Thoreau as Mythic Engineer

230px-Henry_David_Thoreau                       

                                                   “It is a great art to saunter”

                                                         (Journal; April 26th, 1841)

I will never know Henry David Thoreau. I need to settle for the “Thoreau” that Henry engineered throughout his life and writings; the Mythic Henry David Thoreau.

Part of his opening salvo to his readers in Walden, while responding to the queries he received concerning the course, and purpose, of his day to day stint at Walden Pond was that those who were somewhat acquainted with its actual history would be somewhat surprised by his written account of himself. And many still are to this day, not equating the historical Thoreau with the mythic, or manufactured, Thoreau. His response to Calvin H. Greene in 1856 testifying to the engineered nature of his writings, and the difference between the real and ideal Thoreau stating that “You may rely on it that you have the best of me in my books and that I am not worth seeing personally, the stuttering, blundering clod-hopper that I am.” He does ask our pardon for any confusion though, referencing “some obscurities, for there are more secrets in my trade than in most men’s, and yet not voluntarily kept, but inseparable from its very nature.” His trade was with the “Celestial Empire,” and he endeavored to keep “strict business habits” at Walden Pond, which was “a good place for business.” Mythology, says Jeff Cramer, was clearly what Thoreau was writing (aka engineering), and if read in any other way than intended the reader be predisposed to failure! If by engineering we read “the action of working artfully to bring something about” (English Oxford Dictionary) then Thoreau was working to leave us a road map for living without any resignation of life to quiet desperation. One of his main technologies employed for doing so was the daily walk or “saunter” to the “holy land” within himself, where he reminds and instructs us by saying we should, like the camel, ruminate while we walk! If we understand technology (from the Greek teckhnologia) to mean the “systematic treatment of an art, craft, or technique” then Thoreau’s chosen, and premier, technology was his daily ramble which he elevated to mythic dimensions in his most transcendental essay Walking.

Thoreau’s essay Walking was initially titled Walking and the Wild, and it offers one of the best insights into Thoreau’s inseparable relation between walking and thinking about “higher law” (Myth). For Thoreau the act of walking was the ‘Art of Walking,’ and an art that few in his time fully understood. Thoreau likewise equated walking with wildness and freedom; “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” and “Life consists with wildness,” emphasizing that which is wildest being likewise the most alive!

It will do us good service to place some of these ruminations by Thoreau into a broader context of his times, and specifically to the questions concerning modes of transport in regards to technology. We must remember that America was a continent discovered by foot. Early explorations certainly utilized rivers as vital arteries of travel; however, the foot reigned supreme for all true exploratory rambles into the adjoining wilds in early American settlement. Consider such intrepid figures as a Daniel Boone or Lewis and Clark as prime examples. It was not until much later in our collective story that we see the encroachment of the railway technologies, and our nation moving from being a pedestrian culture to a riding culture. Perhaps the very first intrusive inroad into the art of walking was from the horse, but by the 19th century the rails were running supreme, and technologies undoubtedly fill the rest of the story up to and including the present day of the automotive industry.

Just as the Spanish introduction of the horse drove the walking Native American from the open plains, modern forms of transport have driven the walker into the confines of domestic movement and subjugated open space into a homogenized landscape transcribed by commuters. The walker has become an inferior relation, and we have witnessed a cultural metamorphosis from walking, riding, driving, to a sitting society. So even the spaces we pass through today are now virtual hybrids of that once homogenized and pasteurized landscape that was once the wild. Walking alas has been reduced to a sport, and we exist predominantly as absentee spectators even there within that realm!

However, this is not a time to bemoan the loss of the wild, or walking, for it has always been there and it always will. High awareness and mobilization have been gathered on this front since the dawning of the environmental movement in the ’60s and I, like Thoreau, have faith in that ‘seed.’ However, in regards to thought, and thinking in general, I have a huge concern!

Emerson philosophized that “civilized man has built a coach, but he has lost the use of his feet,” and wondered what effect the emerging sedentary society would have upon our collective thought process. Thoreau put that thought into action by actively exploring and perambulating the world through the backyards of Concord and rediscovering the transcendent connection between walking and thinking. For Thoreau, the whistle of the train became synonymous with the sounds of commerce and speed and signaled our capacity to think being sacrificed at the altar of modern mass efficiency. Walking opened Thoreau to the ‘west,’ which was his hope for an American response to the decay associated with the urban industrial reduction of life and living to the machinery of profit in the pursuit of happiness. Walking to the west was the opening to the wild, which was likewise a transcendent journey into the far distant world of values than those reflected by the thinking of his day.

For Thoreau, the most alive and free was the wildest, and the surest means for preserving ourselves, and the world in which we live. Life at 3 miles per hour may seem like a simple panacea for our times, but I would suggest that a walk might well be the surest way into an emerging new technological paradigm for our times. The longest journey begins with the first step, and we have never been in such need of new direction. Moreover, it will provide the time and space for listening to our very own thoughts!

In the biblical sense of the word, to sin was ‘to miss the mark,’ and repentance meant to ‘have a change of mind.’ It is time for a walk – and a long one at that! The times require new thoughts, more wildness, and true freedom too not only hear but to walk to the beat of a different drummer!

Metaphor plays an integral part in education, communication, and day-to-day life. It plays a vital role in how we think. Also, it plays an essential part throughout all of Thoreau’s writing.

The metaphor is often used to help make a connection in our ability to conceptualize an idea; to help forge the relationship between our inner and outer world experiences – a technological bridge of sorts. Though prevalent in communication, we may often not use them in our language, yet they can shape how we perceive and act by following them. We often see the “journey” used as a metaphor for life (Dante’s, the Odyssey for example), yet the walking metaphor is so common that it is easy to stop noticing it and so pervasive that it is easy to forget, especially since we have moved from a pedestrian society to a highly mobile one. Yet stock phrases such as: One step at a time; walking in circles; walk the talk; uphill battle; moving forward; looking ahead; falling behind, walking the walk; navigating the peaks and valleys; stuck in a rut; finding balance, keeping the pace; it’s all downhill from here. These common words are all part of everyday speech and do contain walking as a metaphor. If a metaphor is a way of communicating meaning through analogy, comparison, symbol – or better yet, a “word-painting/picture” – Thoreau’s essay Walking sees and recognizes the act of walking as a real transformative experience. Also, because it is hard for us to capture that transformative nature of the walking experience, Thoreau resorts to the use of metaphor to help us. However, one must always recognize that when reading Thoreau he usually buries the “bone” deep and that his transcendental writings need to be taken in at a transcendental level if they are to serve the purpose of transforming us!

Thoreau is always going to take one on a journey, and he is going to make us “walk” that journey upon your own two feet (head & heart). Thoreau was not one to water down any truths, so he works to buoy up the reader in his writings instead, and Walking becomes testimony to why it is an engineered technology of the highest order. A genuinely appropriate technology engineered for our time, and a gentle reminder, or way mark upon the familiar path, that this seemingly simple human act of walking contains a wealth of possibility in these rather dangerously sedentary, virtual times. An opening into a new (old) paradigm that may change the very way we think and act.

Consider how Thoreau posits walking as an Art. His opening words on the subject being “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understand the Art of Walking, that is, of taking walks,” and that this “Art” is a reflection of genius. There’s the metaphor, Walking as Art, and requiring a true genius to comprehend the beauty of the practice. The transcendental element, or human inner state achievable, is made clear by Thoreau’s emphasis on the status of being a true walker as coming as a “direct dispensation from heaven,” and that “no wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence that are the capital in this profession.” One must be “born” – or recreated – into the family of Walkers. Second, if Thoreau’s essay on Walking is indeed a “waymark” or “signpost,” where or what is the sign pointing us toward? What is the metaphor serving as a bridge to?

Well, “West” is Thoreau’s clear, resounding metaphorical answer. Thoreau says he usually goes to the woods and fields in his walks, as there is a subtle magnetism within nature that will “guide” him, and us, right. Nature is not indifferent to the way we walk through, as there is a “right way,” and “we are very liable from heedlessness and stupidity to take the wrong one.” (Perhaps the “electronic disconnect” path we have followed cited by Richard Louv with his coining of the term NDD, Nature Deficit Disorder).

Thoreau usually heads “west” in his walks, which for him means the future, and any attachment to the past, or influences that might bias his ability to perceive the moment at hand. At the start of any walk he admonishes each of us to “go forth with a sense of undying adventure, never to return,” and that if we are thus truly “free” than we are ready for a walk. “In any weather, at any hour of the day or night,” Thoreau was anxious to “improve the nick of time,” and “to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment.” That was the line he wished to toe. So to do that was to indeed affect the order of the day – the highest of all arts!

To affect the order of our day, or to affect the order of someone’s day, is what the metaphor points us toward; serves as a bridge to. Walking, in my most humble opinion, both as a human activity and conceptual metaphor deserve our most significant attention and our most active imaginations. Thoreau’s essay upon the Art of Walking is perhaps even more pertinent to our times than it was to his. Thoreau likewise equates the “west,” that inner/outer state of awareness, and being present to the moment, as the “wild” – “the West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild.” It was his walks in nature where “the tonics and barks which brace mankind” came from. Thus, what then follows ultimately are Thoreau’s timeless, and most quoted, words of “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

So that also means the preservation of us too. Walking, and re-learning the Art of Walking as appropriate technology or craft, may very well be the tonic that braces us in these somewhat troublesome times. Thoreau’s use of walking as a conceptual metaphor lends greater insight, for me, into why Hazlitt, In On Going A Journey states that walking alone enables the capacity to experience the soul of the walking journey as “liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do, just as one pleases.” A bridge over to where the experience was of “that undisturbed silence of the heart which alone is perfect eloquence.”

To take a walk is to elevate the human condition. Whether Thoreau’s sense of the Wild within every one of us, or the heightened state Wordsworth often referred to as a “Spot of Time“; to obtain moments of undisturbed silence of the heart is a worthy goal of all our rambling adventures, and well worth our time and attention as the preeminent human activity. The times call for it more so than any other time, thus making Thoreau, as a mythic engineer, more pertinent than ever.

 

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