Culture Reviews

Walden Ponderers

I have a problem with Henry David Thoreau. I know Americans love him, and I also know that everybody who’s anybody quotes Thoreau like they were included in his will. So forgive me for saying this, but I don’t think he’s really all that. I’m saying this despite the fact that he was a huge influence on Gandhi, whom I can almost write a whole book about my admiration and respect for. Most of my knowledge about Thoreau’s writing is from ‘Walden‘, a wee little story about the two years he spent living by himself in the woods by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. I’ve read a few other essays as well, but this is the only one I’ve suffered through till the end. Let me go over some of my issues with the book, and Thoreau – which have been repeated so many times by writers so much better than me that I’m beginning to think it should get a whole shelf at the bookstore. But don’t worry, I won’t dwell on its flaws for too long. Yes, the book is bad and I don’t recommend it, but the point of this post isn’t to beat a dead horse. I’ll get to the real point after this small detour.

Pond Scum

For as long as Walden has been in circulation, people have had problems with it. One of the best takedowns of Thoreau and the Walden cult came form Kathryn Schultz in an essay in The Atlantic, provocatively titled “Pond Scum“. OOOOOOOH. Burn. Take that, you pesky environmentalists! Actually, not a burn; the magazine decided that the title was too much for them, and quietly changed it to “The Moral Judgments of Henry David Thoreau”, but the link still has some clues to the older, more appropriate, title.

Before I dig in, I’ll be honest here: I hadn’t fully read Walden before I read the criticisms. I’d begun to read it on a trek to Geocha La, but I found it so utterly dry and unreadable that I stopped around 50 pages in and picked up “Three Men on a Boat”. I will never regret that decision because Jerome is a far better write than Thoreau, and Three Men on a Boat is infinitely more readable and full of memorable scenes like this one, where the gang is having lunch on private land:

We had just commenced the third course – the bread and jam – when a gentleman in shirt-sleeves and a short pipe came along, and wanted to know if we knew that we were trespassing. We said we hadn’t given the matter sufficient consideration as yet to enable us to arrive at a definite conclusion on that point, but that, if he assured us on his word as a gentleman that we were trespassing, we would, without further hesitation, believe it.

He gave us the required assurance, and we thanked him, but he still hung about, and seemed to be dissatisfied, so we asked him if there was anything further that we could do for him; and Harris, who is of a chummy disposition, offered him a bit of bread and jam.

I fancy he must have belonged to some society sworn to abstain from bread and jam; for he declined it quite gruffly, as if he were vexed at being tempted with it, and he added that it was his duty to turn us off.

Jerome K. Jerome, “Three Men on a Boat”

Outstanding book, and one of the best short novels I’ve ever read. Definitely worth a read. So, with that little detour nested within a detour out of the way, let us proceed to Walden. The prose of the book is fantastic, and definitely gives any budding writer a lot of tips on how to engage your reader and draw them in. More accurately, it serves as a manual on how not to write a book that’s supposed to be for the general public. For a book that begins with a chapter on the value of economy, Thoreau spares no thought for the reader and fills the book to the brim with stupid little digressions, endless repetition, inane trivia and superficial “insights” into how beautiful nature is when man isn’t around to muck things up. Let me put forth three (only three!) examples of Thoreau’s horrendous writing.

Exhibit A: Repetition

When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new. Old people did not know enough once, perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase is. Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned any thing of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me any thing to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.

This is just in the first few pages. It gets worse: the first two chapters are basically the same absolutely worthless rubbish said in a million slightly different ways. Reading them is like going on a merry-go-round that’s going so slow you don’t feel any thrill, but you’ve been on it so long that you’re beginning to feel bored and slightly nauseous.

Exhibit B: Owls

When other birds are still the screech owls take up the strain, like mourning women their ancient u-lu-lu. Their dismal scream is truly Ben Jonsonian. Wise midnight hags! It is no honest and blunt tu-whit tu-who of the poets, but, without jesting, a most solemn graveyard ditty, the mutual consolations of suicide lovers remembering the pangs and the delights of supernal love in the infernal groves. Yet I love to hear their wailing, their doleful responses, trilled along the wood-side; reminding me sometimes of music and singing birds; as if it were the dark and tearful side of music, the regrets and sighs that would fain be sung. They are the spirits, the low spirits and melancholy forebodings, of fallen souls that once in human shape night-walked the earth and did the deeds of darkness, now expiating their sins with their wailing hymns or threnodies in the scenery of their transgressions. They give me a new sense of the variety and capacity of that nature which is our common dwelling. Oh-o-o-o-o that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n! sighs one on this side of the pond, and circles with the restlessness of despair to some new perch on the gray oaks. Then—that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n! echoes another on the farther side with tremulous sincerity, and—bor-r-r-r-n! comes faintly from far in the Lincoln woods.

I was also serenaded by a hooting owl. Near at hand you could fancy it the most melancholy sound in Nature, as if she meant by this to stereotype and make permanent in her choir the dying moans of a human being,—some poor weak relic of mortality who has left hope behind, and howls like an animal, yet with human sobs, on entering the dark valley, made more awful by a certain gurgling melodiousness,—I find myself beginning with the letters gl when I try to imitate it,—expressive of a mind which has reached the gelatinous mildewy stage in the mortification of all healthy and courageous thought. It reminded me of ghouls and idiots and insane howlings. But now one answers from far woods in a strain made really melodious by distance,—Hoo hoo hoo, hoorer hoo; and indeed for the most part it suggested only pleasing associations, whether heard by day or night, summer or winter.

I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men. It is a sound admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods which no day illustrates, suggesting a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not recognized. They represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all have. All day the sun has shone on the surface of some savage swamp, where the single spruce stands hung with usnea lichens, and small hawks circulate above, and the chickadee lisps amid the evergreens, and the partridge and rabbit skulk beneath; but now a more dismal and fitting day dawns, and a different race of creatures awakes to express the meaning of Nature there.

I love owls as much as the next guy. Matter of fact, there are at least three on my list of top 10 birds. It makes me sad, but I have to say, what did I do to deserve this?

Exhibit C: The rest of the book

Most of us have been in a forest, and the earliest memory I have of being in the woods was when I was 8 or 9, when our family had gone on a trip to Ooty. I remember being so excited about everything I was seeing around me, I was losing my mind about the tiniest things. I thought I’d tell the whole world about that one brilliant yellow mushroom with a cute frog sitting on it. But I could only go on about it for no more than 2 minutes before someone shut me down. I could never have talked about it for any longer than 15 minutes before people would have drowned me out. But Thoreau don’t care. Walden is full of tiring details about the woods around him. You saw the part about owls hooting into the night. That’s not all, though. There’s a whole chapter dedicated to beans and how to cultivate them properly. There’s another where he goes off on how a pond needs to be cared for, with exact instructions on how to clear pond scum, what depth you can allow it to be, and how to measure the depth of the pond. According to Thoreau, a pond is deepest where its two widest sections meet. Okay sure, that makes a lot of sense, Mr. Naturalist.

The Hyppie

So, thoreau was not very knowledgeable about nature despite the years he spent living by himself and braving the savage elements of the wild. Which begs the question, “how did he survive for so long?” Don’t wonder anymore because I have research to answer that question.

Actually, I didn’t have to read too much to get to this. Here are the first few lines of Walden:

When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.

“A mile from a neighbor”? How’s that even close to living in the woods by yourself? If you screamed from a mile away, it has a decent chance of being audible. Thoreau himself says that he could hear the train whistle from his pondside shack. You don’t have to be a detective to suspect that this man may have been cheating. And he was. Here’s a great example of why:

The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I dwell. I usually go to the village along its causeway, and am, as it were, related to society by this link. The men on the freight trains, who go over the whole length of the road, bow to me as to an old acquaintance, they pass me so often, and apparently they take me for an employee; and so I am. I too would fain be a track-repairer somewhere in the orbit of the earth.

His laundry was done by his mum, as practically everybody knows (and this writer for some reason detests that they know). He lived on a piece of land owned by his friend, and got his food from the friendly and often just confused villagers near the pond. Thoreau says he was self-sufficient and only went to the village just to hear some gossip and “exchange” what he’d grown/gathered. Self-aggrandizing though he was, the man would have known perfectly well that the villagers were being quite generous towards him. They give him food and supplies, even though most of what he has to offer is probably worthless to them because they can grow it themselves. In other words, Thoreau was a squatter and the townsfolk regarded him as a curious oddity they didn’t mind providing for.

For a squatter, Thoreau is awfully glib about everybody else around him. Here is the man hating on a farmer for the cardinal sin of having named a little pond after himself:

Flint’s Pond! Such is the poverty of our nomenclature. What right had the unclean and stupid farmer, whose farm abutted on this sky water, whose shores he has ruthlessly laid bare, to give his name to it? Some skin-flint, who loved better the reflecting surface of a dollar, or a bright cent, in which he could see his own brazen face; who regarded even the wild ducks which settled in it as trespassers; his fingers grown into crooked and horny talons from the long habit of grasping harpy-like;—so it is not named for me. I go not there to see him nor to hear of him; who never saw it, who never bathed in it, who never loved it, who never protected it, who never spoke a good word for it, nor thanked God that he had made it. Rather let it be named from the fishes that swim in it, the wild fowl or quadrupeds which frequent it, the wild flowers which grow by its shores, or some wild man or child the thread of whose history is interwoven with its own; not from him who could show no title to it but the deed which a like-minded neighbor or legislature gave him,—him who thought only of its money value; whose presence perchance cursed all the shore; who exhausted the land around it, and would fain have exhausted the waters within it; who regretted only that it was not English hay or cranberry meadow,—there was nothing to redeem it, forsooth, in his eyes,—and would have drained and sold it for the mud at its bottom. It did not turn his mill, and it was no privilege to him to behold it. I respect not his labors, his farm where every thing has its price; who would carry the landscape, who would carry his God, to market, if he could get any thing for him; who goes to market for his god as it is; on whose farm nothing grows free, whose fields bear no crops, whose meadows no flowers, whose trees no fruits, but dollars; who loves not the beauty of his fruits, whose fruits are not ripe for him till they are turned to dollars. Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth. Farmers are respectable and interesting to me in proportion as they are poor,—poor farmers. A model farm! where the house stands like a fungus in a muck-heap, chambers for men, horses, oxen, and swine, cleansed and uncleansed, all contiguous to one another! Stocked with men! A great grease-spot, redolent of manures and buttermilk! Under a high state of cultivation, being manured with the hearts and brains of men! As if you were to raise your potatoes in the church-yard! Such is a model farm.

Throughout Walden, Thoreau makes it a point to go after people he sees as beneath him: worthless idiots who don’t deserve to breathe the air that the forest provides for them. Without a hint of self-awareness or irony. Bill Bryson, that upstanding gentleman, writes in “A Walk in the Woods”:

The American woods have been unnerving people for 300 years. The inestimably priggish and tiresome Henry David Thoreau thought nature was splendid, splendid indeed, so long as he could stroll to town for cakes and barley wine, but when he experienced real wilderness, on a vist to Katahdin in 1846, he was unnerved to the core. This wasn’t the tame world of overgrown orchards and sun-dappled paths that passed for wilderness in suburban Concord, Massachusetts, but a forbidding, oppressive, primeval country that was “grim and wild … savage and dreary,” fit only for “men nearer of kin to the rocks and wild animals than we.” The experience left him, in the words of one biographer, “near hysterical.”

Bill Bryson, “A Walk in the Woods”

The word “hippie” is generally used to mean “hipster”, originally meaning “someone who knows”, but more usually used as shorthand for “spiritualist vagrant who may be on some drugs”. And it’s in this sense that many people refer to Thoreau as the world’s first hippie. But after reading Walden, I can only see Thoreau as a “hyppie”, short for “hypocrite”. And he wasn’t the first or the last.

The Perks of Being a Paper Tiger

As much as he was a boring holier-than-thou hypocrite, Thoreau actually started something. His works sparked doubt in enough people’s minds about the supposed value of “civilization” and all these vestiges of paternalistic power that a whole movement of “transcendentalists” began to emerge. Put together, Thoreau, Emerson and Tolstoy formed a great wall of literary defence against the encroachment of humans upon nature. With “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”, Thoreau created a template for individuals to resist institutions; a template used by all manner of protestors including Gandhi, MLK and Mandela. Yes, I want to hear about what kind of grand organizing framework Mandela would have liked to create. But it wouldn’t have been as inspiring as Thoreau’s. Why? Because Mandela was a practitioner and Thoreau was a paper tiger. And only a paper tiger operating in a safe little sandbox can construct a narrative and give people hope.

Thoreau appeals to us because his thoughts on being alone in the woods are universal enough to appeal to practically everybody: either as a reality, or as an aspirational goal. There’s no real danger in Thoreau’s works: he doesn’t have to run for his life while being chased by a grizzly across some sodden vegetation. He doesn’t even spend any time talking about all the dangers that lie beyond his little suburban refuge. All he sees is a postcard version of the “struggles of solitary life” without any of the actual strife in nature. All he has to wrestle with is one thing, and one thing alone: “what does it mean to live with yourelf?” That’s it. He doesn’t actually have to think about how to farm in a forest, how to fend off predators, how to ration materials, how to stay sane when isolated from everybody you care about, how to survive, nothing. He sees the beauty of a mushroom without having to wonder if it’s poisonous. He can see a way to find the deepest part of the pond without thinking about whether he should jump in there and end his miserable life. You can connect to the material in the book whether you’re out there slugging it out in the mountain highlands of Papua New Guinea, or in a suburban park resting under a tree. Just as the themes it explores are universal, Walden’s messages of self-sufficiency, discipline and economy are just as relevant in the benign undergrowth of Rotorua, New Zealand as in the spectacular woods of Concord, Massachusetts. So, Walden can be a beacon for anybody that loves their little corner of the planet: from white nationalists to PETA-lovers. You can make a case for protecting the beauty of just about any piece of land by quoting extensively from this book.

And that is the value of paper tigers: they give you a message uncontaminated by the awful, ugly truth of reality. Yes, I’m all for a realistic portrayal of what survival in the woods entails, but it doesn’t have to be all grime and grit. For a person living in dirt-poor conditions in Malawi, Walden has no real survival advice to offer. In many ways, it can be patronizing to see Thoreau wax poetic about the virtues of freeloading and staring at still water all day. But to those same people, Walden can also be something to aspire towards, precisely because Thoreau doesn’t have to bother about being hunted or sold into slavery. Walden offers a sanitized version of free living, free from the nastiness of having to survive.

I don’t mind people living in their own little coccoons, giving the world “advice”. To me, the value of a Kardashian’s advice on dealing with hardships, adversity and discrimination isn’t the advice itself. But just the existence of these little corners of the “upper echelons” of society where people feel hurt by some bizarre little thing makes you say “man, if that woman’s biggest problem today is that she has decide whether she wants to wear makeup, I want to be a Kardashian”. It makes you realize that if you’re rich enough, famous enough, free enough, powerful enough, bold enough, attractive enough, talented enough, successful enough, creative enough or smart enough, you can choose to suffer for a couple of years in a shack on your friend’s land in the Hamptons, and live to write a book about it that, decades later, kids will be forced to read.

Paper tigers give people hope. For that reason, there’s something of value in being a paper tiger.