Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


In the Footsteps of Thoreau

Alda Balthrop-Lewis

Many people I know have been out walking more, since COVID-19 upended our routines and transformed our daily lives. For a while, during the first shutdown, the activity of walking was the only way in which people could meet up. Restrictions in Melbourne, Australia – where I live – indicated that socially distanced, outdoor exercise was the single safe form of socializing. We were rationed one outing for exercise each day. Side by side, separated by 1.5 meters, we met at the park and joined the parade of others who were desperate for extra-household contact.

When we did this, we may have been joining an older tradition than we realized. Sociable daily walking has a literary history, too. Henry David Thoreau, nineteenth-century author of Walden and “On Resistance to Civil Government,” spent most of every afternoon tramping across the land that surrounded Concord, Massachusetts, the town in which he lived most of his life. On these expeditions, he became a close observer of nature.

Indeed, Thoreau’s literary reputation has been largely linked to the observations he made of the natural world – usually while walking in its midst. Among Thoreau’s contemporaries, his biggest fans were enamored with his writing about the observations he made while on the move. According to James Fields, the junior partner at Ticknor & Fields who accepted Walden for publication, Thoreau’s writings were exceptional because they came from close, first-person study, outdoors. Fields wrote, in 1877, “Many modern works on natural history are made as apothecaries make a new mixture, by pouring out of several vessels into a new bottle; but Thoreau went into the open laboratories of nature and gathered what he offers with his own hands.” Thoreau’s walks were the basis for what Fields saw as his greatest literary contribution.

“Nature writing,” as it has come to be called, evokes an image of a solitary walker that Thoreau himself helped to shape. However, even if there is something true about the image, we lose something important about Thoreau in it. The first sentence of Thoreau’s essay “Walking” seemed to reject society in preference for nature and wildness. “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” In this, Thoreau helped to establish his reputation as a solitary soul, withdrawn from social bonds.

Nonetheless, Thoreau’s walks – as much of his life – were often sociable. Just a few sentences later in “Walking,” the “I” of the first three paragraphs is transformed into a plural subject: “my companion and I.” And then, “we.” And there, in that transition from “I” to “we,” Thoreau reveals what I take as a major premise, that Thoreau learned much of what he knew about “Nature,” “absolute freedom,” “wildness,” and “inhabitation” in company, rather than alone. He was not a radical individualist. “Inhabitant” named a person who had joined a larger, more inclusive community than civil society usually offered.

My forthcoming book, Thoreau’s Religion, repopulates the woods of Thoreau’s experiment with the company he kept there. As any teenaged reader will complain, Thoreau didn’t go very far at all! And he went home to Concord for tea! But what Thoreau himself demonstrated in Walden – pre-empting the teenaged complaint – was that Walden Woods was its own community. Thoreau’s Religion argues that when we take into account the other members of Walden Woods society besides Thoreau, members that Thoreau describes in detail in Walden, we get a strikingly different picture of what Walden aimed to accomplish, and a new image of a more relational Thoreau for contemporary environmental justice. Contemporary activists know that racial and economic inequities mean that environmental politics must do more than attend to the conservation of wild places. It has to integrate economic justice with ecological flourishing. Walden, perhaps surprisingly, was not only a paean to wilderness. It began, after all, with a chapter on “Economy.”

When we walk, my companion and I fret about the economy. We talk about whether we will keep our precarious jobs in the coming recession, how we will afford the next month’s rent, and what the future holds – whether it will hold – given that our government refuses to shape up on climate policy. Thoreau wrote in Walden that his life in the woods was an experiment in response to an economy that wore people out. “The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.” He aimed to treat himself and those around him more tenderly than economic life generally allowed. Walden has lovely descriptive passages about the woods, but it was motivated above all by a question about whether a finer, more just, and more delightful form of economic life was possible.

This is the question I have been asking my walking companion. We haven’t yet found an answer. But, just like Thoreau, we’ll keep searching.

Image credit: William Lamson,Untitled (Walden), 2014, © William Lamson

About The Author

Alda Balthrop-Lewis

Alda Balthrop-Lewis is a Research Fellow in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at Australian Catholic University. She holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from, r...

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