Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Walk to Wachusett

In 1842, a 25-year-old Henry David Thoreau walked from his home in the town of Concord, Massachusetts to the summit of Wachusett Mountain, 34 miles away. It's a small mountain, barely cracking 2,000 feet in height, and today it's best known for hosting a ski area where one can take a few runs on winter evenings after getting off of work in Boston.

When he got back to Concord, he wrote this:
"And now that we have returned to the desultory life of the plain, let us endeavor to import a little of that mountain grandeur into it. We will remember within what walls we lie, and understand that this level life too has its summit, and why from the mountain top the deepest valleys have a tinge of blue; that there is elevation in every hour, as no part of the earth is so low that the heavens may not be seen from it, and we have only to stand on the summit of our hour to command an uninterrupted horizon."
I can't claim that I've read a lot of Thoreau's writing, but this little passage might be my favorite of what I've come across.

Wachusett isn't much of a mountain, even by New England standards - it's eroded over long eons into a round-shouldered, leafy hill. Still, what humble "mountain grandeur" this hill has clearly made an impression on Thoreau.

He's telling us two things in this passage: first, that we don't need to fly to the Himalayas to awe ourselves with big mountains - we can experience the same feelings in our own backyards, if we care to look for them.

Mount Wachusett. Photo by flickr user ornoth / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Second, he's also telling us that we can carry that inspiration with us "in every hour" - that is to say, through the humdrum routines of everyday life. If only we raised our heads to look up, we can command the "uninterrupted horizon" of a summit view.

In my personal reading of this, Thoreau is asking us to continue thinking about our connections to the natural world even in the level life of the city, and in our daily work. If we can manage that, he tells us, we'll be rewarded with a sense of perspective and humility not unlike the sense we get from a clear mountaintop view.

It's common for people and our popular culture to misinterpret Thoreau's later experiment at Walden Pond as a rebellion against civilization. Indeed, this confused reading may be responsible for - and is certainly associated with - the destructive old orthodoxy that environmentalists' activities should be focused on places where there aren't (or don't seem to be) any people - whether the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the northern Maine woods. The participants of anti-urban, white-flight environmentalism in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s tried to realize this false conception of Thoreau's experiment in back to the land movements, and the result was widespread urban sprawl along with brutal economic and racial segregation in American inner cities.

The real Thoreau wasn't at all interested in turning his back on the problems of civilization. Unlike the back-to-the-land hippies, Thoreau's time at Walden was intentionally temporary, and mixed with frequent trips back to (and engagement with) society in the busy town of Concord. Being an active, engaged member of society - whether by protesting the institution of slavery, or publishing his writings, or selling the pencils he manufactured in his family's Concord factory - was extremely important to Thoreau.

He loved mountains - even humble ones. But he didn't climb them for bragging rights, or exercise, or to fool himself that the problems of the world didn't exist. He climbed them to bring a sense of clarity and perspective into his everyday life in the valley.

And that's a perspective that I wish more mountain-climbers would embrace.


construct(ure)s said...

Great post! I recently moved from Pasadena California--with the 10,000' peaks of the Angeles mountains as a backdrop--to Central Virginia, home to the relatively 'humble' Blue Ridge mountains. I'm a trail runner and initially despaired the loss of grandeur I would presumably suffer. After almost a year I do still miss much of the jaw dropping panorama the California ranges provided but am also learning to love the river trails and lush hillsides in new my locale.

Bob said...

Check out the book "Walking to Wachusett." A modern account of author's re-enactment of Thoreau's walk. Available Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or