Walden and the Natural World of Transcendentalism
OPEN SOURCE WITH CHRISTOPHER LYDON 7.6.17
Below is the full transcript of our show for the week of July 6th, 2017:
I’m Christopher Lydon. This is Open Source. We’re outdoors with Henry David Thoreau this hour, walking his woods and canoeing his waters in his 200th birthday week. We embark on the lazy hometown river where Thoreau’s first great book got underway, alongside his brother John in the summer of 1839.
I had often stood on the banks of the Concord, watching the lapse of the current, an emblem of all progress, following the same law with the system, with time, and all that is made; the weeds at the bottom gently bending down the stream, shaken by the watery wind, still planted where their seeds had sunk… and at last I resolved to launch myself on its bosom and float whither it would bear me…
“What does a Transcendentalist do?” We were asking in part one of our bicentennial Thoreau shows All the answers are to be found in the canoe trip that became a masterpiece, titled: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. What the Transcendentalist does is soar — between water below and sky above; between this day and eternity, between Nature, and human Society; between Thoreau’s Christian neighbors and his own Buddhist / universalist preferences, between himself and the great Emerson, the patron Thoreau is trying hard to impress.
We’re at the South Bridge Boat House near Thoreau’s house on Main Street in Concord, just upstream from the Concord River itself.
Alejandro: “How many people have never been canoeing?….Awesome, makes my life easier.”
Alex Strong from Maine is one of our guides, a naturalist philosopher in the Thoreau lineage:
AS: This is the start of the Concord here. So we’re, we’ve come in on the Sudbury to our left is the Assabet river. Which is pretty close to where Thoreau would have started.
On a Saturday morning in Summer 2017, family fishermen are out ahead of us …
AS: For Thoreau, he thought fishing was one of the one of the highest ways to understand nature. One of the interesting things he talks about in the book is that in our modern time that every previous age is still around and talks of the fisherman as someone who is still connected to the world before the agrarian revolution. And for Thoreau there’s a wisdom in that, that the fisherman has that he’s trying to capture. He speaks of himself often as a fisherman as well.”
CL: Didn’t Thoreau think of himself as a sort of man beyond the ages, of many ages…
AS: He thinks of himself most as a man not of his current age. I think part of all of the trips he took was to figure out a way to live in a time that he didn’t understand and didn’t feel comfortable in. To find the way of life that connected with him.
As we paddle I’m asking the University of Massachusetts philosopher John Kaag, in his own canoe, about Thoreau’s fancy of a wannabe fish — that he is amphibious, the equal as a swimmer of the perch and bream and the stately pickerel, alert to every minnow, free to stroke or hold a fish with fellow feeling…
CL: What doesn’t he know about these devils?
John Kaag: “He knew more about fish than most of us know about ourselves and about each other. That’s probably true.
History is layered out here. Suddenly we’re canoeing under Concord’s historic bridge — next to the Minutemen’s first fight with British Redcoats in 1775. And I can actually remember Emerson’s poem about it. In 1835 young Henry Thoreau was in the high-school choir that first performed the classic Concord Hymn. It goes like this:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flags to the April breeze unfurled,
Here the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
CL: This is the rude bridge. I think it’s been rebuilt a few times since then but…
JK: So he goes up the river with John in 1839 and it’s 10 years until that book is published. He does a lot of living during that time. But then in 1841 a sort of freak accident occurs. John nicks himself with a razor, contracts tetanus, dies of gangrene in Henry’s arms. So the river takes on a slightly different meaning after that. Navigating the river for Thoreau is also to navigate this sort of tumultuous tragedies of human life.
CL: And his first book, his week on the river is instead of an adventure it’s become as one of the elegy and in elegiac fashion it does not name the man it’s mourning. He doesn’t say “John.”
AS: They were young men. Thoreau, I believe, is about a year out of college. He’s 22 and they want to explore they want to, they want to learn from doing. And so they build a boat and set off on the river and it’s you know it’s not unexplored; it’s not breaking new territory, but it’s two in many ways amateurs going out and learning about the place they live in and learning about themselves at the same time.
JK: You think about being 22 and wanting to see if you can steer your own boat literally and figuratively. You have to think about Emerson’s self-reliance. The trip is really about self-reliance in an important sense.
Self-reliance in this case began with the brothers building their own wooden boat, “a creature of two elements,” Thoreau wrote, fish below the waterline, bird above, and painted in two colors, green for the water, blue for the sky.
JK: …water and land, earth and sky, good and evil… He’s trying to get us to think beyond those divides. And here it is possible — there’s another one — here it’s possible to understand then that land and water are one. When you have trees popping right out of not ground but water.
AS: Thoreau, in describing his boat, says that of a true boat that it must learn from the water and from the air. The part of the boat under the water, the hull, is the fish. So where a fish has fins is where you would put your paddles, where you would put your dagger board, where the tail of the fish is is where the rudder should go. And from the birds we learn where our sails should be, what the top of the boat should look like. And I think what Thoreau is getting at is that the boat is not of the water or of the air, it’s of both. It was connected to everything.
CL: Alex, John, how do we describe this? It looks like heaven! Glassy water, utterly beautiful greens of every imaginable shade, trees hanging benignly. It looks like this is the forest primeval, or the river primeval.
AS: The calm water is reflecting what we’re seeing above, reminds me of what Thoreau was saying on the second day of the trip where he had calm water like this and when he would watch a bird fly by you could identify it as easily from the water as from the air.
CL: You know there’s this famous moment when Emerson is on his walks, comes home and writes “I will be a naturalist,” which I think means I will catch up with young Henry. This is naturalism before environmentalism. Did he think this world was endangered?
JK: Absolutely. One, the Industrial Revolution pounding down Thoreau’s door. I mean Lowell is exactly 11 miles away from here. The dams that dam this river were built by the industrialists and there was this very large fight in the 1850s that Thoreau was part of between the industrialists who dammed the river and then let the river go. But when they let the river go it flooded all the way down to Sudbury and flooded the farmers out of their livelihood. They lost that fight. The industrialists won. But I think an even greater threat was the idea that Nature was no longer sacred. And oddly enough modern science was another threat for Thoreau, despite the fact that he was up on all of the most modern science of his day. The reduction of nature to its parts. The sacred had been sort of washed away.
AS: “It’s as they’re paddling up the Merrimack he mentions that the infinite is found in the small changes and I think that is a very transcendentalist idea is that: we find the infinite in the small details. So Thoreau was protecting nature, but he was learning about big-N Nature when he was studying the perch, studying when flowers bloomed, where the bees were. So the notes he took, the meticulous notes, weren’t just about the little details, it’s about understanding the whole picture and keeping nature sacred while understanding it, in all its finite, mundane details.
CL: He was a noticer obviously. He noticed the barely noticeable. What does that mean?
JK: There are moments of experience, like the one we’re having right now, actually. I mean we are floating on this river the same river Thoreau floated down and it really is sort of magical moment. And I think Thoreau wanted us to remember that there could still be magical moments. What’s weird is that you can get that right here which is very cool, which is very nice.
CL: We’re seeing hawks at a great height. We’re hearing birds right over our heads…
JK: “We saw some mallards earlier. Wood ducks. There are some swallows over in the meadow. A mourning dove, that’s the cooing that you hear over there.
AS: There’s a quiet to the river even with the noise of all the birds surrounding us and one of the things Thoreau does is often when he’s saying about the Concord he switches to other rivers and he lists rivers around the world and the Concord he calls his “little Nile.” The river becomes a literary tool for him to get to this more universal connection. And I think as a man missing his brother that there is a comfort in that.”
Thoreau ended his account of the brotherly trip with a leap of the heart:
We had made about fifty miles this day with sail and oar, and now, far in the evening, our boat was grating against the bulrushes of its native port, and its keel recognized the Concord mud, where some semblance of its outline was still preserved in the flattened flags which had scarce yet erected themselves since our departure; and we leaped gladly on shore, drawing it up, and fastening it to the wild apple-tree, whose stem still bore the mark which its chain had worn in the chafing of the spring freshets.
The actor Ben Evett is our voice of Thoreau.
Coming Up: The still, cold, deep Walden Pond and the hut where Thoreau at 28 began to confront the wilderness all around and deep inside him, both. This is Open Source.
I’m Christopher Lydon. This is Open Source. We’re standing by still-water Walden, a pond in Concord, Massachusetts where Henry Thoreau wrote his great book in a cabin by the shore. It became a manual of American naturalism and individualism, and wisdom like this, for example: “If you have built castles in the air,” as Thoreau put it, “that’s where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” In 1845, Walden was a woodlot next to the new railway where the 28-year-old poet went to “suck out the marrow of life,” whatever it turned out to be.
Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself. I have been as sincere a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks. I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did. They say that characters were engraven on the bathing tub of King Tchingthang to this effect: “Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again.”
Our guide to the pond and the book, the young philosopher John Kaag had been in and out of the Walden water the other morning before we got there:
JK: So when I was here this morning I arrived by 8:30, there were two osprey over the pond and you could tell that there are Osprey because when they came over you there is this sort of shimmering whiteness. But it’s not just their color. It’s right off the reflection of the pond. So when you look down into the pond I mean you honestly see the blue, and the white, and the green, the black. But you really see the heavens it’s just unbelievably gorgeous. When it’s still, which is my favorite time to swim, it’s so amazing that your arms are the only thing that make a stir on the pond when you are in the water and alone.
He was born in 1817 and he says, “I was born just in the nick of time for the flowering of New England.”
Christopher Lydon: We talk about the Walden moment, 1850s, as, you know, the American Renaissance and it really is — Moby Dick, Emerson’s essays, “Self-reliance”, his nature essays, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It all explodes somewhere in the vicinity spiritually and geographically of this pond. Do you want to make a claim for the headwaters of American thinking right here?
JK: Yeah there is. I mean you can make that claim. I think it’s a pretty safe claim. I mean honestly I can run in a course of 15 minutes between Emerson’s house, the Old Manse, Hawthorn’s, Bronson Alcott, Thoreau. It’s just all here.
The way that this moment has like, you know, a rock in a pond thrown it just ripples out and it goes a long way. American philosophy of William James and then Frost 150 years later is still speaking of this, about the wilds.
CL: What does he say in Walden? “This is America…”
JK: Frost says, in 1964, Walden is one of three great American classics and many people in the 20th century and many many great authors, men and women, think about Walden in that way. What’s remarkable about Walden is it’s an account of a writer and an account of a thinker living in a place over a stretch of time. And what you get to see is both life and thought come together in a very intimate way.
CL: You quote him. Maybe at this spot saying: “Who am I at present? A diseased bundle of nerves standing between time and eternity like a withered leaf that still hangs shivering on its stem. A more miserable object, one could not well imagine.”
JK: Yeah that’s right. It sounds a little melodramatic but it’s really a nice description of who we are. That’s how he felt when he was here. So he came here on the Fourth of July in 1845. And he came to write two books. First, The Week on the Concord and Merrimack River, which turned out to be elegy.In 1841, his brother had died in his arms of gangrene.
So he came here to both mourn but also to figure out as figure out his life. A bundle of nerves between time and eternity. I think that American philosophy and Thoreau’s philosophy is really trying to figure out why this bundle of nerves that seems so ephemeral, fragile, insignificant, why the short life that it has isn’t a complete waste of time. And Thoreau is really trying to figure that out, here.
CL: Sketch this young man.
We’ve been on the river with him. This is the still water Thoreau. He’s the child of a moderately prosperous family that’s going to come into a pencil fortune sort of, but he’s a little lost what’s on his mind when he speaks of his troubles, when he speaks of what we’d call a depression. What’s bugging him?
JK: He’s a very bright young man. He wants to be a writer. He wants to be a poet, desperately. He has more than his share of what Emerson calls sceptis. Self-doubt.
JK: That’s right. He’s really struggling. He says he comes to the woods to live deliberately, to get to the marrow of life so that when he comes to the end of life he doesn’t discover that he hasn’t lived. And I think that’s the scariest part of death. It’s not the dying part; it’s the not living part in the interim. And I think Thoreau is really concerned about that fact, that very basic human fact: our time moves so quickly and how do we make it worthwhile.
If you think about what happens right after John, his brother, dies, Emerson loses his son, who was very dear to Thoreau as well. A very young son. Death is completely indiscriminate. Its mortality zones in on us very unexpectedly.
CL: This pond itself is smaller than you expect. Smaller than its reputation in a way. And he knew it precisely. He as you say you tried to measure the depth of it but he also…he knew the fish he knew the year of the pond. Speak of the pond to him.
JK: He experienced the pond in ways that most people don’t experience this pond today.So he saw the seasons in a way that most people are not willing to see the seasons in a pond or feel the seasons in a pond. So he would go in when it was absolutely freezing. He would crack the ice. Watch the ice. Consider the crystals in the ice. The changes of the seasons were really important to Thoreau. And he wasn’t afraid to sort of get in when it was very uncomfortable.
We’re looking at the shore, the far shore, and this is actually where many ex-slaves from the Revolution, before the Civil War. This is Walden Woods that we’re looking at back here and this is where Thoreau also had his shanty, or had his cabin. Thoreau was actually neighbors with the Irish who were building the railroad at this time. And the Irish and the ex-slaves populated Walden Woods. They were outcasts and Thoreau came to know these outcasts just the same way that he came to know the beings that lived on the margins of society between the woods and civilization.
CL: Is this Thoreau’s cove?
JK: This is Thoreau’s cove right here. So this is where he would fish, on the other side of the cove. It’s about 68 degrees right now in the water. It’s brisk but nice. if you’ll notice it’s green bottomed or rather it it appears green but it’s granite. And there’s virtually no algae, which is unique and and quite beautiful.
As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt-sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note of the whip-poor-will is borne on the rippling wind from over the water. Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath; yet, like the lake, my serenity is rippled but not ruffled. These small waves raised by the evening wind are as remote from storm as the smooth reflecting surface.
JK: Robert Frost gave a really beautiful commemoration of Thoreau. He was quite old. It was at Dunbarton Oaks. Six months before Frost’s death. And Frost took a piece of his poem “Birches,” And he said: “When I am weary of considerations and the world is too much with me. I want to go to the woods.”
And he reminds his listeners he says this is breaking from “Birches” he says, “Do you know that the woods means mad?” You know I want to go mad in the woods. I want to go wild in the woods. And I think this is what Thoreau wanted as well. Frost knew this about Thoreau. I think.
He said I want to be bewildered. And I think that’s what Thoreau is wanting. Coming out here and also many of the what we consider to be zany things that Thoreau did. So for example trying to catch alewife with his hands or stroking alewife, these small fish. getting down on his hands and knees and trying to listen to the insects, touching the trees, hugging the trees, literally hugging the trees putting his arms around them. Conventional society in Concord does not look happily on this type of behavior.
CL: The bewilderedness I’m just thinking.
JK: The bewildered, they are not a bewildered type of people. You need to get out of Concord Center to become a little bewildered.
CL: You know there’s this question did he say wildness, did he say wilderness. Maybe he should have said bewilderness is what we’re after.
JK: It’s beautiful right. I mean Frost goes on and says I want to get lost. I haven’t even been lost. I mean like what does it mean to lose yourself? I talk to my students a lot and I say “Where do you where do you find yourself?” They say music or they say out in nature or. And then I say Where do you lose yourself and it’s the same answer: music, nature. So losing I mean like this is what Thoreau is onto I think.
CL: John I’d love to speak here on the shore of Walden Pond of some of the philosophical substance almost that’s taking form here. The waking sleep thing is all through his work and Walden elsewhere but the whole idea is wake u!. Somebody says: Can anybody imagine meeting somebody who’s completely awake. And he sort of almost says it would be it would be like meeting God which is forbidden. You couldn’t stand it. But he also laments that most people besides their lives of quiet desperation are asleep just profoundly asleep.
JK: I mean in Emerson he takes the old the ancient mandate “to know thyself” and to know nature as being one, one in the same. And for Thoreau, I see Thoreau at the end of Walden saying keep your eyes open keep your eyes open. The dawn will come you just have to have eyes for it. The saddest part about life is if we don’t have eyes for the dawn. And when he says the dawn he means just the first faintest glimpse of light. I think just the smallest, smallest sense. I think that’s what he is also looking for in us. Just what do you see in yourself? What do you see in others? Is there light there also?
I mean in part what it needs to be sort of remembered is we try to make so much of Thoreau like what does he think and what’s the symbolism, what’s the meaning, and what’s the philosophy, and what’s the…but really it’s just the feeling of water like it’s just it’s so simple. I mean it’s so simple. You just get in!
While we’re out here, consider those statuesque, very tall, dark-green, almost black, pine trees all around Walden Pond, trees that Thoreau came to consider virtually human, like cousins. Richard Higgins, widely traveled in Concord today, has written a book on Thoreau and the Language of Trees, and he has no doubt that Thoreau spoke it fluently, from the heart:
Richard Higgins: Here we are now, Thoreau said that when he was away from Concord and he came back and he stepped into a pine grove, he said “I would return to a pine grove like a hungry man to a crust of bread.” And the aroma of the pine is a spiritual elixir, he said, that would just awaken my spirits.
CL: Here we are in this sort of soggy bottom cathedral of pines, mostly white pines I think, Richard. Why do I feel Henry David Thoreau was here, where we’re standing?
RH: White pines were, I think I would say his tree above all other trees. They were tall. They were erect. They were noble. They had a wildness about them. The white pine is the ultimate uncultivated tree. It grows where it wants to grow. It’s very hardy. It’s majestic, it’s erect, it stands up to all kinds of abuse…
CL: Remind people. Everybody knows of white pine. They are ship masts. They built the houses of this country. And they’re very distinctive in that asymmetrical, vaguely Japanese looking, layers of branches. Why do I say Japanese?
RH: Well Japanese because they look like pagodas. Their arms, what’s interesting about white pines is that if you look up, their branches are more lateral, that is to say more horizontal, than many other trees. So, Thoreau thought they stood somewhat like a man with his arms out. And, well, he said, “Nothing in this world stands up more free from blame than a pine tree.”
Well, you know Thoreau looks at a pine grove and goes, “I experienced a transient gladness, as if the trees recognized me. It was like I got a sign from the pine,” he said. That’s what I got out of being in the forest today. He felt a real kinship, connection with the pine tree. And he also thought the pines had a certain human quality. That a stand of pines in the horizon might seem to be standing there like a family, sheltering and protecting each other.
CL: He makes people out of trees, does he not?
RH: Absolutely, he sees many human qualities in trees. And actually he tries to use trees to ennoble people, to be more like trees. He praises their patience, their rootedness, their generosity, giving of themselves to animals, giving their wood and branches to people. That they soak up water, keep the soil in place. They’re actually good citizens, noble citizens. They do more for the land that they’re on than most people do.
As we stand by the monument of the Battle-Ground, I see a white pine dimly in the horizon just north of Lee’s Hill. That tree seems the emblem of my life; it stands for the west, the wild. The sight of it is as grateful to me as to a bird whose perch it is to be at the end of a weary flight. I am not sure whether the music I hear is most in the robin’s song or in its boughs. My wealth should be all in pine-shillings.
Coming up: Thoreau, the legendary walker, in the Maine woods and deep into his own interior. This is Open Source.
Toward the end of his life, in his early 40s, whenever Henry David Thoreau was asked to give a talk, he often spoke a version of his evergreen essay, called “Walking.” The art of walking, and the spirit of walking. Real walkers are born, not made, Thoreau liked to say. “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.” These days the woods and the bookstores are full of such walkers. Andrew Forsthoefel made his reputation in public radio walking 4000 miles from Philadelphia to San Francisco, with a sign that said “walking to listen” and then recording back-road stories:
Andrew Forsthoefel: the first moment comes to mind is, it was a night in Georgia, totally unremarkable on the surface. I was spending the night in the barn of a family, who gave permission to stay there. They didn’t really want to hang out with me but they said, “Yeah, you can stay in the barn.” And I had walked maybe 20 miles that day, and by the time I finished walking, it was pitch dark. I was hidden by this little barn, in the straw, and every once in a while the headlights of a car would sort of shine by. I had bananas for dinner. And it was just simple. It was enough. That was the remarkable thing
For once, I didn’t need anything more or else. I didn’t need to be anywhere else. I didn’t need to have anything more. I didn’t need to be someone else, you know? There was no FOMO, Fear of missing out, because I was totally there. And it was just peace. A total tranquility. An enoughness. And peace came with that.
And then the next morning, it was gone, you know, and I had to do it all over again. So it’s a cycle I think. It’s remembering and forgetting and then remembering and forgetting again.
And then there is the literary traveler Paul Theroux, of Cape Cod and Hawaii, of the Mosquito Coast and The Great Railway Bazaar. He has spent a lifetime on trains, and in kayaks, and a lot of it on his own two feet in China, in our own Deep South and specially in Africa. In conversation this week Theroux extended Thoreau’s idea that walking is in-born, into some more than others.
Paul Theroux: Walking should be read by everyone who can read. It should be taught in schools. It’s a gospel of the environment. It’s the gospel of wildness. It’s almost mystical and in places actually mystical, speaking of the virtue of wildness and even the virtues of a peculiar kind of ignorance. when Thoreau says, “I believe in the forest and in the meadow and in the night in which the corn grows.” He’s in a way paraphrasing a poem and he’s using the language of religion to speak about wildness. Think how prescient he is when he’s saying “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” In wildness is the preservation of the world. People are saying that now; he was writing that 150 years ago.
CL: Speak of this species of walkers. He says they’re born not made. They are the free man ready to leave everything. Take a walk. Nowhere. Just walk
PT: He’s talking about the the Rousseauian. I mean, Rousseau wrote a book called it The Meditations of a Solitary Walker. Bruce Chatwin, who was the apostle of walking and Venihesaw, same thing, Wordsworth all seemed to indicate that it’s in man’s nature. It’s in people’s nature to be walkers. That we began as nomads we sprang out of Africa we walked to our place in the world and found our place the world. And it was it was walking that that created the world that we know the people, humans as walkers. I mean he says they made not born. But actually it’s in our nature to to ramble, to look, to walk and then in a way it’s sort of against nature to just be sitting around. He talks about the true vagrancy is sitting in your house. He says in the essay The true vagrant is the person who stays home.
CL: Isn’t it strange Paul? He’s also the most famous stay at home in literature. I mean Emerson went all over the world Europe especially but all thought the world was in Concord, Massachusetts.
PT: That’s true. But like a lot of conceits that Thoreau had he turned that into a virtue. And he said there’s a poem where he says I don’t really have to go to Venice or the Golden Horn because I have that here in Concord that the river is like the Golden Horn and the landscape around here is as wild as anything he says in the essay two or three hours walking will carry me to a strange country as I expect ever to see. Imagine that. So he’s saying I walk three hours from Concord and find as strange a country as I will ever see. And here’s a guy who is totally familiar with the travel literature of his time which included Darwin, Sir Richard Burton, Humboldt you know all the great explorers and travelers and he’s saying I don’t need to know that.
He even said to Emerson because Emerson in his obituary, his eulogy after he died after Thoreau died he said that he had suggested a book by Elijah Kent Cain called Arctic Explorations. Thoreau said I don’t have to read that. Everything that I could find in that book I I could also find in Concord. Emerson thought this is amazing because actually Elijah Kent Cain was looking for the Franklin Expedition and it was an ordeal in the Arctic, but Thoreau said I don’t have to do that. You don’t have to go to count the cats in Zanzibar he says. But at the same time you know there’s other paradoxes too because he says that he gave me the ocean, the desert, or the wilderness he says in another place. And he extols Burton the explorer. So here’s a guy as you say the Great Stay at Home, which is true. I mean his mother was doing his laundry, baking and pies. You know he’s the ultimate sort of cellar dweller of his time. He wasn’t particularly healthy but he made virtue of of being in Concord.
And you could say also, I mean he doesn’t say so in the essay but anyone who reads Thoreau knows that when he went for a walk, it wasn’t any old walk. That he knew every flower, every weed, every tree, every acorn, every bird, every mammal. Everything he saw, he could identify. Then when he goes to Maine he knows the name of every single plant that he sees.
CL: Paul Theroux, I love your introduction to Thoreau’s Maine Woods, collected after his death. But you say in the whole of literature he’s one of the most sensitive and scrupulous notices of nature and man. And you make a good case that he’s at his best on those three trips to Maine among the loggers and the Indians whom he sees scrupulously but unsentimentally. Speak of that Maine period.
PT: It was very important to him to go to Maine to find a real wilderness. He did it when he was living in his cabin on Walden Pond and while he was in the cabin he read Typee by Herman Melville. It was the great travel book of its time. It was the Kon-Tiki of its time, let’s say. Just everyone read Typee. He slightly denigrated it and you can see he denigrated it because here was Melville, bit older than he was, on a whaleship and then having this flirtation with a Marquesan young damsel Fayaway and she’s naked. She’s in the canoe and she takes off her sarong and they turn it into a sail.
So his reaction to that, in my opinion, his reaction to to the travellers to Burton, and to Melville, to Darwin was to find a place of his own to study and a place that was, that was wild. And so he made a deliberate effort to go to Maine and study you know the fauna and flora but also to get to know the aboriginal,s the Indians there, the Abenaki. And he writes very sensitively about the Indians in Maine and how they dress, how they think, the names. He writes this whole lexicon of words and derivations. He interrogates them. Now he’s not alone on the trip. I mean a lot of the trouble is that he writes about or admires a solitary.
He wasn’t. He was always with Ellery Channing or somebody else. In this case in Maine. It was a man in the logging industry and there was always an Indian guide. So he wasn’t alone. He appears to have climbed Katahdin alone, but I think that his trip to Maine was a deliberate effort to find the wildest place that he could and even said that there are places in Maine as wild as the Marquesas, as Melville’s Marquesas. So it’s his response to all the travelers and it was his adventure.
CL: I never heard that he was trying to one up Melville and Burton right here at home, but it sounds right!
You underline a Thoreau passage in Maine where he writes, “Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe on the ground I trod on.”Here was no man’s garden but the unhandselled globe. It was not long, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor arable, nor waste land. It was the fresh natural surface of the planet Earth and it was made for ever and ever.”
PT: Yeah, and where is he writing that? That was his reaction to being at the top of Mt. Katahdin. I mean that’s where that tremendous passage. There are a lot of great passages in. It wasn’t a book. It was three pieces that he wrote for magazines and they were lectures that he gave, but that marvelous passage is his response to being in the swirling clouds at the top of Mount Katahdin and he was one of the earliest climbers of Mt. Katahdin. So I think he knew that, that he that he had achieved something. And you must also take into account that he was not a healthy man. He was narcoleptic fell asleep at a moment’s notice. He wasn’t strong. He was tubercular. He lived at home. He was not a, not healthy at all.
CL: You say about that passage he’s at some level he’s saying take that Herman Melville! You and your Marquesas!
PT: Yeah he is saying that — well he’s not trying to one up them but he is trying to equal that. He’s trying to find a wilderness of his own and to chronicle his trip. You often have the impression when he’s on a trip to Cape Cod, or Walden, or Maine that he’s alone. The thing is he’s never alone. But he gives the impression and in his writing that he’s you know silent on a peak in Darien, solitary, surveying the ocean. Stout Cortez. But here’s this guy who was not particularly healthy, very widely read wants to do something make a physical effort and and walking is that he’s saying if you don’t walk you’re really not alive. You know, you’re wasting your time.
And also that you need to be wild that the world needs to be wild. People need to be wild. It’s like the denigrating he denigrates our conventional education. He denigrates commerce. He denigrates urbanization. He denigrates… in a way he has in common with a lot of you know wilderness people a kind of misanthropy because it’s characteristic of that you know of the African explorer and the… I don’t know, the great adventurers that they’re misanthropes. They try to get away from people and they’re trying to find you know the old Adam, the paradise that we seem to have lost
CL: Paul my experience is that the magic is still there on the top of Mount Chocorua, for example, one of the lesser peaks of the White Mountains, William James’ favorite. But it’s astonishing! To get to the top and to see not the earth’s curvature. You know, an endless sea of green beauty.
PT: That’s true. But what is the emotion that you feel when you are at the top of the mountain, when you are at the top of Mt. Chocorua, Mt. Monadnock, lesser peaks. You’re alone! You’re alone. I mean it’s, it’s a majestic feeling but the majesty arises from this sense of solitude that you feel alone.
My experience of the Maine coast is kayaking or sailing along the coast. In complete emptiness, from island hopping, going from one island to another. I’m a member of a organization called the Maine Island Trail Association. And you go from island to island, camping and you have the experience of utter solitude, and having to solve the problem of going from one island to another. It’s great great empty spaces, as empty as they were when Thoreau was there.
You know a lot of travel is an attempt to recapture the past. It’s to recapture the purity of the world as it once was. And this is one of the messages of Thoreau’s “Walking” because he talks about wildness and what he’s talking about in the essay is it’s an early period that we’re writing about that we can recapture the sense of who we were as a people and what the world looked like before this invasive species of humans began to destroy it.
Now here’s a guy who never went further south than Staten Island, never went further west than Minnesota. And you know hardly really left Concord, but he has these the thoughts that the transcendentalism was infused in him by this intense imagination and the effort that he was making. So I think that his message is you got to get out you’ve got to see it. And also the world is changing before our eyes. And that that in order to see it as it is you have to you have to get out and no more — although this essay is full of allusions to writers to Plato to Dante to Darwin to Burton even to a man called Nicephore Niepce. I don’t know whether you saw the allusion but Niepce talked about the effects of sunlight on people, but actually Niepce was the inventor of photography. He wasn’t an exact contemporary of Thoreau, but Thoreau must have read him in French.
But at the same time he’s saying you know we should be finding it in books. We should be looking at books. You’ve got to find it in yourself and in the spirit that it rises in you when you leave home and you go out and you’re in the trees and in the valley and in the snow.
CL: Thoreau’s Latinism is ambulator nascitur non fit. The traveler is born, not made. You’ve got another one.
PT: The great walker Patrick Lee Fermor, Patty Lee Fermor, who walked across Europe and wrote about it in two books, was talking to Bruce Chatwin one day and he said Chat was talking about walking. And Patty Lee Fermor said “Oh yes. Solvitur ambulando: it is solved by walking.” So when you got a problem, you got something on your mind, go for a walk and you’ll probably figure it out and I checked and I think it comes from Saint Augustine, solvitur ambulando, it’s attributed to Saint Augustine. And I think most walkers would agreed that you go…And this is also why the solitary walk is so important that you go with something on your mind when you come back from the walk you probably figured it out.
Paul Theroux’s new book is Mother Land, a novel about life at home, before he went traveling.
We announced a contest last week to name a figure who’s played something like Henry David Thoreau’s inspirational role in our lifetimes. And the contest is still open. The writer Kevin Dann got us started on air with his nomination of Philippe Petit, the high-wire walker “out of bounds” high over Manhattan and held up by angels between the Twin Towers of Wall Street back in the 1970s. A faithful listener from Jamaica Plain in Boston, David Vos, phoned in two strong contenders: First off, from Puerto Rico Carolina, not to be confused with Carolina. A giant who didn’t understand the treatment he was getting in America, and being black of skin, was treated as a Negro when he came to play baseball that is Roberto Clemente.
Radio announcer: Two balls and two strikes to Roberto Clemente and here’s the pitch… a shot into the gap in the left center!
In Puerto Rico, on New Years’ Day, he had heard about the terrible earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua. So Clemente, being so powerful, got on the radio and beseeched everyone to come to the airport and bring any and everything they could and for someone, anyone to give him a plane. And he would fill it, and he himself would go with the pilot and bring it all to our brothers and sisters in Managua, Nicaragua. And they did, and in their haste, they got a faulty plane. It disappeared off the coast of Puerto Rico. That’s where he died. Everyone went out to the beach to look for him, and they never found him. He’s still a hero and he still stirs the imagination of kids in Puerto Rico, and even kids in Pittsburgh, where #21 is on the sleeve of the Pittsburgh Pirates. So that’s one
The second is the great alto saxophone player who they say played dry as a martini and boy was he tired of them saying that. Of course it was Paul Desmond. And he was itinerant, always demurred. Never practiced, he said it made him play too fast. Out of the world in the mystic ways of Turkey and dervishes with “Take 5” that had not one but three time signatures. With Dave Brubeck and the Brubeck Quartet, touring colleges, and forming young minds and, being a lifelong bachelor, he left his monies to the American Red Cross.
So there’s some of the competition. Another listener suggested the poet Wendell Berry. David Foster Wallace anyone? As the all-absorbing, omni-directional Thoreau of our culture. E. O. Wilson, perhaps, the ant scientist who thought up Sociobiology and then Consilience. Send your entry with the old cereal box top to email@example.com.
Thank you Paul Theroux, Andrew Forsthoefel, Richard Higgins, John Kaag, and Alejandro Strong.
Our show this week was produced by Concordians all — Conor Gillies, Zach Goldhammer, Frank Horton, Becca deGregorio, Susan Coyne, Kevin Doherty and the transcendental Mary McGrath. Mike Mosketto was our engineer. Special thanks to Ben Evett, our voice of Thoreau. I’m Christopher Lydon. Next week, Thoreau’s philosophical children, on Open Source.