The original free radical

by
22 May 2020

Rod Garner explores a 19th-century example of voluntary self-isolation

North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy

Bronze statue of Thoreau in front of a replica of his cabin at Walden Pond

Bronze statue of Thoreau in front of a replica of his cabin at Walden Pond

AS PROUD Americans celebrated their country’s independence, on 4 July 1845, Henry David Thoreau, a young man of arresting appearance, left the village of Concord, Massachusetts, to live in a cabin built with his own hands next to Walden Pond, a mile away from his home and close to the woods. There, in the relative solitude that he craved, he embraced the idea of “living deliberately”, and of confronting “only the essential facts of life”.

He was 27 and disillusioned by a society in thrall to the roar of the machine age, the economic exploitation of slavery, and the mean pursuit of wealth. Organised religion appeared to him little better, with its scant regard for the spiritual life of individuals or the pursuit of virtue.

He stayed at Walden for two years, practising self-sufficiency, recording the changing seasons, and writing prolifically in his journals about everything that preoccupied him. Nature, religion, literature, philosophy, politics, and economics fuelled his pen. Nothing was alien to him, and his considerable talents — both practical and intellectual — equipped him for the “experiment” on which he had embarked.

Educated at Harvard, he read at least six languages. His mind was fashioned by Homer, Virgil, the ancient scriptures of India and China, poetry, history, the latest German philosophy and science, and the Bible. His hands were put to good use repairing the cabin after severe storms; planting corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and seven miles of beans; and deploying oxen to break open the hard soil.

He lived frugally and contentedly with the barest essentials — a frying pan, three plates, two knives, two forks, one spoon, and a cup — but he was not entirely a solitary. The cabin was close enough to the road for conversation with people passing by who were increasingly curious about, or fascinated by, the life that he had chosen.

To some he appeared as an American version of St Francis of Assisi, preaching to the birds, feeding the animals, and lifting fish gently from the water. Others were more cautious in their estimations. Walden was not exactly wilderness, and, in between solitude and self-sufficiency, Thoreau was able to return to Concord to share in the conversation and hospitality of the family home — an indulgence of sorts, perhaps, given his high principles and spirited independence, but hardly the hypocrisy that he was sometimes accused of by his severest critics.

His real home comprised the woods and pond of Walden, and the small, sparse room of his cabin, where writing became the point of his life. At his green desk by the window, with the glint of water and pine trees before him, he confronted the questions posed by a natural world of impenetrable beauty and mystery in which, increasingly, everything — including his own material life — seemed to him connected.

In seeking to describe what he saw, he had a profoundly religious purpose. He regarded his cabin as a temple; eating was a sacrament at “the communion table of the world”; and his journals would constitute a new sacred book for a changing but ethically supine age. He was opinionated and combative, and resolved to be heard.

For him, part of the aim of living deliberately entailed the duty of “unmasking the powers”: of recognising the barely concealed violence behind the established order, and the shams and deceits that masqueraded as “soundest truths”. He was imprisoned briefly for his principles and political convictions. In the century that followed, his essay “Civil Disobedience” influenced non-violent resistance movements worldwide. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, frequently quoted it during the civil-rights demonstrations of the 1960s, as did the campaigners against the war in Vietnam.

 

THE account of Thoreau’s “experiment” by Walden Pond went through endless revisions, and new material was added as the years went by. It finally appeared in 1854: the sustained and moderated reflections of a man who had been chastened by financial hardship, illness, and depression, and was now less inclined to preach and more concerned to set down what he had seen, “if only to wake the neighbours up”.

With only initial modest sales and mixed reviews, Walden; or, Life in the Woods had to wait a long time after Thoreau’s death for its deserved accolade as a classic of American literature. Without proper attention on our part, it can be read today as simply a venerable contribution to the current proliferation of nature writing, with the surprise feature of a resourceful hermit front and centre, pounding nails, ploughing beans, and scrutinising every penny he spent.

But it is so much more. Its pages can be seen as the transcendent vision of a naturalist, poet, and mystic, viewing the material world in a quite unsentimental way that is nevertheless suffused with awe. Trees, in particular, spoke to Thoreau’s imagination and sense of wonder. By spending his life rooted in Concord, he sought to emulate their abiding presence through long tracts of time. He observed them closely, described them in astonishing detail; but always they remained mysterious, bearing witness to the holy, and teaching him both the art of dying and the sure promise of renewal.

The raw canvas of the Walden woods, with its seasons of rising and dying and its abundant array of creatures, instilled in him a passion for the preservation of wilderness and a deep sadness at the loggers who routinely hollowed out the forests for commercial timber. This amounted to a violation of Nature in all its manifestations, including his own body, which he knew was wedded inextricably to the rocks, stones, and trees of the solid earth.

In all of this, and not least in his commitment to authenticity and his invitation to live more “deliberately”, Thoreau appears remarkably prescient. His voice comes to us as both summons and warning, as we address our endangered planet, our relationship to non-human species, and the responsibility we bear for a shared and sustainable future.

 

THOREAU died of consumption, aged 44, on 6 May 1862, and met his death with a serenity admired by his contemporaries. Nature had taught him that all things were bathed in a pure and radiant light that transcended suffering and mortality. Reality, in all its forms, was to be respected, not feared. Walden Pond remained for him the work of a Maker who had bequeathed it to Concord.

Thoreau never ceased to be grateful. In his journal, he wrote:
 

I cannot come nearer to God and Heaven
Than I live to Walden.
I am its stony shore,
In the hollow of my hand
Are its water and its sand.

 

Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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