Thursday, August 14, 2008

Thoreau and the "Natural"

     Thoreau, remember, walked into Concord every few days for dinner with his mother or conversation with Emerson. The town is only a mile-and-a-half from the pond. Indeed, Thoreau was arrested and spent one night in jail during his natural time at Walden. This is why "wildness" more than "wilderness" was the key sought by our greatest "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 for our treatment of the nonhuman world. 
     "I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning when nobody calls," Thoreau says in the chapter appropriately called "Solitude." My own house this morning was a perfect example. A fly buzzed almost noiselessly in the window pane. I could only hear him when I put my ear next to the half-closed wooden shutter. Two sparrows hopped from spot to spot on the lawn. Their apparently aimless activity revealed its directed focus when they both stopped simultaneously and began pecking at a pile of seeds that was invisible to me from my seat on the porch. Then a groundhog waddled out from his hiding place in the trees. He made his way slowly to the long grass of the meadow and then turned and ran  suddenly, back into the trees. What startled him remained unknown to me. Perhaps it was the sound of my own  breathing or my scent? Who knew?
     "You only need to sit long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns," Thoreau added in his chapter called "Brute Neighbors." I took his advice yesterday and sat stock still at the edge of the woods for almost an hour. Dappled light shifted and fluttered against tree bark and lichen-covered rocks. A late summer moth flapped and then landed, folding its wings into perfect triangles of dusky brown and grey, holding them horizontally like a patterned carpet of pale color that suddenly flashed bright yellow at its base.  A chipmunk appeared from a distant pile of leaves, coming straight toward me until he realized my startling human presence. Then he ran, full tilt, almost bouncing off of sticks, logs, and rocks until he finally looked back over what passed for his chipmunk shoulder and disappeared down a hole at the base of a towering locust tree.
     Thoreau's life in nature, like mine, was entirely a function of the actions and reactions of his mind. What he chose to describe had more to do with his own thinking than with any given state of affairs in the external world. The humanatural, like the urbanatural, is one of those categories of our own creation in which we live and move, and have our being.    --A.N. 

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