Saturday, February 1, 2014

Thoreau on Walking

Henry David Thoreau.jpg
   Henry David Thoreau, Benjamin D. Maxham 

The comments here are on a selection from Thoreau's "Walking" that appears in a textbook Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism ed. Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott, Columbia university Press, New York, 2008.   All quotes are from pages 54-56.  I am currently using this text in my graduate seminar on aesthetics.  Ideally I should be commenting on Thoreau's essay as a whole, but I like the limitation of using a selection, or in this post, a selection of a selection.

Much of the interest in reading a writer from another time is to try to perceive the world a bit as he did, testing his experience against one's own, and perhaps finding one's own a bit wanting.  Thoreau begins his essay by identifying Nature (he capitalizes it!) with "absolute freedom and wildness."  This in itself requires the modern reader to stretch his or her imagination:  I at least would not associate these words closely together.  For me, nature is just the world, i.e. what is, and some of it is more free, some less free, some more wild, some less wild.  But clearly Thoreau is talking about a small part of what I call "nature" when he speaks of Nature.  Moreover, it seems clear that he is speaking not just of a type of place but of a type of experience associated with a type of place.  The type of place is really wherever he took his walks, i.e. within ten miles of his home of Concord, Massachusetts. (Bear in mind that this land would have looked a far cry different then than it does today.) The type of experience is one characterized by feelings of absolute freedom and wildness.  The feeling of wildness is associated both with the fact that the place is wild and that one is oneself wild or wilder than at home.  Thoreau also stresses that he wants to make "an extreme statement" i.e. as a champion of Nature.  He wants to see man as part of Nature rather than as part of society.  But it also turns out that he thinks there are enough champions of civilized society already.  So, perhaps his "extreme statement" is a rhetorical device and he does not want to wholly dispute the value of civilization.  In fact, there are many passages in his writings that show a profound love of reading, and reading the classics at that.    

The second paragraph starts by observing that he has met few who have understood the art of Walking (his caps. again).  Of interest here for the aesthetician is the very idea that Walking can be an art.  We do speak of the art of conversation.  Perhaps Walking is an art of that sort.  He then speaks of a genius (which term was, at that time, associated with the fine artist) of SAUNTERING (his caps!), his term for the art of Walking. The implication is that walking can be a creative, art-like activity.  

He draws on the etymology of "sauntering" to explicate the art a bit more:  one source is in the notion of those who are on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and another is those who are without home, i.e. their home is everywhere.  They are like a river, which meanders, but at the same time seeks the shortest route to the sea. (One senses something Taoist about this.)  Thus, every walk (in the sense of a walk as part of the art of walking) is a crusade (religious) and the ideal walk is one from which one will never return, leaving family and friends, having settled one's affairs, "ready for a walk."  This is extreme, indeed, as if Thoreau were Jesus himself asking us to follow him.  Walking then, for Thoreau, is a fine art with religious pretensions or overtones.

I can hardly claim to know anything of walking in this sense, and yet, when reading Thoreau, I must connect him with my own experience.  Like Thoreau I often take walks from my home, although much shorter ones, and much more urban.  I live near the center of San Jose, a city of almost a million people, spread out over miles.  One walk I take is towards Olinder park, a park that was open grasslands and a clump of pine trees when I first moved here, but now has a green park lawn and marked trails.  It is a small park of a few acres bounded on the south by a freeway and on the east by Coyote Creek.  This creek is not cemented in:  so it does have a certain wild look, and fortunately, there is another park on the other side of the creek.  So, for me, Nature on this walk, is what happens to me when I am walking along the path that parallels the creek.  I admit it...not terribly wild, but pleasant enough.  My wife asked me yesterday whether I experienced things as magical and whether I could give an example.  I thought that a vision I had of a very old oak tree on that walk, near the creek, had something magical about it.  In my book I speak of aesthetic experience as experience of objects as having aura, and in this case, the oak tree had a magical aura.

Hey, I am not saying that Thoreau would consider me a fellow Walker.  Speaking of himself in the plural (in the way of a journalist?) he writes "We have felt that we are almost alone hereabouts practiced this noble art," and then he observes that the others cannot do so since they need the "requisite leisure, freedom, and independence" which can only come by God's grace.  Others have only experienced Walking when they have lost themselves for half an hour in the woods.  Most have since confined themselves to public roads.  

Perhaps my experiences hiking with friends in the mountains count a bit more to practicing the art of walking.  Although an atheist, I still find myself feeling as if I were on some sort of pilgrimage, as if something spiritual were happening.  Or perhaps I could say that something spiritual does happen to me while walking in the Sierras, although I do not connect the word "spiritual" in any way with belief in God (or "magic" in any way with belief in things that violate the laws of nature).  So there it is, perhaps I partake in the art of Walking a bit.

Thoreau distinguishes Walking from mere "taking exercise" and makes a humorous comment about how swinging dumb-bells is of no real value in this respect since while you are doing this for health you are not visiting springs bubbling in far-off pastures: "If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life."  This tells us something more about Sauntering.  It includes a search for the springs of life, and this includes, sometimes literally, a search for a bubbling spring.  

Thoreau oddly worries some about the impact of Walking on his civilized side.  He observes that it might produce a certain "roughness of character" and rob us of "delicacy of touch."  The other extreme is to stay at home and have "a softness and smoothness, not to say thinness of skin"  and also "increased sensibility to certain impressions."  He even thinks that if he had spent less time outdoors he would have been "more susceptible to some influences" important to his moral development.  The conclusion he seems to draw is that one should balance these two:  "proportion rightly the thick and thin skin."  This proportion is like that between thought and experience.  His concluding thought on this, however, is more like Rousseau:  "The callous palms of the laborer are conversant with finer tissues of self-respect and heroism, whose touch thrills the heart, than the languid fingers of idleness.  That is mere sentimentality that lies abed by day and thinks itself white, far from the tan and callus of experience."  So, so much for proportion, I suppose.

Language can be funny and sometimes there is a quote that has a newer aptness just because of the change of word meaning.  Thoreau says "When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods:  what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?"  Mall!  Well, he probably meant a sheltered walk, or a walk by a park bordered by trees:  basically an urban walk.  But it works well with our sense of "mall" too.   I have no quasi-mystical experiences walking in Valley Fair Mall, although I could see myself having one walking in one of the 18th or 19th century walkways Thoreau was probably thinking of....maybe because of the historical nostalgia I would feel.  Thoreau, in this paragraph, also speaks of philosophers "importing woods to themselves" since the ancient philosophers would plant goves and walks and walk in "porticos open to the air."  I often feel more philosophical on walks in nature, by which I mean that it puts me in a contemplative mood and turns my thoughts to life, meaning, reality....the big topic (although not usually in any way that I could turn into a professional article.)

One part of the art of Walking is the right attitude.  Thoreau believes that one should be in the woods in spirit, not just in body.  One should forget one's morning obligations and ones obligations to society.  To do this is to "return to my senses."  When I take my urban walks I often find that it works best if I try to make my mind empty.  Perhaps Walking is a kind of meditation.  

What was the goal of Walking for Thoreau?  He talks about how when he can achieve an "absolutely new prospect" this is "a great happiness."  An example of this is being carried in one of his local walks to "as strange a country as I expect to see," and an example of that, in turn, is that "a single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey."   So it is the strangeness and beauty of something new that he seeks.  Another aspect of his aesthetic experience, discussed in the same paragraph as this one is the harmony he finds between his own lifespan and the capability of the landscape within walking distance of his home which cannot be exhausted aesthetically during that span.  How often do we experience things as bracketed by and conditioned by our own awareness of our own lives, how long we have lived, and what the future holds for us personally. 

This then is followed by a new paragraph with a familiar theme:  "Nowadays, almost all man's improvement, so called, as the building of houses and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap.  A people who would begin by burning the fences and let the forests stand!"  I do regret not being able to see the things Thoreau saw on his walks.  And yet we just have to live with what we have, or improve it in some way.  

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