Walking Home From Walden
It was only later, three years later, in the spring and summer of 2010, that the idea of walking to Walden—and home from Walden—took on new meaning. Something fundamental had changed—in the country, in the world, in me. It hit me gradually at first, while out on my walks—not to Walden, but closer to home. (There'd been no more 12-mile round-trip tramps since that first one—maybe because I was lazy, or because I was too busy, too wrapped up in the fast-twitch 24-7 news cycle, to devote a whole weekend morning to such an idle pursuit. Or maybe it was the long walk home I wanted to avoid.)
The place I'd walk more than any other, a kind of sacred spot, is about a mile from my house (along my route to Walden), where the street turns to gravel and dirt as it doglegs around a parcel of protected woods running up a low ridge. The woods are bordered on the north side by the small Hazel Brook and Stone's Pond. And sloping gently down toward the pond from the dirt road and a low, rustic stone wall is the most beautiful hayfield I've ever seen—edged all around by big graceful oaks; elegant maples; and tall, sturdy white pines. I've come to know this view of field, pond, and woods as well as any place on earth (better, by now, than any beach or mountain in my native California). I've seen it and walked it in all seasons, in almost every kind of weather.
But as I skirted that field on a cold day in May, there was something ominous in the air, which many could feel. The drumbeat of reports on climate change, from scientists and journalists, had grown more insistent, more alarming over the past three years—while the inability of our political establishment to meet the threat, despite the promise of 1/20/09, had grown more alarmingly obvious.
We could now see with virtual certainty that global warming would bring vast and potentially catastrophic consequences—not least for human beings, beginning with the poorest, most vulnerable, and least culpable—within this century, our own children's lifetimes, our lifetimes. The full weight of the science told us that it was too late to stop it—if we'd acted sooner, and decisively, we might have stood some chance, but we didn't. The question now was whether we'd be able to slow it enough to buy ourselves time, and just possibly, at least those with the resources, adapt to a very different planet.
But the rising tide of evidence wasn't alarming enough. Anyone who followed the news (and as a journalist I followed it for a living) could see the disaster unfold in real time: As the economy trumped all other issues, we watched world leaders fail to act in Copenhagen; saw Congress failing to act on even weak bipartisan climate legislation; saw an energized environmental movement—including its much-heralded new religious allies, even conservative evangelicals calling for climate action—fail to mobilize grassroots momentum; saw public opinion in fact shift in the opposite direction, toward doubt and denial, and a party openly derisive of climate science mount a political resurgence; saw the most progressive White House in a generation fail to lead.
As these realities sank in, it felt like a turning point of some kind had been reached. That day at Stone's Pond, I could no longer pretend, and I knew, with a kind of visceral force: This place is already condemned. In the blink of an eye, it will no longer exist. Not like this. Not the way I know it. And not because some future builder and bulldozer will destroy it, but because they—we—I—already have, by what we've already done. Walking through a hayfield on a cold, bright, and gusty New England morning, it can be hard to believe that the Arctic is melting, the oceans acidifying, the great forests dying, ancient glaciers disappearing. But I knew that all of it was true, and that this sanctuary, this refuge, was a private delusion, a self-indulgent fantasy. There was no refuge. There was no sanctuary. Not for me, not for anyone.
I stopped at the edge of the pond, saw the reflection of trees and sky erased by the wind, and understood: It was time to decide what to do with the time I'm given.
My sheer belatedness in reaching this point is mind-bending—in fact it's perhaps the most difficult thing for me to understand and accept. How could I have gone so long in denial? Not denial of the science, or the fact of climate change—I was always reasonably well-informed. But denial, on some deeper level, of my own part in it, my responsibility, and what it will mean in the years to come.
And it's not exactly a comfort to know that I'm far from alone in my lateness. My entire generation, more or less, as we enter middle age, stands indicted. Those of us born in the late' 60s and early '70s came of age along with the knowledge of global warming. (I was born in 1968, a year whose "apocalyptic" upheaval now looks fairly quaint by comparison with what's coming, a cause for nostalgia.) Not to make sweeping statements about an entire so-called generation, simply consider my American sociocultural cohort: college-educated post-Boomers, in a position to lead—culturally, economically, politically, intellectually—in the 21st century. Our emergence into adulthood in the late '80s and early '90s coincided more or less precisely with the emergence of climate change as an issue on the national and global stage. And yet, a full 20 years on, here we are, the vast majority of us, having done little or nothing about it. If the story of this generation were written today, confronting the accelerating climate crisis—the defining moral issue of our time—would hardly rank as our distinguishing cause, like the civil rights and antiwar movements, or the struggles against totalitarianism, of our elders.
I, for one, couldn't be bothered—I had a digital revolution to fight. I had degrees to earn, a career to build, a family to start. I had places to go, websites to launch. I had bands to see, blogs to read. I had endless cable dramas to watch. I had drugs to take, coffee to grind, weight to lose. I had memoirs to write. For Christ's sake, I had my navel to observe.
What I want to say here, what I believe needs to be said, is that there's a spiritual crisis at the heart of the climate crisis—one we've hardly begun to come to grips with, or even acknowledge. By spiritual I mean human—our deepest, most profound, and ultimately inexpressible sense of ourselves. And by crisis I mean a deep crisis of identity unlike any, perhaps, since Darwin, or Hiroshima—an unnerving sense that, despite all our science and technology, we don't really know who we are and where we're going, or what it means to be alive as a human being at this moment on earth. A sense that we don't yet know the full magnitude of what we've done to the earth and to future generations, beginning with our own children. A paralyzing sense that we're heading into the unknown, into a new, uncharted wilderness for which we're not prepared. And I want to say that it's our society's failure, on the whole, to acknowledge and address this essentially spiritual dimension of the crisis that explains our failure to come to grips with global warming, both morally and politically.
What I'm talking about transcends "environmentalism." What I'm talking about is the overriding fact of our present human predicament. And what I want to suggest is that it requires something of us beyond the usual politics and proposals, the usual pieties. It requires a kind of searching, a kind of questioning, that can move us from self-absorption to engagement. A willingness to question our deepest assumptions—our ideas of God and of nature, of salvation, of ourselves—and to act, right where we are.
I don't know what it was, exactly, but at that moment at Stone's Pond something drew me back to Walden and Thoreau. I'd gotten to know my surrounding physical landscape, but I was lost when it came to the moral one, and Thoreau is that interior landscape's most prominent local feature—the height looming over my shoulder. Hadn't he written about the moral crises of his time, slavery and war and industrialization, in the grip of a passionate personal engagement with nature? How could I have managed to ignore him? He'd lived just up the road—our local saint—walked the same ground. It was as though I'd been living at the foot of Whitney or Washington—or Katahdin—and never thought to climb it.
And so I decided, as ridiculous on some level as it might sound, that I would go back to Thoreau—and I would walk back to Walden. Only this time, and the next and the next, I'd pay more attention—I'd find new routes, on the pavement and off; I'd look more closely. I'd look for the other Walden this time, Thoreau's Walden. I had to see if it could still be found. Not the place itself, but the state of mind. A way of living in the world, of engaging it, as it is, right now. That's what I had to find—that and the answer to the only question now that mattered, the question Thoreau had asked himself and all of us: What will we do with the time we're given?
Click here to read Part 3: How Thoreau showed me what I needed to do.
Wen Stephenson has been the editorial director of TheAtlantic.com, managing editor of PBS's Frontline.org, editor of the Sunday Boston Globe's Ideas section, and most recently, the senior producer of NPR's On Point. He has written for all of them, as well as for the New York Times, Grist, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter: @wenstephenson.