60 in 60: #37 – Henry David Thoreau’s Where I Lived, and What I Lived For (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

(The Penguin Great Ideas series goes where it’s never gone before–St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, seven miles out on the Deep Creek/Stony Bayou Trail, far from any other human being, May 14, 2009.)

This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series–a Guardian’s book site of the week (back in the day) and mentioned on the Penguin blog. (Their latest post comments on the first 20.)

My plan was to read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. In actual fact, due to a series of delays beyond my control, the “60 in 60” has become more of a sad, shambolic, shuffling staggering death march, or like an intermittently flickering lightbulb in a drug addict’s derelict apartment. To preserve the vestiges of my lingering sanity, I will now complete my mission in a haphazard, almost pub-crawl fashion, thus reminding readers that writers are eccentric, undependable, and pathetic. Still, I will stick to the rules and review on the same day I read.

For more on this beautifully designed series of which I am unworthy, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

by Henry David Thoreau (1817 to 1862)

Memorable Line
“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.”

The Skinny
Thoreau’s account of his solitary and self-sufficient home in the New England woods is a call to his fellow human beings to abandon their striving, materialistic existences of “quiet desperation” for a simple life of loud perspiration within their means, sparked by the sheer beauty of their surroundings.

Relevance? Argument?

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.”

This may be so, but it doesn’t feel like desperation at the trail head. It feels like adventure. It feels like you are about to test yourself against a task hard and worth doing, and even if you retreat from it back into the normal rhythms of your life, you will learn something about yourself in the process. Memories of dodging wild pigs, standing silent while a panther walked by you, and jumping over allligators–the stuff of tales exaggerated later over beers, and thus untrue even though true–melt away into another image: of having been disoriented and lost in a thunderstorm on these very same trails, and how that brought back childhood memories of walking on the reef at night in Fiji, with no way to tell sea from shore, and how, in some guise, you are hoping to recreate that experience that cannot be recreated, because in being lost in the natural world you actually feel more alive, more safe, than at any other time in your life. That’s how you start at least: in the abstract, and in your recollections, rather than in the moment.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Nowhere is this sense of urgency more apparent than in passing through the swampy forest that lies a mile or two in, with woods meeting a dank blackwater gutter, the place you’ve most often seen bear and heard things rustling in the darkness that the imagination assigns horrible forms to. Hiking alone is a different experience than hiking with someone. The pleasures of conversation distract from the still, standing water, from the reflections of cypress knees and the oppressive Southern Gothic feel to the air, the sky blocked by scraggly pine trees. This, too, is the corridor where wild pigs once charged, and while danger is minimal, the imagination magnifies it, and in the absence of company the mind exaggerates and finds ghosts where none exist. “Nature” in this context is something aggressive that wants to cause harm, even though it’s not true. Once through that gauntlet, you feel foolish, you feel dumb, you wonder why you bothered with the anxiety, or brought your senses to heightened alert. It’s just a walk in the woods.

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it: but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.”

Then the trail becomes straight and long and bright, and you’re trudging across the sandy soil wondering how the Spanish invaders with their heavy hot armor ever hacked their way through the swamps. This section seems to last forever, and even as you remain vigilant, scanning the trail ahead for signs of motion, still your thoughts stray, time become elongated and porous. There’s the memory of each past experience traversing this stretch, and the awareness that you’ve come early enough to beat the biting flies for once, and then you’re somewhere else. You’re driving across Hungary toward Romania in a tiny car. You’re lost with your wife on a plateau in a park above San Diego, where the grass is the color of gold and reaches to your knees and the trees are blackened from fire. You’re hiking up a mountain in scrubland outside of Brisbane, each breath labored, every muscle in your legs protesting even as you’re possessed by a wild giddiness that keeps you moving past exhaustion. You’re back in the first year of college when you wanted isolation and walked the five miles from the campus home in utter silence every day, receiving the world through a hole in your shoe and knowing you weren’t lonely but just alone. These thoughts are an embarrassment to you later. They seem to give significance to the mundane, but heightened awareness combined with a strange comfort is a signature of being solitary in solitary places.

“The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year…”

After having passed the unofficial gauntlet of bears and wild pigs, along with the stretch nicknamed “alligator alley,” your stride has achieved a rhythm, and your legs are no longer tight, and you can feel the muscles moving as you move, and you come out of the scrubland into the wetlands, with the freshwater canal serving as a buffer to the salt marsh and, ultimately, the sea. You’ve seen dolphins there, searching for food at high tide, before being pulled out again at low tide. You’ve seen otters and heard the call of curlews. The water means more life than anything the woods can support, in a myriad of forms. It’s also an area struck awhile back by hurricane, and you can still see the marks of that abuse, even though the water level’s long since receded. Once, this section was much harder to traverse because of that violence–you had to make your way through thigh-high water, always wary of that sudden tickle that might mean contact with an alligator. Now, though, they’ve filled those spaces in with concrete, and you’re vaguely disappointed. You’re now seven or eight miles out, and yet you’re confronted by this artificial bridge. No one is anywhere nearby, and yet there’s no escaping the fact people were here in numbers once.

“Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man.”

Finally, you reach the farthest-most point, beyond which you are but returning and returning still, feeling the pull of mile markers and the road beyond. But for that moment, you’re so remote that there’s no one for miles–and you feel that. You feel it strongly. You’ve gone from being a little on edge to being a little tired. And you’ve come out onto this perfectly still scene that looks from the light like Turner painted it. And you just take a deep breath and relax into the landscape.

“A lake like this is never smoother than at such a time; and the clear portion of the air above it is shallow and darkened by clouds, the water, full of light and reflections, becomes a lower heaven itself so much more important.”

And so you walk along the shore of this lower heaven, in the middle of nowhere and are rejuvenated by its perfect stillness. Your legs for a time are no longer tired, and you are afraid of nothing, and you have no room for memory or thought or anything except this moment, and this one, and the next. If a place can be called perfect or pristine or timeless, this stretch of the trail has all of those qualities, and your peace of mind is absolute in its embrace of the sky’s reflection.

“In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment.”

The present moment elongates again, ignited by the heat, once past still ponds and into the eleventh mile. You live in the present by dint of blistered feet and chaffed ankles and biting flies drawn to the sweat on your ears or forehead and the parched feeling in your throat despite drinking water from the canteen. The sun has decided to lodge itself behind your eyes and shine out so that the inside of your head feels burnt. Every beautiful thing you see ahead of you you know you’ve already seen at least once behind you. Eternity is found in the repetition of your steps and the constant way the light grips the ground and sends its heat back up at you. There’s no memory in you now. There’s no room. The present has filled you up.

“At other times watching from the observatory of some cliff or tree, to telegraph any new arrival; or waiting at evening on the hill-tops for the sky to fall, that I might catch something, though I never caught much…”

The larger things in this context fall away, until you revel only in small details–the dark line of a marsh hawk flying low over the water, the delicate fracture of the water where a snake bird submerged, and, between, the strangely satisfying long grass that cascades like hair from the ground.

“By the words necessary of life, I mean whatever, of all that man obtains by his own exertions, has been from the first, or from long use has become, so important to human life that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it.”

In the final miles, the sun is so bright and hot you actually feel a little delirious, even though you know this is a mirage–you have water and you’re still hobbling through your blisters and petty aches. How can the sun be so oppressive and yet the scene so unbearably beautiful? The final mile approaches, and you bend down to tighten the laces on your boot. There’s a tiny black-and-red grasshopper, symbolic as a scarab, beside your foot. From what seems like a great distance, you hear a scrambling huff from the marsh beside the trail. For an instant some odd, broad-shouldered marmot pushes its face through the reeds. Then sees you and hurriedly disappears with a plop into the water behind it–while you rise, startled, the grasshopper leaping onto your leg. Then you’re walking again, laughing a little, and in a few minutes more you’re back at the road and your car, everything pressed out of you except a yearning for water and a clean shirt. And you’re unaccountably happy, grinning even.

Thoreau’s meditations, philosophical arguments, and explication of the world through the details of its natural spaces makes a powerful argument to contemporary readers in the context of a polluted world already beginning to be punished by the effects of global warming.

Question for Readers
What’s the most profound experience you’ve had of the natural world?

Next up, Thorstein Veblen’s Conspicuous Consumption


  1. says

    I loved reading this entry. Growing up, I was surrounded by nature. We had trees and mountains, ricefields, and tall grass, but perhaps the experience that remains with me the most is that of watching my first sunrise. There’s a moment of stillness in between darkness and light when the world and time seems suspended. It’s just like holding your breath. Then, the sun comes up and the world falls into light and sound and movement.

  2. says

    Spent most of my childhood summers in a campground at the start of the Abel Tasman national park. I still carry the sun from those days round with me.

    I fell out of a tree when I was 12. It really hurt. There’s still a strange lumpy bit on the top of my head.

  3. Hellbound Heart says

    i love looking from my front yard and watching mount warning and its changing moods throughout the seasons and even at different times of the day (incidentally, it’s the first part of australia that sees the rising sun)…..
    whereabouts outside of brisbane were you hiking? was it north towards the sunshine coast?

    peace and love…..

  4. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Ann will remember. I think it was toward the interior. We passed through a strange border-type town with buildings that looked almost like they could’ve come out of the old west.

    But that day wasn’t over at that point–we wound up in a strange synagogue for passover where as part of the entertainment they performed the entirety of Cabaret dressed in zoot suits. We split very soon into it and had to explain it all to a Palestinian cabbie interested in Judaism. Hard to explain, really…

  5. says

    Rochita: That’s lovely!

    Because the entry is more about the landscape than the wildlife, I neglected to mention that this time out (last Thursday), I saw wild pigs, raccoons, alligators, otters, lots of deer, marsh rats, marsh rabbits, about seven different kinds of lizard, giant softshell turtles, and a tortoise of some type. Encountered relatively fresh bear skat and old coyote skat. Birds included a variety of finches, great blue herons, egrets, bluebirds, pileated woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, coots, some ducks too far away to identify, marsh hawk, red shouldered hawk, a kite of some kind (just saw the silhouette), a couple of osprey, red-winged black birds, turkey vultures, etc.

  6. says

    Oh yeah–not to mention a black snake, a water moccasin, and a couple of pygmy rattlesnakes. Which is why I always wear jeans and boots even in the summer out there.

  7. says

    When I first looked at the post I thought, “Huhn, I don’t remember cacti being at Walden.”

    I still remember walking with my wife in a climax forest at full-bloom mid-summer. A rain shower came and passed while we were hiking. The canopy was thick enough that we didn’t get very wet. But listening to the wind chasing around the trees and rustling their heads, and the approaching of the pounding rainfall. The difference of being in front of the storm, the wild wickedness of it, and then underneath it in the calm falling of drops. A storm going about it’s business. The muggy warmth of the post-storm as steam rose from the ground like spirits coming out to play and twist in the trailing breeze. The feeling it was meant to remind us of something, but unable to put our finger on it.

  8. says

    This may me my favorite of the 60 in 60 series yet, Jeff. The juxtaposition of Thoreau and your commentary is just stunning…

    As to the question, there is only one answer: trees. Nature is nice, but it’s always the trees that get me. When I visited Aberfoyle, Scotland during my honeymoon, my husband and I climbed Doon Hill, a fairy mount. It was January, so the sun set around 3:30; we were there as light was waning, and when the sun streaked across the mossy barked branches and trunks, it’s like the entire world skewed a moment. It was unreal, eerie, and certainly worth the hike.

  9. Alistair Rennie says

    That’s a great post, Jeff. The swampy forest walk looks amazing.

    What you say about hiking alone is beautifully put, and true.

    I’ve done a few solitary expeditions and found them pretty terrifying on a couple of occasions. These were in the Scottish Highlands where the ghosts and bogles really do exist of course.

    I’ve done a lot of solitary hiking in the Italian Dolomites but for some reason it’s not as scary. I did once come through some rocks and found myself face to face with creatures that, I thought, resembled a hybrid between lamas and mountain goats. I’ve no idea what they were and anyone I’ve asked doesn’t know either. But they chose not to gore me.

    There’s one particular place in Scotland I go to regularly with friends, the Cairngorms, where the experience is always one of profoundest awe. When you step into the zone of the Cairngorms it’s like passing through a veil from one world to another. You leave the lush and rugged scenery of Deeside and enter a primordial landscape of wilderness and tundra. The scale of the terrain totally changes. The mountains of the Cairngorms are enormous rounded bulks of granite forming a bare plateau with several narrow glens cutting through them. It’s not the height that gets you with these mountains but the sheer bulk of them. So when you enter this area your whole sense of perspective is knocked out of joint and your average state of mind is replaced by an excitement and awe and an underlying fear of what you’re up against. These are dangerous beasts these mountains and the weather can be treacherous. And they are also inhabited by the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui….


    Me and my friends have heard the Big Grey Man on a number of occasions. We reckon he’s attracted by the smell of whisky because it’s when we open our flasks and devour them of their contents that he tends to “appear”. Most strange…….

  10. says

    This makes me want to re-read Thoreau again as well as to go walking through the wooded parts of my parents’ property. Like the others have said, great entry for the 60-in-60.

  11. Taylor says

    Thank heavens #60 is back…and to start with nature is where everything begins! Congratulations!