Walking Home From Walden
Last July and August, a natural disaster half a planet away made excruciatingly clear what it means to be human at this moment on earth. On July 22, Pakistan's rivers began to flood, eventually inundating one-fifth of the country, among the poorest in Asia, submerging 17 million acres of its most fertile land, devastating its infrastructure, and leaving at least 5 million people shelterless, thousands dead, and some 10 million still in "urgent need" by early September, according to the New York Times. All in a strategically vital, politically unstable, nuclear-armed country at war on two fronts.
On the far side of the world, another story was being written, on what might seem an entirely different planet—at high elevation in the Sierras of California and the mountains of Nevada and Utah, the rim of the North American Great Basin—and on a completely different scale. A story on the front page of the Times in September told us that the bristlecone pines—the world's oldest living trees, some dated at 5,000 years or more—appear now to be threatened by climate change. A combination of "blister rust" fungus from Asia and the devastating pine bark beetle (the same one ravaging the forests of the Rockies), aided by warmer temperatures, now makes the bristlecone's fate uncertain. Living trees older than the world's great religions, as old as the civilization born in Pakistan's inundated Indus River valley, a species adapted to the harshest imaginable climate and soil—seemingly far beyond the touch of human culture—now inexorably succumbing to our carbon exhaust.
These two images, from the timberline of the high Sierras to the floodplains of Pakistan, said it all—what I'd felt at Stone's Pond written orders of magnitude larger. The stories and images from Pakistan—at the very least, portents of global warming's coming effects, at worst a direct result of climate instability already observed—and the fate of those 5,000-year-old pines, pointed to the true nature of our crisis: not merely "environmental," but human. This planet- and civilization-altering force is none other than ourselves. We're both the victims and the cause.
Thoreau, at his own very different moment—when the coal-fueled, industrial-economic forces now warming the planet were young—had his own run-in with what he called "vast, Titanic, inhuman nature." On the summit of Maine's Mount Katahdin in August 1846, Thoreau famously confronted, for the first time, a landscape "savage and awful … no man's garden, but the unhandselled globe." And yet, crucially, he also confronted his own place in that landscape, his identity with those forces, right down to the elements composing his own body, a shock of recognition he couldn't fully assimilate:
I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. … Talk of mysteries!—Think of our life in nature—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact!Who are we? Where are we?
We're there with Thoreau on Katahdin, even as his questions—Who are we? Where are we?—take on new meaning and urgency. Thoreau struggled to conceive of his own material identity with wind, rocks, and trees. And yet he wasn't forced to confront, as we are now, his own complicity in the destruction of Earth's balance, the very atmosphere. He didn't have to make sense of his own part in a force felt from the crags of the high Sierras to the rivers of South Asia, source waters of the civilization that gave him his beloved Baghavad Gita. But that's the landscape in which we now stand. We don't know who we are. We don't know where we are.
I finished Walden in early August, out on our screened porch late at night, by lamplight. Turning the last pages, I heard the sound of insects in a darkness made all the deeper by my dim lamp. If you didn't know there were other houses all around, you could almost convince yourself you were in a cabin in the woods.
At the end of Walden, Thoreau returns to his theme of awakening and rebirth. In the penultimate chapter, "Spring," he finds the soil coming back to life and discovers, "There is nothing inorganic. … The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history … but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit—not a fossil earth, but a living earth." He's become an ecologist, but the impulse, and the deeper meaning of the season, is still a spiritual and moral one. "In a pleasant spring morning all man's sins are forgiven. Such a day is truce to vice. … Through our own recovered innocence we discern the innocence of our neighbors."
In the final chapter, the ringing Conclusion, it's those forgiven neighbors he still addresses, even if his message is too radical for them to grasp. "I desire to speak somewhere without bounds; like a man in a waking moment, to men in their waking moments. …" And yet most people, Thoreau knew, would not see what he saw, if only because the truth can be blinding. "The light which puts out our eyes," he writes, "is darkness to us." (In the New Testament, I recall, St. Paul is briefly blinded by a divine light on the road to Damascus.) But the light of morning is no less real for all of that, if we can only rouse ourselves to see it. "Only that day dawns to which we are awake," Walden concludes. "There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."
Five days later, the weather hot and clear (we'd had no rain in weeks), I got up with the sun and walked again to Walden. I'd researched and scouted the conservation land in Lincoln, had my maps of the trails, and I wanted to walk there without following the major roads—to keep on the trails as much as possible. The route was circuitous, far more than six miles this time, but I was in full-on "Thoreau pilgrimage" mode, heading for the Holy Land.
At Codman Farm I left the road and entered the woods, then cut across the big hayfields along Route 126 (what Thoreau called the "Wayland road"), and crossed the street near St. Anne's-in-the-Fields, a small Episcopal church. There I entered the Mount Misery reservation, cut through the community farm at its northeast corner, southwest along a large open meadow, then north into the woods and onto a public easement trail through secluded tracts of private property (and in sight of a few backyards), until I crossed over Heywood Brook and entered the large parcel called Adams Woods, bordering Walden on the south and west.
It was quiet, I was all alone on the trail, and off to my left, a few hundred yards to the west, was Fairhaven Bay, a favorite of Thoreau's and the local waterfowl (you can still find the latter), where the Sudbury River widens out into a lake of sorts. By now it was mid-morning, and the sun was slanting through the pines and lighting up the leaves of birch and oak, like some impressionist stained-glass window. I stopped and looked up into the branches—felt their hush, a faint breeze in the treetop. Cathedral hour.
I came out onto Walden, crossing the commuter rail tracks, at the far opposite end of the pond from the busy visitor center and beach. A few people were fishing quietly along the bank as I headed around the shore toward the site of Thoreau's cabin, above the inlet at the northeast corner of the pond. There were the swimmers, as always, making their long laps like ritual bathers in the clear, sacred water. It occurred to me that Thoreau might well be happy to know that the shores of his beloved pond offer the closest thing I've ever seen in America to the ghats on India's Ganges. True, they're not exactly the "burning ghats" of Varanasi—no cremations here, strictly bathing. But I can't help the thought that Thoreau should have been cremated on these banks, the boards of his cabin for a pyre, his ashes spread on the pond with garlands of marigolds and floating candle flames …
We'd had another long, dry summer, and walking home I was conscious of the climate. I'd read of invasive species, seen some of them, aided by the weather, attacking our native flora and choking our smaller ponds; of the dry summers stressing our waterways, of more insects surviving the shorter winters and now threatening our forests. Of songbirds disappearing. Of wildflowers Thoreau knew never returning.
I kept to the main roads, mostly, on the way back. It was the same landscape I'd reveled in three years before—and trudged over on that first tiring walk home. But now it looked different—a lot less like paradise and a lot more like the suburbs. Now, along with the earth-friendly farms, I noticed the houses. Endless houses, most of them big, some of them enormous—and not a few of those brand-spanking-new—with enormous garages for their enormous vehicles. I thought of these quiet streets lined with cars in a few hours, the evening commute. I thought of the fact that even here, in environmentally progressive Massachusetts, a majority of voters favored the two candidates for governor who spoke of pulling out of the regional greenhouse gas initiative, who put cutting taxes ahead of investments in clean energy (the incumbent, Deval Patrick, went on to win re-election, but with less than 50 percent of the vote), and that the commonwealth had sent a climate denier to the United States Senate.
Who am I to be telling you this? And why should you listen? How am I any different than those sleepwalking into the climate future? I'm no Thoreau. I'm not even an environmentalist—if that means some record of activism on behalf of the biosphere. One of those big houses is in fact mine—not the largest in the neighborhood, far from it, but large enough, with two cars in the garage (not SUVs, but not hybrids either), two kids, a flat-screen TV, and the usual gadgets. You get the picture. Large enough to contribute my share of America's outsized greenhouse emissions. So who the hell am I?
Only a suburban American—one of those on whom everything now depends. Everything morally, spiritually, politically.
"The remembrance of my country spoils my walk." Spoils it—or reveals its purpose? Isn't this what Thoreau is telling me in "Walking" and Walden? That it's not about some solitary quest for the Holy Land, but the journey out of self-absorption to a new kind of engagement—political and, yes, spiritual. A new engagement with our immediate surroundings, human and wild, our moral landscape—in the present moment, right where we live.
I stepped back onto my driveway, picked up the newspapers in their plastic wrappers, walked around to the porch, and collapsed in the chair where I'd finished reading Walden just a few nights before. I knew that walking to Walden—some idea of nature or God or some private salvation—isn't enough. It's what you bring home, what you leave behind. It's what you do with the present moment. It's what you do when you get home.
I walk out into my own backyard. The sun slants through pines. Cathedral hour. Gospel hour. "Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn."
This is home. This is Walden. Wake up. Start here.
The sun is climbing the sky.
Click here to read Part 5: What I decided 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.