Walking With Henry David Thoreau

As part of this year’s Walktober festivities, the Jacob Edwards Library in Southbridge scheduled a talk by Dr Mark Wagner for tonight, starting at 6:30.  About a dozen of us gathered in the library’s reading room and were treated to a fascinating discussion of Henry David Thoreau’s reflections on walking, as well as to some facts related to his travels in Worcester County.

Dr Wagner explained that he taught English at Nichols College for ten years — and when teaching American literature, he used to take students on field trips to Concord to visit Thoreau’s haunts.  Now a professor at Worcester State, he has led the John Binienda Center for Civic Engagement for the past seven years; the Center is involved in Jumpstart, a preschool literacy program, as well as in alternative spring break trips and other reciprocal partnerships with community organizations.

Thoreau’s dates are 1817-1862 (this year marks the 200th anniversary of his birth).  Thoreau was a well-educated and accomplished person; he studied at Harvard and wrote and published throughout his lifetime.  Like so many in the nineteenth century, he died of tuberculosis.  His brother John died young from tetanus.  He and John had been close and ran the Concord Academy together, from 1838-1842.  When John died, Henry David worked only sporadically for the rest of his life: as a handyman for Ralph Waldo Emerson, as a land surveyor, and for his family’s pencil manufacturing business.

Thoreau’s connection to Central Mass was not peripheral.  For example, he was a friend of Worcester resident Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a man probably best known for his correspondence with Emily Dickinson, the belle of Amherst and a unique voice in American letters.  Higginson was a colonel in the Civil War and like Thoreau, a staunch abolitionist.  Though his anti-social tendencies might seem to contradict this aspect of his personality, Thoreau was a passionate abolitionist and a supporter of John Brown, whom he met in 1857 and whose violent tactics employed at Harper’s Ferry turned many against the movement.  Higginson provided arms and supplies to Brown; Thoreau advocated the overthrow of the Federal government because of its lukewarm opposition to slavery.

In addition to his friendships with Worcester notables such as Higginson, Thoreau hiked up Mount Wachusett a number of times; he also lectured in Worcester more often than anywhere else.  The most famous Wachusett walk began on 19 July 1842; with his companion Robert Fuller, Thoreau traveled through Concord, Acton, Stow, Bolton, Lancaster, Sterling, and Princeton.  The men took two days to travel 62 miles — quite a rapid pace.  Soon after this hike, Thoreau began writing about walking; he kept revising this essay for years and continued lecturing on the subject.  For example, on 3 February 1857, he gave a talk in Fitchburg on walking.  In 1862, about a month after his death, the essay Walking was published in the Atlantic Monthly, which indicates he worked on it for 17 years!  By his own admission, of all his writing, he was most proud of this particular essay.

Thoreau claimed that walking is central, but why does one walk?  For Thoreau it was a philosophical exercise.  Walking was a way to merge with nature, it was purification of the self.  For Thoreau, it is society that leads humans astray.  In contrast, “true freedom is found in nature.”  In his Walking essay, “All good things are wild and free” is the theme.  It was a radical idea then, and even today, we’re only beginning to unpack what this could mean, especially in terms of human health and well-being.  As a philosopher, Thoreau explored the concept of human freedom from social conditioning and constraints; as a naturalist and scientist, he was interested in animals and plants and very aware of his surroundings.  Today, his journals chronicling his observations of Concord’s natural phenomena have been rediscovered by ecologists and naturalists.

At its most fundamental level, Walking presents us with a philosophical argument.  Thoreau believed that walking helped cultivate one’s receptivity to the beauty of the universe, and “the perception of beauty is a moral test.”  Whereas Thoreau’s mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that natural objects are symbols of spiritual facts, Thoreau rejected that, because for him, nature is not emblematic of higher truth; instead, nature is the source of goodness.  In the late nineteenth century, a stance equating wildness to goodness and truth was original and no doubt somewhat controversial.  Although Thoreau was definitely anti-clerical, we should probably not label him as either an atheist or pantheist.  Instead, his religious beliefs were meditations on divinity as he encountered the divine in wild nature.  The emphasis on preservation follows logically.  In fact, the essay Walking contains one of Thoreau’s most well-known aphorisms:

“and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

Wilderness preserves the world; hence, our ethical duty is to preserve the wilderness.

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