"Henry David Thoreau, Philosopher" by Roderick Nash
Thoreau began to formulate his conception of the value of the wild from self-examination. In his twenty-third year, 1841, he wrote to a friend: "I grow savager and savager every day, as if fed on raw meat, and my tameness is only the repose of untamableness." A few months later he confessed in his journal that "it does seem as if mine were a peculiarly wild nature, which so yearns toward all wildness." Wandering through the Concord countryside, he delighted in discovering Indian arrowheads, wild apple trees, and animals of the deep woods such as the lynx. They were evidence "that all is not garden and cultivated field crops, that there are square rods in Middlesex County as purely primitive as they were a thousand years ago . . . little oases of wildness in the desert of our civilization." For Thoreau the presence of this wild country was of utmost importance. "Our lives," he pointed out in 1849 in his first book, "need the relief of [the wilderness] where the pine flourishes and the jay still screams." When Thoreau could not find enough wildness near Concord, he journeyed to Maine and Canada. Just being "on the verge of the uninhabited, and, for the most part, unexplored wilderness stretching toward Hudson's Bay" braced Thoreau; the very names "Great Slave Lake" and "Esquimaux" cheered and encouraged him. While admitting his love for Concord, Thoreau made clear how glad he was "when I discover, in oceans and wilderness far away, the materials out of which a million Concords can be made--indeed unless I discover them, I am lost myself.''
Unlike many Romantic contemporaries, Thoreau was not satisfied merely to announce his passion for wilderness. He wanted to understand its value. The 1851 talk to the Concord Lyceum offered an opportunity to defend the proposition that "the forest and wilderness" furnish "the tonics and barks which brace mankind." Thoreau grounded his argument on the idea that wildness was the source of vigor, inspiration, and strength. It was, in fact, the essential "raw-material of life.'' Human greatness of any kind depended on tapping this primordial vitality. Thoreau believed that to the extent a culture, or an individual, lost contact with wildness it became weak and dull.
This was difficult to explain to the Lyceum that April afternoon. Seeking illustration in the history of creative writing, Thoreau maintained that "in literature it is only the wild that attracts us." What appealed about Hamlet, the Iliad, and the Scripture was "the uncivilized free and wild thinking." These books were "as wildly natural and primitive, mysterious and marvelous, ambrosial and fertile, as a fungus or a lichen.'' Contemporary poets and philosophers, Thoreau added, would likewise profit by maintaining contact with a wild base. As an inexhaustible fertilizer of the intellect, it had no peer.
Thoreau also appealed to his audience's knowledge of ancient history. Empires had risen and declined according to the firmness of their wild roots. For Thoreau it was not a "meaningless fable" that Rome's founders had been suckled by a wolf, but a metaphorical illustration of a fundamental truth. "It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf," he reasoned, "that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the northern forests who were." "In short," he told the Lyceum in conclusion, "all good things are wild, and free."'
For Thoreau wilderness was a reservoir of wildness vitally important for keeping the spark of the wild alive in man. He prized it, as he wrote in an 1856 letter, "chiefly for its intellectual value.'' More than once he referred to the "tonic" effect of wild country on his spirit. "There at last," he remarked in 1857, "my nerves are steadied, my senses and my mind do their office." Thoreau, the Transcendentalist, believed that in the wilderness he found "some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked with him." As an author Thoreau also knew the forest's value. Using his trips to the Maine woods as a case in point, he contended that "not only for strength, but for beauty, the poet must, from time to time, travel the logger's path and the Indian's trail, to drink at some new and more bracing fountain of the Muses, far in the recesses of the wilderness.'' The crucial environment was within. Wilderness was ultimately significant to Thoreau for its beneficial effect on thought.
Much of Thoreau's writing was only superficially about the natural world. Following Emerson's dictum that "the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind," he turned to it repeatedly as a figurative tool. Wilderness symbolized the unexplored qualities and untapped capacities of every individual. The burden of his message was to penetrate the "wildness . . . in our brain and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us." In Walden (1854) he exhorted his reader to "be . . . the Lewis and Clark and Frobisher of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes." The essential frontier, in Thoreau's estimation, had no geographic location but was found "wherever a man fronts a fact." But going to the outward, physical wilderness was highly conducive to an inward journey. Wild country offered the necessary freedom and solitude. Moreover, it offered life stripped down to essentials. Because of this rawness, wilderness was the best environment in which to "settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion. . . through Paris and London, through New York and Boston . . . till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we call reality." With this in mind Thoreau sought Walden Pond. "I went to the woods," he declared, "because I wished to live deliberately." A decade after the Walden interlude Thoreau still felt the necessity from time to time to "go off to some wilderness where I can have a better opportunity to play life." And "playing" life in Thoreau's terms meant living, it with the utmost seriousness.
Given his ideas about the value of wilderness, it was inevitable that Thoreau should take up the nationalists' defense of American scenery. Some of his statements were trite ("our understanding more comprehensive and broader, like our plains") but occasionally he penetrated to new levels of meaning. Having linked Rome's initial greatness with the fact that Romulus and Remus were suckled by a wolf, Thoreau reasoned that "America is the she wolf today." The immigrants who left a tame, civilized Europe partook of the vigor of a wild New World and held the future in their hands. England, for instance, was effete, sterile, and moribund because "the wild man in her became extinct." America, on the other hand, had wilderness in abundance and, as a consequence, an unequaled cultural and moral potential. "I believe," Thoreau wrote, "that Adam in paradise was not so favorably situated on the whole as is the backwoodsman in America." Yet with typical caution he added that it "remains to be seen how the western Adam in the wilderness will turn out.''
While Thoreau was unprecedented in his praise of the American wilderness, his enthusiasm was not undiluted; some of the old antipathy and fear lingering even in his thought. Encountering the Maine woods underscored it. Thoreau left Concord in 1846 for the first of three trips to northern Maine. His expectations were high because he hoped to find genuine, primeval America. But contact with real wilderness in Maine affected him far differently than had the idea of wilderness in Concord. Instead of coming out of the woods with a deepened appreciation of the wilds, Thoreau felt a greater respect for civilization and realized the necessity of balance.
The wilderness of Maine shocked Thoreau. He reported it as "even more grim and wild than you had anticipated, a deep and intricate wilderness." Climbing Mt. Katahdin, he was struck by its contrast to the kind of scenery he knew around Concord. The wild landscape was "savage and dreary" and instead of his usual exultation in the presence of nature, he felt "more lone than you can imagine." It seemed as if he were robbed of his capacity for thought and transcendence. Speaking of man's situation in wilderness, he observed: "vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature has got him at disadvantage, caught him alone, and pilfers him of some of his divine faculty. She does not smile on him as in the plains." 'I'o Thoreau, clinging to the bare rocks of Katahdin's summit, wilderness seemed "a place for heathenism and superstitious rite--to be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rocks and wild animals than we." On the mountain, Transcendental confidence in the symbolic significance of natural objects faltered. Wilderness seemed a more fitting environment for pagan idols than for God. "What is this Titan that has possession of me?", a near-hysterical Thoreau asked on Katahdin. "Who are we? where are we?" Identity itself had vanished. It was a rude awakening for a man who in another mood had wondered "what shall we do with a man who is afraid of the woods, their solitude and darkness? What salvation is there for him?"
The Maine experience also sharpened Thoreau's thinking about the savage and civilized conditions of man. In his youth he saw the good as being almost entirely on the side of the former. A college essay, "Barbarism and Civilization," argued for the Indian's superiority since he maintained constant contact with nature's educational and moral influence. In his journal a few years later Thoreau praised the savage because he stood "free and unconstrained in Nature, is her inhabitant and not her guest, and wears her easily and gracefully." But what he saw in Maine raised questions about the validity of these primitivistic assumptions. The Indians appeared to be "sinister and slouching fellows" who made but a "coarse and imperfect use . . . of Nature." The savage was hardly the "child of nature" he once supposed. In an entry in his journal for July 1, 1852, Thoreau condensed his critique in the idea that roses "bloomed in vain while only wild men roamed." It was, rather, the philosopher or poet (Thoreau thought himself his own best example) who appreciated the higher values and experienced the greatest benefits of wilderness. Yet for the most part, civilized men ignored these things. In the outdoors their eyes were fixed on material gain or trivial sport. "For one that comes with a pencil to sketch or sing, a thousand come with an axe or rifle," Thoreau lamented. The lesson he drew was that "savages have their high and low estates and so have civilized nations."
The problem now was clear: was it possible "to combine the hardiness of these savages with the intellectualness of the civilized man?" Put another way, could men live so as "to secure all the advantage [of civilization] without suffering any of the disadvantage?" The answer for Thoreau lay in a combination of the good inherent in wildness with the benefits of cultural refinement. An excess of either condition must be avoided. The vitality, heroism, and toughness that came with a wilderness condition had to be balanced by the delicacy, sensitivity, and "intellectual and moral growth" characteristic of civilization. "The natural remedy," he continued, "is to be found in the proportion which the night bears to the day, the winter to the summer, thought to experience."
The ideal man occupied such a middling position, drawing on both the wild and the refined. Thoreau used his own life as a case in point. In Walden he reported recognizing in himself "an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life . . . and another toward a primitive, rank and savage one." Rejoicing in both, Thoreau strove to make himself, as his bean field at the Pond, "half cultivated." "I would not," he explained, "have . . every part of a man cultivated, any more than I would have every acre of earth." Some of each, of course, should be controlled and tilled, but along with the tame must be blended some wildness or wilderness as a strength-giving fertilizer. As long as its potency was partially diluted, superb crops could grow. Emerson aided his Concord neighbor in expressing the idea: "in history the great moment is when the savage is just ceasing to be a savage.... Everything good in nature and the world is in that moment of transition, when the swarthy juices still flow plentifully from nature, but their astringency or acridity is got out by ethics or humanity." Thoreau extended the metaphor to the question of American nationalism. In terms of culture, the Old World was an exhausted field; the New a wild peat bog. Yet this was no reason for smugness. America needed "some of the sand of the Old World to be carted on to her rich but as yet unassimilated meadows" as a precondition for cultural greatness. Again the answer lay in balancing the wild and the cultivated.
For his own part in regard to wilderness Thoreau felt he lived "a sort of border life." Occasionally he sought the wilds for nourishment and the opportunity to exercise his savage instinct, but at the same time he knew he could not remain permanently. "A civilized man . . . must at length pine there, like a cultivated plant, which clasps its fibres about a crude and undissolved mass of peat." For an optimum existence Thoreau believed, one should alternate between wilderness and civilization, or, if necessary, choose for a permanent residence "partially cultivated country." The essential requirement was to maintain contact with both ends of the spectrum.
Thoreau knew wildness (the "animal in us") as man's most valuable quality, but only when checked and utilized by his "higher nature.'' Since he idealized a balance, it always distressed him to have someone ask after a lecture: " 'would you have us return to the savage state? etc. etc.' "" But others in his generation understood what Thoreau meant by proportioning. A fellow Transcendentalist, Charles Lane, advocated in the Dial an "amalgamation" of life in the wilderness and in civilization. "To unite the advantages of the two modes," he felt, "has doubtless been the aim of many." Orestes Brownson's perfected society strove to make possible "all the individual freedom of the savage state with all the order and social harmony of the highest degree of civilization." Cooper's Leatherstocking inspired the same idea in Francis Parkman. For the Boston historian there was "something admirably felicitous in the conception of this hybrid offspring of civilization and barbarism." In Parkman's opinion Natty Bumppo joined "uprightness, kindliness, innate philosophy, and the truest moral perceptions" with "the wandering instincts and hatred of restraint which stamp the Indian." In 1850 Cooper himself discussed his famous protagonist as inclined to tread the middle way between "civilization" and "savage life." Leatherstocking represented "the better qualities of both conditions, without pushing either to extremes."
In providing a philosophic defense of the half-savage, Thoreau gave the American idealization of the pastoral a new foundation. Previously most Americans had revered the rural, agrarian condition as a release both from wilderness and from high civilization. They stood, so to speak, with both feet in the center of the spectrum of environments. Thoreau, on the other hand, arrived at the middle by straddling. He rejoiced in the extremes and, by keeping a foot in each, believed he could extract the best of both worlds.
The rural was the point of equilibrium between the poles. According to Thoreau, wildness and refinement were not fatal extremes but equally beneficent influences Americans would do well to blend. With this concept Thoreau led the intellectual revolution that was beginning to invest wilderness with attractive rather than repulsive qualities.