In 1839, fifteen years before Walden, Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) set out with his brother John to drift and row at leisure up two rivers in northern Massachusetts.
Gradually the village murmur subsided, and we seemed to be embarked on the placid current of our dreams, floating from past to future as silently as one awakes to fresh morning or evening thoughts.
Although the trip with his brother occurred in 1839, Thoreau didn’t write A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers until he was living at Walden, and after his brother died. The account is subsequently immediate and somewhat removed which allows Thoreau ample space to observe and philosophize.
By noon we were let down into the Merrimack through the locks at Middlesex, just above Pawtucket Falls, by a serene and liberal-minded man, who cam quietly from his book… With him we had a just and equal encounter of the eyes as between two honest men. The movements of the eyes express the perpetual and unconscious courtesy of the parties.
In this deeply reflective writing, Thoreau ponders the immediate and the detailed. He writes of religion, humanity, government and wilderness. He tries to make sense of the disruptive Industrial Revolution.
We often imagine Thoreau to be an anti-society advocate but that is a modern imposition. As the majority of society ceases to earn a living from the land, we’ve begun to see nature as something we enter or exit (Sylvain Tesson’s retreat to Siberia, for example), not something with which we coexist.
Thoreau, like his contemporary, Emerson and like Rachel Carson who wrote Silent Spring a century later, was interested in the threshold of nature, the point at which humans interact – hiking, fishing, hunting etc. – and how to keep that interaction balanced, sustainable.
Thoreau went into nature, surely, but he wasn’t a hermit. Thoreau was known to be quiet social at Walden (though he tired of the company) an even his sojourn along the Merrimack is primarily focused on people and their societal constructions.
The small houses which we scattered along the river at intervals of a mile or more, were commonly out of sight to us, but sometimes when we rowed near the shore, we heard the peevish note of a hen, or some slight domestic sound, which betrayed them. […] These humble dwellings, homely an sincere, in which a hearth was still the essential part, were more pleasing to our eyes than palaces or castles would have been.
Humility and austerity were critical features of the Transcendental movement, ones that are often overlooked in favor of the more splashy environmental aspects.
Transcendentalists believed that humans can figuratively transcend our daily lives and habits to a higher atmosphere, to something eternal, something outside our existence. Thoreau called it a great “Something.” Many words have been used for this (a few are gathered in A Singular Focus on the Eternal) Nature was a primary catalyst for such transcendence.
I turn to Emerson and Thoreau frequently for guidance. I wonder how they’d react to today’s world. The belief that man’s dignity was rooted in his associations with nature was a core value of the U. S. Founding Fathers and in 19th-century Transcendentalism. I think if Thoreau were alive today, the loss of that association – that people can exist without any connections or care for nature – would trouble him most.