The Man Without Impediment
I have to admit that Thoreau’s Walden was not among the books that I lugged around as an adolescent. My mother, an ardent Baptist, claimed to love Emerson but not Thoreau, so I read Emerson’s essays, especially “Nature,” the summer after fifth grade. That was about the same time that I began spending a lot of time high in my backyard pecan tree. It was a great place to hide from the world, including parents, by far the coolest place around in those un-air-conditioned years, and an excellent place to read. My memories of many of the best books I ever read are replete with sun-dappled pages in the breezy sway of that leafy green canopy 50 feet above the manicured lawn that I should have been manicuring.
Emerson’s “Nature” sent a literal shock wave through my inherent Baptist theology. How was I to square my parents’ doggedly prosaic West Texas theology with this intellectual flame? “Man is fallen,” wrote Emerson. “Nature is erect, and serves as a differential thermometer, detecting the presence or absence of the divine sentiment in man.” “Yes!” I yelled from the top of my tree. I was a young poet equally in love with my tree, my own art, and the girl down the street. Solipsistic? Indeed. But I was alive, awake, and I had my finger on the pulse of Truth. “The multitude of false churches accredits the true religion,” wrote my revolutionary guide. “Literature, poetry, science, are the homage of man to this unfathomed secret concerning which no sane man can affect an indifference or incuriosity. Nature is loved by what is best in us.”
The problem had to do with truth. My mother’s assertion that she “loved Emerson” translated in my young mind to an assertion that Emerson was to be believed, that he was a bearer of truth. He was certainly a better stylist than the men who had created the King James Bible, and his arguments bore the validity of passion. I was no stranger to the occasionally confusing dichotomy between literary style and Holy Writ. For years our preacher seemed to have difficulty separating Milton from Genesis when quoting in his sermons. I spent a lot of time searching Genesis for those stirring cosmic descriptions and Satan’s impassioned speeches. Had they been removed, I wondered? What version of the Bible was he using? For our preacher, literature was at the service of truth. For this young poet, literature—and especially creating literature—was the road to truth.
Forty years on and I labor under the assumption—an illusion perhaps—that I’ve made some refinements in that quest, yet the best moments of inspiration continue to come from some combination of nature and literature. Recently I had occasion to be standing in front of Emerson’s house in Concord, Massachusetts. After spending the day wandering Sleepy Hollow Cemetery with my wife, I wandered down to Emerson’s house at sunset, a collection of the essays in hand. Now, some people look for guidance by opening the Bible at random and seeing what Holy Writ has to say to them at that moment. The last time I did that I read how one of the Maccabees’ soldiers had been sat upon by an elephant in the middle of a battle. Being inclined neither toward the military nor animal husbandry, the exercise cost me a bit of faith in the methodology. I figure, if you are going to go to a text for random guidance, it is best to know the general tenor of the text beforehand. I know Emerson pretty well, but I didn’t know what he was going to tell me.
I opened to “The Poet,” and read aloud:
The impressions of nature fall on us too feebly to make us artists. Every touch should thrill…The poet is the person in whom these powers are in balance, the man without impediment, who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man, in virtue of being the largest power to receive and to impart.
Thus spake the master, at which moment seven geese flew honking above my head at an altitude of maybe 10 feet—the lowest such flight I’ve ever seen, and by far the loudest affirmation I’ve ever had of the poet’s imperative to attempt the transmutation of experience and vision into something akin to truth. All of which brings me back to Henry David Thoreau. He too was a young poet who had been set aflame by Emerson’s vision of nature; he must have taken the definition, “the man without impediment,” as something like a call to arms. The essay first appeared in 1836, the year Thoreau graduated from Harvard. Something of a homeboy, Thoreau returned to Concord, where he struck up a friendship with Emerson. Not to cast any aspersions on Thoreau’s writing, but I always think of him as being the more practical of the two, trying to “handle that which others dream of” by implementing the older man’s ideas in a fusion of philosophy and pragmatic science.
The first thing that interested Thoreau about Walden Pond was not so much the study of nature in this place, but the idea of living there in as basic a manner as possible, of testing Emerson’s “differential thermometer” to see what was inside himself. It is good to remember that Thoreau never said that he was interested in living in the wilderness, a popular misconception that often elicits chuckles when his proximity to the village of Concord is observed, but simply to live alone, as close to nature as possible. He wished to be unencumbered, free to live without the restrictions imposed by life in civilized society. “I see young men,” he wrote, “whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns…for these are more easily acquired than got rid of.” In the opening chapter of Walden, he writes:
If one designs to construct a dwelling-house, it behooves him to exercise a little Yankee shrewdness, lest after all he find himself in a workhouse, a labyrinth without a clue, a museum, an almshouse, a prison, or a splendid mausoleum instead. Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary….
That first chapter is entitled “Economy,” and Thoreau gives us a generous helping of his “Yankee shrewdness” as he details down to the half penny how he purchased the materials and constructed the little one-room cabin, with its small iron stove, simple desk, and plain board bed. This would seem the soul of boring reading matter, yet his ruminations on the nature and necessity of shelter have fascinated readers from then until now. In fact, neither the cabin he built nor the pond itself were particularly unusual. To the naturalist, the pond is like a thousand other New England ponds—half a mile long, 90 feet deep at the most. But that was why Thoreau chose to study it: because it was an exemplar of its kind. That and the fact that it was only half an hour’s walk from home-cooked meals and Emerson’s library.
The other thing that drew him to the woods was a purely Transcendentalist love of natural beauty. He chose well, for Walden is in fact a stunningly beautiful place. Oddly enough, it is perhaps more lovely now—due in large part to the preservation work of the Walden Woods Project—than it was in Thoreau’s day. Even as Thoreau watched, the industrial revolution was transforming the landscape around him; a mill had risen its noisy head in Concord itself, and a newly-laid railway line had clear cut most of the trees from the south shore of Walden Pond. Today the railway is invisible, the woods are, to borrow a phrase, “lovely, dark, and deep,” and the water is exceptionally pure. I have walked these woods in spring, summer and autumn, and found them ever entrancing.
There’s no doubt that reading Walden at Walden makes for a perfect afternoon. It reminds me of reading Frost while walking his farm in Derry, New Hampshire, where almost all of the iconography of the early poems lies before you. There is no substitute for this, but a good set of photos helps when attempting to re-create that magic on a late summer day in Texas.
Carrollton, Texas photographer Scot Miller spent the last five years wandering Thoreau’s woods as well, cameras in hand. A generous and dedicated soul, the proceeds of his work at Walden benefit the Walden Woods Project (likewise, his photographs of Yosemite National Park benefit the Yosemite Fund). Miller’s photographs illustrate the newly published Walden: The 150th Anniversary Illustrated Edition of an American Classic (Houghton Mifflin). Quite an honor for a Texan. It certainly beats being president in 2004, to my mind. This edition of Walden pays tribute to a book that has never been out of print, has been translated into most of the languages on the planet, and has had a huge influence on modern thought about our relationship with nature. It also pays tribute to the beauty of the woods themselves.
Miller’s illustrated Walden arrived shortly after my visit to Concord, as I was sorting my own photographs, in fact. I was struck immediately by Miller’s exquisite sense of light and color—witness his “Brilliant fall morning” panorama that opens the book, with its quarter-mile stretch of fiery maples and birches, russet oaks and dark green pines reflected in the pond. But, one may fairly say, almost anyone with a decent camera can snap a fall morning in New England with excellent results. Yes, but with my own paltry snapshots on the table before me, I was forcibly reminded of how few have the eye or the patience to spend the days it takes waiting for the perfect combination of leaf hue, glassy surface, lightly clouded sky, and the other minutiae required to capture visible light and trap it on a page. Thoreau himself spent several pages attempting to document the shifting colors of the pond’s water. For the most part, he leaves the leaves to others.
But what really brings the woods to life is Miller’s eye for the kind of details one tends to walk past—or walk over—like small blood-red Bolete mushrooms on a bed of green moss and orange pine needles, or the even tinier chanterelle mushrooms peeking their brilliant orange from the multi-colored leaf fall. Nor does Miller simply dwell on autumn scenes. His camera catches the edge of winter as the pond begins to freeze over and the energy of spring as fern fronds like miniature bishop’s crosiers rise up amid the luscious green skunk cabbage.
This spring, my daughter graduated from Wellesley, which gave me a perfectly good excuse to spend a week in Concord and its environs, hiking and reading and having the afore-described Transcendentalist Moment. We stayed at the lovely old Concord Inn, where coincidentally we were given a room said to have been Thoreau’s own at some point in his youth. Life was becoming something of a Thoreauvian swamp. That day at the Concord Museum across the square, I had stood at Thoreau’s desk, barely two feet square, simplicity itself compared with N.C. Wyeth’s 1933 convoluted painting, “Walden Pond Revisited,” hanging in the same room. Curiously, the museum also houses Emerson’s study, where the two men spent many an afternoon discussing their evolving philosophies. “Curiously” since the museum is just across the road from Emerson’s house, where one presumes Emerson’s study ought still to be. Just around the corner, one can stand on the spot where Thoreau spent a night in jail, protesting the use of his tax dollars to fund an unjust war—another small event that gave rise to some great writing. His essay on civil disobedience strongly influenced thinkers and activists like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. Not bad for an essentially simple soul who “went into the woods” in order to “meet the facts of life—the vital facts, which are the phenomena or actuality the gods meant to show us—face to face….”
In his introduction to the anniversary edition of Walden, Edward O. Wilson points out that while living in the woods, despite his Transcendentalist tendency to glorify nature, Thoreau had “no mystic vision, no transformative flash of light.” Nor was he seeking such, even though as a poet he must have yearned for the kind of sudden insights that stir the soul. Rather, 159 years ago, Thoreau went into the woods to live quietly beside a nondescript pond to see what he could learn in Emerson’s “cathedral of nature.” One hundred and fifty years ago he published what he learned in a book, thus creating for generations to come that “transformative flash of light” he did not see himself: another case where the creation of literature became the road to truth.
Bryce Milligan is a San Antonio author with a rather fine collection of walking sticks, from Walden Pond and elsewhere.