An excerpt from Robert Sullivan’s new book The Thoreau You Don’t Know shows that the father of environmentalism was a community lover, not a loner.
The Thoreau You Don’t Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant
By Robert Sullivan
HarperCollins, 354 pages, $25.99
A lot of Walden is hard going, for this reader, anyway. The relatively easy setup of the first chapters leads to some places where the woods are dark and deep, so that sometimes I want to throw it down. But then the imagery is of such beauty—“It was not lonely,” he writes of a hawk circling in the sky, “but made all the earth lonely beneath it”—that you linger, and as you attack the layers, you begin to see the complexities, and then the greater beauty in the complexities. Robert Frost said a perfect poem runs itself and carries away with the poet with it. “Read it a hundred times and it will forever keep its freshness as a metal keeps a fragrance,” and so it is of Walden. Walden is the light on at night for the person on the back road, for the tired traveler wondering how much farther they have to go and then realizing that the path is what matters. In Walden, Thoreau sits peacefully in his cabin doorway, rising when the world believed him to be rotting: “I grew in those seasons like the corn in the night.”
Walden takes the long way around on purpose, making it in itself representative of Thoreau’s life. With the book, he was not suggesting everyone live as he did at the pond, or as he ever did in Concord: “I would not have any one adopt MY mode of living on any account.” To repeat: if you see Walden as a manual, which it was not intended to be, then you will build a house in the woods and try to live a solitary life, but if you see it as an edifice in itself, you can enter and allow it to engage you. Better to see it as a mental striptease: with language that strips you down, peels away conceptions, and prepares you for a new interpretation, to be an extra vagrant, a civil disobedient, an independent resister. You can choose your reading, of course, but given that Thoreau has gotten so caught up in our ideals of nature, that he is thought of chiefly as a defender of the rural, the natural—that is, rural life—it seems important to describe the ways in which the experiment at Walden Pond can be seen as a view of a civilized or even urban world.
In my own reading, I was startled to find the city, of all places, in Walden. I initially went to Walden thinking of it as the archetype of rural living; I was fishing for Thoreau’s antiurban musings, as I mentioned, looking for the beginning of the great divide between us and nature, between the man-made and the non-man-made, nature and the city. But wading in, I discovered Walden offered something else entirely. I found a vision of a city, a new metropolitan plan. The most complicated part of it all—and at the same time the simplest—is that the city envisioned in Walden is not actual, and that Walden is not about building a house or a place but rather about building a life and community, starting with you and your own.
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