Reading Nature Thoreauly

Achance remark led me back to Walden. I was urging revolution on a harassed friend and rummaged in my memory for Henry David Thoreau’s remark about living boldly. The line was on the tip of my tongue but would not leave it.

I picked up my copy of Walden and began browsing the many passages I had underlined. I read them and was smashed all over again by how wonderful they are. (“Smashed” is a word my Bulgarian neighbor uses for when she is overcome by how good something is. I’ve adopted it for this occasion.)


Walden wins my vote for the great American book. There are other fine contenders, but Walden is unique in a way they are not. For one thing, it is noble. We do not live in an aristocratic culture, but Thoreau makes all of us noblemen who read him. How many other books turn a cabin into a palace, or a crank (arguably) into a sage? One puts down Thoreau inspired, resolved to live more deliberately and more authentically, but most of all, resolved to live. He reminds us that too often we do not.

I am not ordinarily a fan of nature. It is dangerous, for one thing. It is full of bugs, for another. But I read Thoreau, and I’m ready for the woods. Above all, he reminds me of my own nature—that I have one, that it should be respected, that it should be cherished.

“I desire that there may be as many different people in the world as possible,” he writes, “but I would have each one be very careful and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.” To this, he adds: “We may not arrive at our port within a calculable period, but we would preserve the true course.”

Thoreau makes me think about what my true course is. The exhilarating thing about him is that he does not have a destination in mind for me. He is a liberator, wanting my freedom as much as his and warning readers that they entrust their destiny to others at their peril: “Every path but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track, then,” he counsels.

Nature, writ both large and small, is Thoreau’s topic; and what a large theme that is, encompassing the change of seasons on Walden Pond, his bean field, the animals in winter, the vagaries of humankind, the absurd conventions of society, his own multitudinous nature.

The man who coined the phrase about listening to a different drummer clearly did. Part of the pleasure of reading Walden is watching an ornery idealist do battle with conformism. Thoreau took unpopular stances in his time, stances that are not any more popular in ours. Read him on philanthropy (he’s against it), chastity (he’s for it), progress (it ain’t happening), company (why bother?).

He may not persuade you to live on rye and Indian meal, flee the farm, forsake fashion or give up traveling, but you will be at least half won over by the astuteness of his criticisms. Though one can’t imagine him in a monastery (he’s too American, too Protestant for that), he’s a monk who would have us all living in hermit caves supping on honey and locusts and whatever greens we can find in nature.

As an author, he’s thrilling, subversive and sublime. Pick up any page of Walden, and a striking phrase or thought jumps off at the page and demands to be considered. Part of this is what he writes about—our ordinary lives, which he exhorts us to live in extraordinary ways. Part of it is his eloquence. His language is stirring, grand, soaring.

Some writers invite you to sit with them; some to walk with them, some to dream with them. Thoreau makes you want to march with him.

A man famous for loving quiet, he is the John Philip Sousa of nature poets. Walden is a clarion call to shake the slumber from your eyes, the dust from your sandals and stride off into the uncharted depths of your own interior.

A true iconoclast, Thoreau is religious to the core. Above all, he is a spiritual writer par excellence. Walden is a constant invitation to contemplate ourselves, the purposes we serve, the laws we live by, our universe and, ultimately, our God. He writes: “Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails. In the music of the harp which trembles round the world it is the insisting on this which thrills us.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

If you know nothing else about Lent, you probably know that people give things up.
James Martin, SJFebruary 19, 2018
Five years later, looking back on a momentous day in the life of the church
James Martin, SJFebruary 18, 2018
Pope Francis has appointed 16 members (eight men and eight women) to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 17, 2018
Joe Zevuloni weeps in front of a cross placed in a park to commemorate the victims of the shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 16. At least 17 people were killed in the Feb. 14 shooting. (CNS photo/Carlos Garcia Rawlins, Reuters)
This time the victims themselves are not having it. From the moment the first shots rang out, they captured the horror and broadcast it, forced the nation to confront it and talk about it.
Kevin ClarkeFebruary 16, 2018