Thoreauly Perplexed

Happy 200th birthday to the man who played the flute in the woods, called spiderwebs the handkerchiefs of fairies, and hosted ‘twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies,’ in his cabin at the edge of Walden Pond. It’s been some years since I actually read any of Thoreau’s work, but a ramble back into ‘Walking,’ one of my favourite essays, reminds me at once of why I admire him, and what continues to confuse me about him.

I’ve come to the unsatisfactory conclusion that, regardless of his merit on balance, Thoreau’s main accomplishment and flaw is that he wrote too much. Between the journals, the essays, and the books, he seems to have written down everything that ever came into his head. He wrote some brilliant passages, and he wrote some absurd and untenable ramblings. Everything he writes at any given point can be contradicted by antyhing else he may have written, before or after it. The delightful image of Thoreau hosting an unanticipated crowd in his tiny cabin is as important as the quieter one of the hermit in the woods. Both may have been real at various times in those two years on the pond. Both were doubtless real in the author’s mind.

As a writer of nature, capable of combining the scientific and the picturesque, he has rarely been equalled, and his approach helped to inspire scientist-writers such as Rachel Carson. Perhaps that is where Thoreau remains most beloved, and most relevant. He sought not only to preserve nature, but to understand it, and to encourage others towards the outdoors and the observation of the world around them. It is an idea that the academic world still struggles with — the place of human emotion, an individual connection with the natural world, in the supposedly detached study of it. It is a question with which most people still grapple, as well — the place of humanity in nature.

The love of wildness that Thoreau espouses is perhaps best expressed in the essay ‘Walking,’ the source for one of the more famous quotes on the subject, but also the source of the observation that ‘there are enough champions of civilization.’ At a guess, I would say Thoreau wrote that in a cheerful, carefree mood, not the misanthropic fog in which he is often depicted, but not overly sociable, either. He speaks for wildness instead of society because society has its supporters already, while wildness is regarded as an oddity at best. Such a measured phrase can be found in Thoreau, alongside the more passionate declarations; he was possessed of the capacity for reflection, if he is better remembered for his firm convictions.

Even Thoreau admitted, at times, the limitations of his philosophy. ‘Of course, it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither,’ he remarks in ‘Walking,’ and this innocuous observation holds true for many parts of his work, and his overall thinking. There is uncertainty in all human endeavours. He is more the ‘parcel of vain strivings’ than the moral authority and teacher, even at his most insistent. This frustrates the modern reader, searching for answers, and finding instead an individual at odds with himself. One of the hardest lessons for a reader to learn is that an author may have brilliant insights, and yet not always be right.

On the subject of the bicentenary, Rafia Zakaria notes that ‘Thoreau and his famous book are relevant to America now, but less as a lifestyle guide and more as an exploration of the approximate nature of truth’ (‘In Thoreau’s Footsteps: My Journey to Walden for the Bicentennial of the Original De-Clutterer,’ The Guardian). Perhaps the main wisdom to be gleaned from Thoreau is that we must not be afraid of our contradictions — searching for truths in nature is as difficult as it is among our fellow beings — frustrations are inevitable and patient observation is essential. Whatever else one may say about him, life would be much duller without the Thoreaus of the world, those who write incessantly, and look at things, and ask questions, and demand that we do better, but who are never sure even in their most elated moments of what better actually means or would require. Inspiration, revolution, exaltation; I may have been governed by better advisors than Thoreau in my lifetime, but I would not like to do without him, either.

There are a fair few accusations one can level at Thoreau: hypocrisy (one of which we are all, in varying degrees, guilty), misanthropy (probably true, if inconsistently), dependence on others (see hypocrisy), and immaturity (true and not always a bad thing). I would not defend him from all of these, even if I could, as it’s only fair that he received his share of criticism, being remarkably and intelligent and therefore remarkably fallible in proportion. I read him during my undergrad studies, primarily, and he appealed to the passionate, idealistic, floundering, confused student, keen to be so sure of something that I could hold fast to it through any adversity. Thoreau was tremendously good at that, and if I didn’t always follow his economic arguments, and thought he got carried away with himself at times, it did not rob him of power. It is his restlessness, despite never leaving Massachusetts, that is most relatable, and he reads as a person constantly seeking the indefinable, on occasion happy, never satisfied. This, I would argue, accounts for much of his continuing popularity, as does his boldness in attempting to live as he preached. What of it, if there are contradictions? His method of living (in theory or practice) was never applicable to the vast majority of people, but neither are most theoretical lifestyles, and for all his moral judgments, he kept enough company, even with those who drank tea and coffee. His friends traveled, he did not; his work can be read as an interesting counterpoint to the equally electrifying travelogues of the era.

Like most people, he is more approachable with his contemporaries, who recognised and shared his complexities. Emerson was alternately frustrated and supportive; Louisa May Alcott’s childhood admiration turned into more measured respect, and Nathaniel Hawthorne seems hardly to have known what to make of him. I would like to know what Abba Alcott thought, but I doubt that any such record exists. Heard among their voices, Thoreau’s sounds more relatable, and more powerful, than it does alone. 19th-century New England was a full and exciting place, and Thoreau was an ill-fitting, awkward part of that. He continues to speak to us, and much of what he has to say is valuable, and much else can be consigned to the waves of history, which is probably what he would have wanted anyway.

Sea Fog

As memoirs go, there are worse premises than that of looking back on years of enjoying some remote islands, right before passing them on to the next generation. A good premise isn’t everything, though, and if not carried out right, even the best can become mired in sentimentality. Halfway through Adam Nicolson’s ‘Sea Room,’ I don’t know if I’ll finish it, and not only because of my initial scepticism at his ownership of the Shiants. (Having finished since writing the first draft of this post, I can say it was not much improved by the end.) Given the opportunity to explore the question of private ownership insightfully, he finishes by returning to the same stance, that he owns the Shiants and wants to continue passing them down through his family (the male line only), because he loves them and he trusts his son to do the same.

The trouble is, apart from doubts about his argument for ownership, I don’t exactly disagree with anything he says. True enough, that islands are unique, interesting places, which feed the imagination and awaken corners of the soul heretofore unexplored. Absolutely right that one must get to know the seas around them well, before trying to claim some kind of kinship by familiarity. No disputing that they have awakened fascinating questions, historically, about trade and cultural exchange that make for lively chapters in the past. And yet I can’t warm up to Nicolson’s writing, because there is more to writing a convincing book than not being wrong.

On matters where we do disagree, it is by degrees of taste, rather than fact (apart from his astonishing translation of ‘Landnámabók’ as ‘Placenamebook.’ Why translate it at all, if you’re only going to do it by half, and get it wrong?). The description of landscapes as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ is so firmly lodged in binary oppositions as to appear lazy — as though the author couldn’t be bothered to think of something more original. To write, of an island, ‘This is not a female place,’ citing the lack of curtains over the windows, the hard rock and rough ground, is bafflingly simplistic and inaccurate. His later assessment, that women tend to dislike the Shiants because ‘they are so much more adult than men,’ blithely and utterly excludes female readers, who might otherwise have gained something from the book, an appreciation or affection for the islands, which appears to be his goal: perhaps he thinks that only men will read it. It’s a wearisome and ill-founded assumption, but the inaccuracy that I perceive is based on experience, while he no doubt would cite the same basis for forming his conclusion in the first place.

The histories over which Nicolson goes into rhapsodies do not leave me cold; I find the question of the Bronze Age torc just as fascinating as he does. But his interest in the thing itself, in its actual historical circumstances, is lost in the mist of poetic language he wreathes around it, in the giving way of curiosity before desire for a pretty image. Nicolson remarks lightly on the willingness of many to assign Viking origins to anything they possibly can, but shows, in the naming of his boat and the foggy notions of northness he sometimes displays, the same tendency towards idealisation. In some ways, this is useful to my own writing: recognising these flaws, and how they occur, makes me aware of the need to avoid them myself. I have favoured style over substance on enough occasions to take notice, and as I am resolved never to write anything that I wouldn’t want to read, this ought to be a suitable warning.

I was never expecting the book to be an academic work, nor did I want it to be. It sounded sufficiently interesting to spend some time on, and if I was wrong in guessing how well I would like it, at least it was never recommended to me by a friend or given as a gift outright. I have loved nature writing — Robert MacFarlane springs to mind — but if I have learned anything from ‘Sea Room,’ it is that such work must be handled wisely. The danger is in the usual spot: an author taking themselves too seriously, an enthusiast believing that their feelings will naturally translate to eloquence. There’s no denying that Nicolson is fond of the islands, nor that he feels that he belongs there, but for all his efforts, he never quite brings us there with him.