Brain Pickings

Search results for “Thoreau”

Thoreau on Nature and Human Nature, the Tonic of Wildness, and the Value of the Unexplored

“At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable.”

“We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too,” Denise Levertov wrote in her revelation of a poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World” a generation after history’s most poetic piece of legislature termed that parallel world “wilderness” and defined it as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man* himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Those of us who visit wild places the way others visit churches and concert halls visit because we return transfigured, recomposed, exalted and humbled at the same time, enlarged and dissolved in something larger at the same time. We visit because there we undergo some essential self-composition in the poetry of existence, though its essence rarely lends itself to words.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young. (Available as a print.)

That ineffable essence is what Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) — who saw nature as a form of prayer — articulated with uncommon lucidity and splendor of sentiment in the final pages of Walden (public library | public domain), the record of the radical experiment in living he undertook a week before he turned twenty-eight.

He writes:

We need the tonic of wildness, — to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach — one of Japanese artist Hasui Kawase’s vintage woodblock prints. (Available as a print.)

A century before Rachel Carson observed that because “our origins are of the earth… there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Thoreau adds:

We can never have enough of Nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.

We can never have enough of Nature because Nature is not something to have — it is something we are. Epochs after Thoreau, when we wade into the wilderness with our bodies and our minds, with a walking stick or a poem, we witness more than our limits transgressed. We witness our boundaries dissolved, in turn dissolving that most limited and damaging foundational falsehood upon which the whole of the consumerist-extractionist complex is built: that the rest of the living world is a parallel world, a place to visit and mine for experiences and resources with which to adorn and enrich our separate human world.

Praise Song for Dawn by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

It is naïve and impracticable to insist that course-correcting our presently catastrophic trajectory of nature-destruction — that is, of self-destruction — requires reverting to the rugged naturalistic self-reliance that even Thoreau himself could not sustain beyond his short-lived experiment at Walden Pond, a life without consumption or companionship. Whatever it does require must begin with the elemental recognition that these are not separate worlds existing in parallel, that there is no “environment” surrounding the centrality of the human animal in nature, that there is nothing that can be bad for nature yet good for us — an elemental fact rendered achingly countercultural every time I walk into my local grocery store and see the organic produce, the good-for-us stuff, plastic-wrapped over styrofoam trays that will take tens of thousands of years to decompose in the landfill, leeching unfathomable toxicity in the process. It is a small act of resistance to contact store management with an appeal for change — small but not negligible, and certainly not naïve. As Thoreau himself put it in the conclusion of Walden:

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Complement with Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s lyrical illustrated rewilding of our relationship to nature, ornithologist and wildlife ecologist J. Drew Lanham on the spirituality of science, and poet Diane Ackerman’s lovely notion of the “Earth ecstatic,” then revisit Thoreau on the true value of a tree, the long cycles of social change, and how to use civil disobedience as an instrument of change.

BP

Calculating the Incalculable: Thoreau on the True Value of a Tree

“What would human life be without forests, those natural cities?”

Calculating the Incalculable: Thoreau on the True Value of a Tree

More than two years after a fire started by a teenage boy destroyed 47,000 acres of old-growth forest in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, having just resolved to face the new year like a tree, I found myself on the brink of tears before the blackened trunk of an ancient ponderosa pine as I walked the sylvan scar tissue of the tragedy. A conversation with my hiking companion — a dear friend currently working with the Navajo Nation on preserving and learning from their own ecological inheritance — led to the impossible question of how we can even begin to measure the loss: What is a tree worth? Not its timber, not its carbon offset value, but its treeness — the source of the existential wisdom Whitman celebrated, the mirror Blake believed it holds up to a person’s character, its silent teachings about how to love and how to live and what optimism really means.

The teenager who decimated this green tapestry of belonging was ordered to pay $36.6 million in restitution — a number that staggers at first, but only until one considers the nearly 4,000,000 leaved and rooted victims of the crime, and the many more millions of creatures for whom the forest was home, and even the occasional insignificant human animals who, like my friend and I, bathed in these ancient trees to wash away the sorrows of living.

The contemplation of this impossible question called to mind a fragment from the diaries of Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) — he who saw nature as a form of prayer, who once mourned a tree like one mourns a friend, and who asked: “What would human life be without forests, those natural cities?”

Stone pine by Rebecca Hey from the world’s first tree encyclopedia. Available as a print.

Noting the disappearance of Maine’s white pines, Thoreau laments how these majestic trees, each endowed with a living spirit as immortal as his own, are vanishing because the men who cut them down for lumber have failed to see their true value. In a passage included in the altogether revitalizing Thoreau and the Language of Trees (public library), he writes:

Can he who has discovered only some of the values of whalebone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale? Can he who slays the elephant for his ivory be said to have “seen the elephant”? These are petty and accidental uses; just as if a stronger race were to kill us in order to make buttons and flageolets of our bones; for everything may serve a lower as well as a higher use.

[…]

I have been into the lumber-yard, and the carpenter’s shop, and the tannery, and the lampblack factory, and the turpentine clearing; but when at length I saw the tops of the pines waving and reflecting the light at a distance high over all the rest of the forest, I realized that the former were not the highest use of the pine. It is not their bones or hide or tallow that I love most. It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize, and which heals my cuts. It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.

Art from Trees at Night — Art Young’s tree silhouettes from the 1920s. Available as a print

Thoreau cherished trees not only in the forest but also in the city. In a journal entry penned at the vibrant height of autumn and included in the indispensable Excursions (free ebook | public library) — the volume that gave us Thoreau on finding inner warmth in the cold season — he considers the democratizing value of the maples hemming his local Main Street:

Little did the fathers of the town anticipate this brilliant success, when they caused to be imported from farther in the country some straight poles with their tops cut off, which they called Sugar-Maples; and, as I remember, after they were set out, a neighboring merchant’s clerk, by way of jest, planted beans about them. Those which were then jestingly called bean-poles are to-day far the most beautiful objects noticeable in our streets. They are worth all and more than they have cost, — though one of the selectmen, while setting them out, took the cold which occasioned his death, — if only because they have filled the open eyes of children with their rich color unstintedly so many Octobers. We will not ask them to yield us sugar in the spring, while they afford us so fair a prospect in the autumn. Wealth in-doors may be the inheritance of few, but it is equally distributed on the Common. All children alike can revel in this golden harvest.

Common maple by Rebecca Hey from the world’s first tree encyclopedia. Available as a print.

Complement with philosopher Martin Buber on what trees teach us about seeing one another and the emboldening illustrated story of Wangari Maathai’s movement to plant trees as resistance and empowerment, which made her the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, then revisit Thoreau on the long cycles of social change and the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius.

BP

Thoreau on the Long Cycles of Social Change and the Importance of Not Mistaking Politics for Progress

“The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion… The hero then will know how to wait, as well as to make haste. All good abides with him who waiteth wisely.”

Thoreau on the Long Cycles of Social Change and the Importance of Not Mistaking Politics for Progress

“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin insisted in examining the building blocks of a juster future. “The present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote across the Atlantic as she was advancing the era’s other great human rights cause.

A century before Baldwin and De Beauvoir, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) explored this question of how the choices we make in the present liberate the future from the past and make the world over in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (public library) — his first book, published when he was only thirty-two, a disaffected public school teacher who had become one of the country’s most promising young writers with the stern yet generous guidance of his first and best editor, Margaret Fuller.

Henry David Thoreau (Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856)

This was an era of immense cultural upheaval, in which the air of revolution was saturated with the urgencies of abolition and women’s emancipation. Ensconced in the woods of Concord, attuned to the elements that far predated and would far outlive the turmoils of the present — the trees, the rivers, the cycles of the seasons — Thoreau spent his days contemplating the most elemental questions of human existence and our civilizational conscience. It was with this widest possible perspective that he focused his precocious wisdom on the pressing issues of social change, using this long lever of insight to make the present a fulcrum for elevating the future.

Bedeviled by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican-American War, having just modeled for his country how to use civil disobedience to advance justice — a model that would come to influence Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. — he considers the tectonics of change on the scale of society and civilization:

As in geology, so in social institutions, we may discover the causes of all past change in the present invariable order of society. The greatest appreciable physical revolutions are the work of the light-footed air, the stealthy-paced water, and the subterranean fire… We are independent of the change we detect. The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion. It is the slowest pulsation which is the most vital. The hero then will know how to wait, as well as to make haste. All good abides with him who waiteth wisely.

If history teaches us one thing about the origins and originators of the greatest social change — an animating question in Figuring — it is that those who ignite the profoundest revolutions are themselves often blind to their own spark. Thoreau’s contemporary and kindred revolutionary spirit Elizabeth Barrett Browning would articulate this with stunning succinctness in her groundbreaking 1856 book-length poem Aurora Leigh:

The best men, doing their best,
Know peradventure least of what they do…

The young Thoreau channels this sentiment in his own lyrical prose, suspended as always between the buoyant and the melancholy:

A man is not his hope, nor his despair, nor yet his past deed. We know not yet what we have done, still less what we are doing. Wait till evening, and other parts of our day’s work will shine than we had thought at noon, and we shall discover the real purport of our toil. As when the farmer has reached the end of the furrow and looks back, he can tell best where the pressed earth shines most.

Illustration from Henry Hikes to Fitchburg — a children’s book about Thoreau’s philosophy.

One of Thoreau’s most countercultural yet incisive points is that true social reform has little to do with politics, for genuine cultural change operates on cycles far longer and more invisible than the perpetual churning of immediacies with which the political state and the political conscience are occupied. Rather than dueling with petty surface facts, as politics is apt to, the true revolutionary and reformer dwells in humanity’s largest truths, aiming to transfigure the deepest strata of reality. In consonance with the need for a telescopic perspective, Thoreau writes:

To one who habitually endeavors to contemplate the true state of things, the political state can hardly be said to have any existence whatever. It is unreal, incredible, and insignificant to him, and for him to endeavor to extract the truth from such lean material is like making sugar from linen rags, when sugar-cane may be had. Generally speaking, the political news, whether domestic or foreign, might be written to-day for the next ten years, with sufficient accuracy. Most revolutions in society have not power to interest, still less alarm us; but tell me that our rivers are drying up, or the genus pine dying out in the country, and I might attend. Most events recorded in history are more remarkable than important, like eclipses of the sun and moon, by which all are attracted, but whose effects no one takes the trouble to calculate.

Change, Thoreau reminds us, begins when we finally choose to critically examine and then recalibrate the ill-serving codes and conventions handed down to us, often unquestioned, by the past and its power structures. It is essentially an act of the imagination first. Long before Ursula K. Le Guin asserted that “we will not be free if we do not imagine freedom,” Thoreau calls for imagining nobler alternatives to the dicta and mindsets we have inherited:

In my short experience of human life, the outward obstacles, if there were any such, have not been living men, but the institutions of the dead. It is grateful to make one’s way through this latest generation as through dewy grass. Men are as innocent as the morning to the unsuspicious… I love man-kind, but I hate the institutions of the dead un-kind. Men execute nothing so faithfully as the wills of the dead, to the last codicil and letter. They rule this world, and the living are but their executors.

Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

A century before Hannah Arendt considered the most extreme and gruesome manifestation of this tendency in her classic treatise on the normalization of evil, informed by the Holocaust and its incomprehensible phenomenon of ordinary people “just following orders” to murder, Thoreau writes:

Herein is the tragedy; that men doing outrage to their proper natures, even those called wise and good, lend themselves to perform the office of inferior and brutal ones. Hence come war and slavery in; and what else may not come in by this opening? But certainly there are modes by which a man may put bread into his mouth which will not prejudice him as a companion and neighbor.

Most of our errors, Thoreau observes, stem not from being unwitting of the right choice but from being unwise in the willingness or unwillingness to choose it:

Men do not fail commonly for want of knowledge, but for want of prudence to give wisdom the preference. What we need to know in any case is very simple.

To unmoor ourselves from the burdens of the past, he reminds us, we must be engaged in an act of continual and conscious self-renewal:

All men are partially buried in the grave of custom, and of some we see only the crown of the head above ground. Better are the physically dead, for they more lively rot. Even virtue is no longer such if it be stagnant. A man’s life should be constantly as fresh as this river. It should be the same channel, but a new water every instant.

A century later, Bertrand Russell — himself a humanist of the highest order and a rare seer of elemental truth — would liken the optimal human existence to a river.

Couple this particular fragment of Thoreau’s abidingly insightful A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers — which also gave us his wisdom on the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius — with his contemporary Frederick Douglass on art as a tool of social change, then revisit Thoreau on nature as prayer, the myth of productivity, knowing vs. seeing, and defining your own success.

BP

Thoreau on Nature as Prayer

“In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean.”

Thoreau on Nature as Prayer

Walt Whitman saw trees — “so innocent and harmless, yet so savage” — as a wellspring of wisdom on being rather than seeming. “When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse exulted in his love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”

Two generations earlier, another poet laureate of nature and the human spirit made trees a centerpiece of his emotional universe. For Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862), they were creative and spiritual companions, sane-making and essential. His love of them comes alive in Thoreau and the Language of Trees (public library) — a selection of the great Transcendentalist poet and philosopher’s meditations on trees, drawn from his two-million-word journal by writer and photographer Richard Higgins, whose beautiful black-and-white photographs complement Thoreau’s arboreal writings.

Photograph by Richard Higgins from Thoreau and the Language of Trees.

Thoreau reverenced trees as living incantations, wordless prayers, benedictions for the art of being. In their company, he found a counterpoint to the falsehoods of society. Fifteen years after his mentor Emerson lamented in his own journal that “in cities… one seems to lose all substance, & become surface in a world of surfaces,” Thoreau redoubles his insistence on defining one’s own success and writes in a diary entry from January of 1857:

In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it — dining with the Governor or a member of Congress!! But alone in distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even on a black and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that the cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home… It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked with him.

Four decades later, Whitman — who was two years younger than Thoreau but long outlived him — would record a kindred sentiment in his own notebook: “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.”

Complement the thoroughly elevating Thoreau and the Language of Trees with Rachel Carson on our scientific and spiritual bond with nature and David George Haskell on what a dozen of the world’s most interesting trees taught him about life, then revisit Thoreau on the spiritual rewards of walking, knowing vs. seeing, the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius, and how to use civil disobedience to advance justice.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy.