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.

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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.

‘Nor any drop to drink’

I woke up several times last night, gasping for a drink of water. The cold I’ve had for the past two weeks has kept me dehydrated, constantly thirsty, feeling dry and withered. Water has been there, straight from the tap, cold and clean, and I have appreciated it more than on an ordinary day. I have needed it more.

When I have gone out, walked around town, or headed to the university campus, I have resented the lack of water fountains, the effort that must be made for that vital drink. I have resented it more because of my increased need, but even when I am well, and drink water roughly as often as a camel in the desert, this is something that I notice, and that bothers me, in that quiet, nagging way that important things often do.

When I have stayed in, and read news articles about the protesters at Standing Rock striving to protect clean water, I have resented everything about the moral and cultural desert that the pipeline represents: water being taken so much for granted that it takes a group of people putting themselves at risk to make the world see the value it possesses.

Water is sold in bottles from supermarkets, cafes, airplane trolleys. It is labelled with whichever location or environment will make it sound purer, and therefore more posh, regardless of its actual origins. In Denmark, by law, if you ask for tap water in any dining establishment, they must give it to you, free of charge, yet twice now I have been told it will cost extra. So, in one sense, we do understand the value of water, its worth as a commodity and a product to be made attractive and then sold. In that sense, it is no different from Coke.

On any given map of a country, bodies of water are blanks, negative space to balance out the tangle of names and boundaries, but these names are likely to be thickest right beside them. The maps of most cities feature at least one major water body, around which the city flows, around which it began. The cartographic value of water is distinct from its commercial one, in that it can constitute an unnoticed focal point, an artery through the jumble of city streets.

Clean drinking water is not usually a priority for urban or road maps, which focus on showing you how to get around: if you need to cross it, avoid it, or swim in it, the map will let you know, but for drinking, you’re on your own. Still, camping maps will indicate where clean drinking water can be found. Smaller maps, of museums or shopping centres, for example, occasionally include indications of water fountains. In my work this summer, I asked twelve- and thirteen-year-olds how much they knew about water, and where they thought drinking water came from. The concept of a ‘watershed address’ redrew the map, allowed them to put water at the centre of their personal geographies, rather than at the periphery. It also meant that they saw water systems as interconnected, the effects of their actions upon them as far-reaching.

What those at Standing Rock know about water is that it is necessary for life. They know that it is constantly in motion, and affects immense areas. And they are aware that to risk poisoning it should be abhorrent to all people in all places. There are many people who should know that already, but for whom water is too invisibly embedded in the landscape. It is there, it has always been there, it is assumed always to be there. As on the map it is a blank, open space, in everyday life its value is overlooked, because, for most of us, there is no struggle to find it.

When water becomes valued as a person’s need instead of a consumer’s desire, the thought of putting it at such risk will be recognized as indefensible. When clean drinking water becomes more than an abstract right, protecting the watershed will in turn be an evident and practical goal. There may even, with any luck, be drinking fountains at the university.

‘Cool your codpiece!’

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to see actors in the Renaissance making it up as they went along. On Sunday I at last had the chance, or at least the chance to come as near to it as we moderns will likely be allowed to. ‘Read Not Dead,’ a monthly series of rarely-seen plays from Shakespeare’s contemporaries, is being presented as part of the Shakespeare 400 celebrations — commemorating his death in 1616. The actors are presented with the script early in the morning, prepare their lines and actions during the day, and by evening, are ready to read before the public.

I knew that it would be a reading, but I was surprised by the level of dynamism with which each actor nonetheless infused their role. Action kept the play moving along, and the timing and coordination of each entrance and exit was nearly always exact. In the intimate setting of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a building that feels tall due to its close circumference, the unpolished nature of this energetic performance shone.

Tim McInnerny plays Antonio, the lead, whose beautiful wife Maria is the object of lusty admiration from Mercury, his closest friend. Intent on allowing their intimacy, he adopts an oddly complicated plot to bring them together. (Those who remember McInnerny from Blackadder may wonder if he adopted one of Baldrick’s cunning plans.) Maria catches on quickly, and as the frustrated Mercury cries ‘He that invented honesty undid me!’ the couple deceive each other in an uneven battle of wits, Antonio brilliantly outmatched.

Meanwhile, a familiar setup of secret elopement, parental disapproval, and riotous friends provides another plot, which meets the first in occasional places. Viola and Ricardo’s escape from her father’s watchful eye goes awry when Ricardo gets drunk with his crowd of ne’er-do-wells on the very night he is to meet her. The young woman’s subsequent misadventures are comical, but not without a touch of pathos, at the thought of how easily they could have been avoided. They are also infused with an uncomfortable reality: Viola’s beauty and virtue may be her greatest assets, but they are also her greatest risks. Greed and lust are around every corner, something that must have rung too true to women even in its own day. Luckily, having run off with a handful of jewels, she can pay off any unsavoury characters, but her danger and fear as a young woman alone at night is treated as genuine — she has nowhere to go, after she flees her father’s house.

Being an English play of the Renaissance, Irish accent jokes abound, bawdy drinking scenes (and subsequent pain and regret) are played with panache, and letters are the source of both jokes and embarrassment. More unusually, there is no clear antagonist — the characters are, by and large, in conflict with themselves, whether it is Mercury’s sense of honour, or Ricardo’s excessive love of drink. In the end, Antonio, Maria, and Mercury settle things happily, and Ricardo finds Viola and is not instantly, but quickly, forgiven. The occasional stumble or throw-in line added a touch of improvisation, and quick plays to the audience add to the humour.

Would the same performance, however well-executed, have worked in another venue? It’s difficult to say, as the theatre is possessed of its own character which works its way into the lines. Seated in the upper gallery, directly above the stage, we had an imperfect view, but were able to follow the action. The Jacobean look of the room worked to the show’s advantage, with the real sense of reviving something directly from its original time, not of brushing off the dust and trying to make out its faded letters, but of winding it up and setting it once more in motion.

There are several reasons why such a play might not have been performed much in its day. The plot of eloping lovers gone wrong had been played out before, and far more sympathetically. The moral that adultery with knowing consent can be encouraged was likely met with skepticism, at best, condemnation at worst. Finally, the ploy to bring Mercury and Maria together seems needlessly tangled, though comical all the same. It is a play that might not be overdue its triumphant revival, that may well lose a bit of its tumbling charm through excessive polishing. Perhaps a lively, half-rehearsed, script-in-hand edition shows The Coxcomb at its best.

Returning

It has been four years since I visited Lund, and then it was only for a weekend. The circumstances are not unfamiliar, though — I have come from Iceland, on an early flight, and I will be visiting the same relatives, whom I have not seen since that first visit. The sense is the same, too — of relief — glad that I have found myself in this warm, sunny southern Swedish city after months in the more rugged Reykjavik. Here, at last, it feels like spring!

What has changed in four years, in my circumstances? I am no longer under the illusion that my finances are endless. I travel now with more purpose, and more aim. I am also more inclined to fret. Did I have a plan last time? Was I really only making it up as I went? Yes — but I didn’t mind. My school plans and my ideas of fun have changed, and my grandfather, the link to these relatives, has died. There are distinct differences in this sense.

Like last time, I am running short on sleep, with an early flight giving me a strong need for caffeine. But instead of having had a late night due to a long picnic and revelry with friends, last night I stayed awake trying to seek reassurance after attacks at the airport in Brussels gave me an uneasy feeling about flying. I flew into Copenhagen, but traveled independently to Lund, taking the smooth, efficient train, rather than being picked up. Even though the reason for this is sad (my cousin’s failing eyesight), it is a pleasant train ride, and I had time to enjoy the scenery and wake up a little before arriving. Coming in on my own also meant that I could see the city before meeting up with family, and I am writing from a cafe that I think could become a favourite were I to stay here any longer.

I think the people at the table across from me are foreign students. By the sounds of it they are not here on exchange, but the conversation is in English, so I would guess they are from different places, taking their degrees in Lund. When I last visited I was considering a degree here myself. Now the hope is that my sister will come here on exchange next year. The same — but different.

The feeling of a return is pleasantly nostalgic, but it is still mostly a new city to me. One weekend is not enough to see everything, and having more time is an exciting prospect. I believe it is time to explore!

Shore Mornings

There are times that are good for thinking, and early morning is one of them. My walks are becoming less and less like early morning, with the sun strengthening each day, and although I go out at the same time I do not see the same scene now as I did two weeks ago. It is still, however, empty enough to think, and to let myself wonder about things as I would not if I were inside my room. There is a time and place to concern myself with the practical and immediate.

A few days ago, there was a storm. It should not be so frightening, to have a storm with no thunder, lightning, threat of funnel clouds — yet the wind, on its own, was enough to chase the people from the streets, and nearly enough to keep me indoors. Even then, the sound of it never ceased, and the force of it shook the walls. All across the bicycle path there were stones and seaweed, heaved up from the beach by the force of the wind. With the wind at my back I could barely see for flying hair, but with it straight into my face, I was blinded by rain and the effort to move against it. It has calmed now, but for two days, it was nearly impossible to walk down the street.

Walking in the morning also makes me consider the things that I would like to do in a day, regardless of whether I plan to, or whether, even if I did, I could find the time to make those plans happen. I have been lax, lately, on my Welsh lessons. I have been thinking of that, without the pressing need to do them immediately. But they have had the chance to flit into my mind, during these walks, when I’m mulling over conversations had. I keep coming across people, primarily English, who wonder why on Earth I would choose to do Welsh. The word ‘useless’ is not excluded from their assessment. So, why do I do them?

There is the simple answer: no knowledge is completely useless. However, I would not class Welsh with trivia or party tricks, which are limited in their interest and useful only in certain moments. Welsh is a living, if not a commonly spoken, language, and that alone is reason enough to learn it. To my understanding it shows respect for a culture, any culture, to learn to speak their language, and it opens new possibilities in literature, which go beyond translation (I haven’t reached this or anywhere close to it, but in principle, it is a good argument). It would, in the limited sense of the word ‘useful,’ allow me to work in translation or interpretation between English and Welsh.

When I read Tolkien’s essay ‘English and Welsh’ last year, and came across the real reason, it was incredible. His first and most prominent suggestion for why English people ought to learn Welsh was simply ‘because Welsh is beautiful.’ There was more after that, of course, but that was the phrase that stood out. Would you believe it was a revelation to me? I knew that I had been learning because it was beautiful, but it had seemed an embarrassingly sentimental reason. Yet reading that essay, I think I saw the sense in it because it was not only me who thought that reason enough — it only makes no sense if one looks at language purely as a utility, something to communicate, whereas anyone who has seen ‘Dead Poets Society’ knows that it exists to woo women! (Or, presumably, men.) I started thinking about music, about painting, about everything that people do for reasons other than their daily work, and enjoy as more than tools. Why is it stranger to learn Welsh than to learn to play the harpsichord? The harpsichord can make fine notes, and Welsh can make fine words. I find it a beautiful language — and, by and large, we study what we find beautiful.

I Can See It Again

For the past several months, I have been trying to find my footing in Iceland. It’s not a matter of falling in love with the country or failing to, rather it is a case of trying to find my place here. Though the things that are keeping me here are temporary, I want to make the reasons for staying for any length of time clear and plausible, and to make the stay itself enjoyable. What am I doing here, and what does it mean to me? Doesn’t everyone ask that?

I’ve been pondering the question, but coming to the same lack of an answer all this semester. The returning daylight notwithstanding, I have been discontent, even morose, about it all. Taking a weekend to visit a friend who runs the Icelandic Emigration Center in Hofsos was a much needed break, but also a necessary change of perspective.

Hofsos, a tiny town, houses a proportionally immense museum. I spent two days just wandering through its buildings, and I could have gone back and seen more, or at least read it over again the better to remember it. Larger than expected, as well, are the mountains, the views unobstructed for miles and miles as the sun turns the snow pink, gold, or blue. Every morning, I went for a walk before devoting myself to the Center for the rest of the day, or to reading, as it really was cold and I could have read by the window with a hot drink for longer than I care to admit. The colours and the purity of the light were unlike what I have seen here, and it was quiet, but for the waves and the birds!

Though I still can hardly call myself at home in Reykjavik, there was something about the north, and the hospitality of its people, the clear lines of the mountains against a starry sky, and the morning sun on the black beach, that served as a reminder. This place is beautiful, and rich in stories. There is so much to see, and to learn, beyond the daily rounds of campus.