Friday, April 11, 2014

Walking by Henry David Thoreau

A green manifesto
Walking is a lecture written by Henry David Thoreau. It was first published in print form in 1862, as either a long essay or a short book, depending on how you look at it. As the title indicates, Thoreau discusses the act of walking, specifically in the woods, but the scope of the piece is much broader than that. Thoreau extols the virtues of wilderness and its necessity to mankind, not only for its advantages to our physical health, but also for its emotional, intellectual, and spiritual benefits.

This work bears a great deal of thematic similarity to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Nature. Both are manifestoes for the Transcendentalist movement, and both advocate the appreciation of nature for its own sake, rather than merely for the material benefits it provides to mankind. This was a revolutionary concept in the mid-19th century, and the works of Emerson and Thoreau mark the beginning of the American environmental movement. Yet despite the philosophical common ground they shared, Thoreau and Emerson were distinctly different writers. Emerson’s style is more loftily cerebral, at times difficult to decipher. Thoreau’s writing is much more down-to-earth and practical, and at times even tongue-in-cheek. Emerson was the chief conceptual thinker of Transcendentalism, but Thoreau put the group’s philosophical ideas into practice, and encouraged others to do so as well. To oversimplify, one could say that Emerson talked the talk, while Thoreau walked the walk.

To become closer to nature, one need not exile oneself to a remote log cabin, as Thoreau himself did when he wrote his masterpiece Walden. To experience the wonders of the natural world around you, all you have to do is walk. Of course, Thoreau could stroll outside his front door and enjoy twenty miles of fenceless forest. Few of us today are so lucky. Yet the broader message of the work is still valid. Thoreau confesses that he feels like a prisoner when confined within the borders of a town or within the conventions of society. His prescription for this ill is the rejuvenating effects of the wild. When one immerses oneself in the timeless workings of nature, it becomes apparent that the concerns of human society are petty and insignificant by comparison. Thoreau criticizes culture in general as a shameful removal from nature. Only by constructing a culture around nature rather than in spite of it can mankind truly advance intellectually. Instead of gazing back at the achievements of civilizations past, we should be focusing our thoughts and energies on the world outside our front door and the present moment in time.

The essay is about as serpentine and spontaneous as one of Thoreau’s hikes. Under the vast canopy of his guiding thesis he rambles through all manner of topics, from the uselessness of names to the superiority of mythology over literature to the description of a particularly beautiful sunset. It’s a difficult work to summarize because each passage is a succinct nugget of brilliantly quotable wisdom. The essay’s bits and pieces don’t readily appear to fit together, yet somehow all the disparate elements are ultimately unified by Thoreau’s overarching message. Walking is a beautiful piece of writing, perhaps not as easily accessible to the general reader as Walden, but fans of the latter work will certainly derive much valuable knowledge and inspirational pleasure from this profound paean to the wild.

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