Thoreau and Urbanature: a Final Thought
“Wildness” much more than “wilderness” was the key concept sought by America’s greatest Romantic “nature” writer. His goal was psychological as much as it was ecological. Seen in this light, the activity of the human mind always has powerful consequences in our treatment of the nonhuman world. Thoreau’s life in nature, like yours or mine, is entirely a function of the actions and reactions of his mind. What he chooses to describe has more to do with his own thinking and the desires of his heart than with any objective state of affairs in the external world. He does not want us to go live in the wilderness so much as he wants each of us to wild our own minds, to turn away from society toward the wildness that is within us. The result of such wilding will be a closer link between the human and the nonhuman worlds.
Charles D. G. Roberts, the famous Victorian Canadian man of letters, says that Thoreau went through “Nature” to reach his goal. The goal was not nature itself, but rather freedom. Robert Louis Stevenson, as Roberts also notes, said that the cabin on Walden Pond was “a station on man’s underground railway from slavery to freedom.” The freedom that Thoreau sought at Walden was freedom of thought but also of action. This idea of freedom emerged from his abolitionist childhood, perhaps, but expanded as an adult far beyond the pressing need to free American slaves from their bondage. Thoreau’s mind sought to free human beings all over the world from political restrictions of every kind and also from enslavement to narrow-minded ways of thinking.
He resented organized religions of all kinds because each religion told a distinct group of human beings that one way of understanding the cosmos was the only right way. Once Thoreau had read the Bhagavad-Gita and the Vedas, which he got from Emerson’s library, it became hard for him ever again to see Judaic or Christian scripture as the only source of divine wisdom. He resented the rampant religion of materialism that he saw around himself in Concord and Boston, because of the way it imprisoned its practitioners and devotees rather than liberating them. The townspeople around him carried their possessions on their backs like burdens they could not lay down. Thoreau’s response was explicit: “Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”
Thoreau’s battle cry for this liberating kind of freedom, his anti-materialism, and his sense of a surging energy at the center of the nonhuman world, all contributed to a sensibility that has resonated throughout America, and beyond, over the past two centuries. Even today his widespread influence continues. He is quoted by politicians and songwriters. His wisdom appears from state houses and college classes to t-shirts and bumper stickers. In his naturalistic individualism, in his devotion to history and to classical texts, in his belief in nonviolent resistance to unjust laws, Thoreau put into play central tenets of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thinking-and of a wider American Transcendentalism-in ways that continue to shape our politics, populism, and popular culture. At the same time, his effect on the tradition of nature writing and the wider environmental movement has been incalculable. He is a nineteenth-century thinker for the twenty-first century. He is a secular high-priest for our time, perhaps for all time.
I would like to end my ecocritical blog-posts by recalling that a locomotive ran along the edge of Walden Pond every day that Thoreau lived there between 1845 and 1847. Thoreau could hear the wheels against steel rails. He could smell the smoke from the coal-fired smokestack. He walked into town along its right-of-way. The freight car workers often nodded to him like old friends. The locomotive’s whistle was, to Thoreau, like the “scream of a hawk.” The steam emerging from the engine’s smokestack was like a “downy cloud [. . .] high in the heavens.” Thoreau does not even mind the commerce that is associated with this rumbling rail line. He only complains about the human tendency to substitute the value of these transported goods for the human values that these goods are meant to serve: relieving hunger, clothing the needy, warming the cold. Here, in the metaphoric center of American nature writing, with a rail line running through pristine wilderness, we once again find an interpenetration of natural and urban, of wild and human. For Thoreau, our nonhuman, natural house is the same place as our fully human, cultural home: urbanature.