Reflecting on Henry David Thoreau and his legacy
Returning from my last wilderness trip, I picked up a copy of Down the River, by Edward Abbey, one of my favorite environmental authors. His irreverent and provocative writings have connected with me for a long time. His earlier work, The Monkey Wrench Gang, is one of my all-time favorite environmental activism novels.
Down the River is a more contemplative piece. It is a series of reflections written while Abbey is out with companions floating down the Green River in southeast Utah.
On this trip in 1980, he took a worn and greasy paperback copy of the book, Walden, or Life in the Woods, by Henry David Thoreau. I have long been a fan of Thoreau, but did not realize until reading Abbey's piece that Thoreau was really an unrecognized writer while he was alive. His friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was much more recognized. Abbey interweaves his experiences of the stunning canyons along the Green River with his reading of Thoreau.
I have visited Walden Pond, as my parents lived in nearby Belmont when I was in college. As Abbey points out, it is really only a several mile walk from the town of Concord. Apparently, Thoreau frequently walked into town during his sojourn in his small cabin on Walden Pond. In fact, all of his rich and incredibly descriptive and provocative writing about the environment was based on his experience in Eastern Massachusetts, with occasional excursions to Canada, Cape Cod, and Maine.
Only two of his books were published during his lifetime, and neither received much recognition. His legacy followed his death.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said to Thoreau, "at Harvard they teach all branches of learning” to which Thoreau responded, "But none of the roots."
Even on his death bed, he composed wisecracks and amazing, "unexpected, incongruous juxtaposition of ordinarily antithetical words.” As he lay dying, a relative asked him, "Henry, have you made your peace with God?" Thoreau replied, "I am not aware that we had ever quarreled!"
One of Thoreau's most enduring provocations is:"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation… A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind."
One hundred and fifty years later, Thoreau’s shocking pronouncement continues to resonate. My father, who loved Thoreau, read me that phrase as a teenager. I don't suppose I really understood its power at the time, but it has stayed with me throughout my life, and I know it has propelled me into the woods many times a year to seek… what? Solitude, peace, and something more….a passion to connect with things larger than me, and to feel the simple and powerful joy of a sunny day in the woods.
Near the end of his life, Thoreau wrote: "We walked in so pure and bright a light, gilding the withered grass and leaves, so softly and serenely bright, I thought I had never bathed in such a golden flood, without a ripple or murmur to it."
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