A Saunter With Thoreau, Walker Errant



From Jason Peters
Rock Island, IL

One of Thoreau’s most frequently quoted phrases—“in Wildness is the preservation of the World”—comes from an essay not frequently anthologized. First published in the Atlantic Monthly shortly after Thoreau died in 1862, “Walking” has been a darling of conservationists by dint of this favored quotation, and, true enough, the line enjoys a place of privilege in the essay. Thoreau leads into it with a specific pointing: “what I have been preparing to say is that …” and then he give us the banner phrase.

But the quotation is by no means the most felicitous quip in the essay and certainly not its salient theme. Thoreau had lectured on walking in the 1850s, and the title he ultimately assigned to the essay that emerged from those lectures was not “Wildness.” The title—for good reason—was “Walking,” and it can come as no surprise to anyone with Thoreau coursing through his veins that the discipline of walking turns out to be yet another thing that separates Walden’s sage from the mass of men who lead lives of quiet desperation.

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits,” Thoreau said, “unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

That other people’s “busy lifestyles” might preclude their sauntering this much each day is no cause for being uncharitable toward them; indeed, Thoreau whispers their praises: “When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having committed suicide long ago.”

Nor is it any cause for grumbling that all that walking might bring the same old landscapes too frequently into view: “Give me the old familiar walk,” Thoreau wrote in a journal entry from 1858, “post-office and all, with this ever new self, with this infinite expectation and faith, which does not know when it is beaten.”

This ever new self: such was a favorite motif and image for Thoreau, who in Walden warned us of enterprises that require new clothes and not a new wearer of the clothes. We are called to a “higher life than we fell asleep from,” he said, and “the man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life,” for “moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep.”

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One Comment

Hi, good post, I read this essay recently too. However, my impression was that Thoreau was being sarcastic towards mechanics and shopkeepers when he said they deserved credit for not killing themsleves.

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