Walking Home From Walden
What I realized coming back to Thoreau after 20 years is just how deeply religious or spiritual (take your pick) his relationship to nature—the world—actually is. I knew that he'd dabbled in Eastern religions, mainly India's, and was steeped in Greek paganism, but I never thought of Thoreau as a religious writer. Some would rather keep him squarely in the secularist camp, hostile to Christianity in particular. And it's true that Thoreau was no Christian in any orthodox sense. But it seems to me his dispute was with the church and the pulpit of his day—and the severely constricted view of God they allowed—not with the notion of the divine itself. On his deathbed, asked by a devoutly Calvinist aunt whether he'd made his peace with God, Thoreau replied, "I did not know we had ever quarreled."
What does it mean, then, for us, at this moment, if two of the founding texts of our American environmental consciousness—"Walking" and Walden—can't really be understood without considering the religious impulses that drove them? What if "Walking," in particular, isn't just an essay on the secular meaning and value of Wildness and wilderness but is also, maybe even more centrally, a kind of sermon? A sermon on finding something like salvation in "the Wild."
"Walking," first delivered as the lectures "Walking" and "The Wild" in 1851, is Thoreau's central essay, even more than "Civil Disobedience," because it's so closely related to Walden—then still three and a half years from publication, the early draft in a proverbial drawer, fate uncertain. In the essay, Thoreau makes the case for waking up to our immediate surroundings, human and wild, and proposes that the two are inseparable. He not only wants "to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness," as he states in that famous first line, but just as much, "to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature."
The stakes are high, as Thoreau makes clear at the outset—nothing less than our souls. Defining "the art of Walking" as "a genius … for sauntering," he gives an amusing (if purely wishful) etymology of saunter as derived from "a la Sainte Terre," i.e., going to the Holy Land. "They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks … are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds." And why venture in search of the Holy Land if not for salvation?
The walk, then, becomes a sort of pilgrimage, a religious ritual. But that still leaves the question, what kind of salvation is Thoreau preaching?
"In my walks," Thoreau writes, "I would fain return to my senses." That is, wake up to what's going on, at this very moment, all around him, his immediate reality, whether a farm field, a woodlot, a swamp—or his own body and mind, his society and its laws, his own conscience. (He was already active in the Underground Railroad.) It's all interconnected. The farm, and thus humanity and civilization, all depend on the wild—the source of it all. And what his senses reveal is the wild, the wild-ness, in everything—himself included. "Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest." Indeed, for all his emphasis on nature, Thoreau never takes his eye off of society, the town, and its reform. "A town is saved, not more by the righteous men in it than by the woods and swamps that surround it … out of such a wilderness comes the Reformer eating locusts and wild honey." A town is "saved," that is to say, by wildness.
Which brings me back to this radical preacher's most radical statement: "in Wildness is the preservation of the world." This is more than a bumper sticker for conservation. If wildness is our true source, if that's where we find our true selves, then to realize this wildness within is to find God—and to find salvation. Not salvation in some faraway Heaven, or some otherworldly eternal life. And not only for oneself—in some self-absorbed desire to be saved—but for everyone, everything, the world. "The preservation of the world." And what is preservation? Obviously, to protect or save, as in conservation. But also to save from going rotten or stale, to keep fresh, ripe. The preservation of the world is the preservation, the salvation, of ripeness—readiness—wildness—right where we are, in the present moment.
"Above all," Thoreau writes, "we cannot afford not to live in the present. … Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barn-yard within our horizon, it is belated. … There is something suggested by it that is a newer testament—the gospel according to this moment."
Wake up, he exhorts us, walk out, and be saved.
If you understand "Walking," you can almost skip Walden. (I'm not really recommending that—in fact, please don't.) What I mean is this: It's clear that "Walking," and the actual walking that inspired it, leads to Walden. Within a year of delivering the "Walking" lecture for the first time, in the spring of 1851, Thoreau was back at his draft of the big book, revising and expanding with renewed creative energy. You could almost say Thoreau "walked" to Walden.
And yet if "Walking" is a sermon, then Walden is something more like prophecy—its author the Reformer and child of wildness, divine messenger, sent to save the town. He'll shout, he boasts at the outset, "as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up."
More even than "Walking," Walden is a wake-up call. The sonorous second chapter, "Where I Lived and What I Lived For," centers on a kind of hymn to morning, to daybreak, "the awakening hour"—the hour of recreation and rebirth. The morning, he tells us, "is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. … To be awake is to be alive." And as with wildness, something about morning and sunrise is strongly linked, for Thoreau, with the idea of the present and the sacred. "God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages," he writes. "And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us."
But this awakening, this renewal, none of it means a thing if it doesn't lead to action—to reform. "Moral reform," he writes, "is the effort to throw off sleep." To live a single day "as deliberately as Nature" would be to act on one's conscience.
There's a popular image of Thoreau as a recluse, aloof and detached, even a little misanthropic—a crank indulging his private fantasy in his sanctuary in the woods. But his cabin at Walden was never meant as a retreat from the world. He not only kept up a social life at the pond, he remained socially and politically engaged. If anyone took refuge in his cabin, it was the runaway slave he helped along the Underground Railroad to freedom.
Slavery was the moral and spiritual crisis of Thoreau's time. Opposing it with words and actions was a clear moral imperative for Thoreau—a clear directive of nature. As he wrote in "Walking," where we hear the philosophy of the cock-crow, "no fugitive slave laws are passed." To be morally awake to the present moment is to act not only in harmony with nature but in solidarity with your fellow human beings.
In May 1854—as Thoreau was finishing corrections on the final proofs of Walden—another runaway slave named Anthony Burns was captured in Boston, setting off a conflagration of protest in which an abolitionist mob led by friends of Thoreau's tried to free Burns from the city's courthouse. They failed, and Burns was sent back to the South, but only after federal military intervention.
On July 4, 1854, exactly nine years since he'd moved into his cabin by the pond, and as Walden itself was heading to publication, Thoreau delivered before a Framingham audience the fiery protest speech known as "Slavery in Massachusetts." He lacerated the commonwealth for the moral complacency and hypocrisy of its participation in human bondage. It was enough to shake his sense of nature's harmony: "I walk toward one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? … The remembrance of my country spoils my walk." But the recent sight of an emerging water lily reassures him. Wildness prevails. "It reminds me that Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise." There is hope, maybe salvation—if we act.
The author of "Walking" and Walden was among those most forcefully calling upon his country—his neighbors—to wake up. He knew that walking to Walden, or even Walden, isn't enough. What matters is the truth you carry home with you, and the falsehoods you're able to part with and leave behind—your old ideas of God and nature, of self and others, of salvation. It's what you do with that truth and that liberation, that emancipation—with the wildness that culminates in the present moment.
Click here to read Part 4: Who am I to preach the gospel of the wilderness? And why should you listen?
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.