy, was my 10th-grade English teacher, and gave me Maine's Golden Road as a graduation gift. Also, when Stephen King was a tenth grader, he got his first writing job working for Gould at the community weekly paper in Lisbon, Maine. According to King, it was there that Gould taught him everything he needed to know about writing successfully.


R Sullivan said...

Thank you very much for your (too) kind words. No beer necessary, as I wouldn't know a R if I saw one—I am still waiting--and libraries, anyway, are much cooler. This is a great site. Clearly, you were the other person I had in mind when I did TTYDK. The beach of rejectamenta is like a railroad cut. Maybe see you in the Casco Bay region sometime, RS

Turboglacier said...

I highly recommend to you Thoreau's unabridged Journals. I find reading them to be similar to mining a rich vein of gold. I see the PPL has a copy: 814.3 T48j (but you'll need more than a three-week loan to get through it.)