What’s the Sound of Alone

As an INTP, I’m quite familiar with "Solitude," and, like Thoreau, I often seek out solitude to deal with my inner feelings. Some people like to talk out their feelings. Me, I like to walk alone and figure out what I’m really feeling or try to deal with the emotions before I have to deal with people. In fact, I doubt that I would have ever been able to resolve some problems without time alone to contemplate them.

While Thoreau strives to show a connection between solitude and nature, he probably had this desire for solitude long before he moved to Walden Pond:

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert.

Considering that every single English teacher at the school I taught at was an Introvert, one suspects that the desire to read may play a large role in determining whether or not people seek solitude, certainly a larger role than an appreciation of nature.

And if one is more concerned with ideas than with social interaction, it’s not unlikely that everyday social interactions can be seen as a burden rather than as a blessing:

Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable and that we need not come to open war.

Only a true introvert, though, would find “etiquette and politeness” a burden.

As if to show that he is not a misanthrope, Thoreau does describe a few people he was happy to have regular contact with while staying at Walden Pond.

An elderly dame, too, dwells in my neighborhood, invisible to most persons, in whose odorous herb garden I love to stroll sometimes, gathering simples and listening to her fables; for she has a genius of unequalled fertility, and her memory runs back farther than mythology, and she can tell me the original of every fable, and on what fact every one is founded, for the incidents occurred when she was young. A ruddy and lusty old dame, who delights in all weathers and seasons, and is likely to outlive all her children yet.

One suspects, though, it is her “genius of unequalled fertility” that makes her so welcome in Thoreau’s world.

Perhaps it was passages like the following that so made me feel a kinship with Thoreau when I first read him so many years ago:

What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another. What do we want most to dwell near to? Not to many men surely, the depot, the post-office, the bar-room, the meeting-house, the school-house, the grocery, Beacon Hill, or the Five Points, where men most congregate, but to the perennial source of our life, whence in all our experience we have found that to issue, as the willow stands near the water and sends out its roots in that direction. This will vary with different natures, but this is the place where a wise man will dig his cellar….

For some of us, there is a need, at least at times, to feel free of others, to stand alone and take in nature itself. It’s the kind of westering feeling that made men in the 1850’s pick up their lives and head west, seeking out their true place in the universe.

Thoreau went to Walden Pond as much for the solitude as he did for the sense of nature:

I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself. At night there was never a traveller passed my house, or knocked at my door, more than if I were the first or last man; unless it were in the spring, when at long intervals some came from the village to fish for pouts — they plainly fished much more in the Walden Pond of their own natures, and baited their hooks with darkness — but they soon retreated, usually with light baskets, and left "the world to darkness and to me," and the black kernel of the night was never profaned by any human neighborhood.

Keeping in mind that Thoreau was never quite as isolated as he seems to suggest, he was after all, a short walk from Concord, many people would still feel cut off and isolated in this kind of environment:

I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was something unpleasant.

For Thoreau, nature seemed to provide a sense of companionship that most people associate with being around other people:

Yet I experienced sometimes that the most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man. There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still.

To me, this sense of oneness with nature seems perfectly normal, and I’m surprised when people say they don’t like to hike alone, that they like to hike in a group. Perhaps that is because, like Thoreau, I often feel a kind of presence in nature:

I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary, and also that the nearest of blood to me and humanest was not a person nor a villager, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.

You don’t need to be alone to get this kind of feeling. In fact, I sometimes get exactly the same feeling in Portland’s Japanese Gardens surrounded by people who feel exactly the same way I do. However, I do think you’re more likely to be aware of this feeling when you’re alone.

Standing alone in nature is also when one is most apt to make another discovery:

I only know myself as a human entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I than it is you.

This is precisely the presence that Whitman seems to celebrate in Song of Myself, the sense of “otherness” often describes in meditation books. It is the “out of body experience” some claim to have experienced in near-death experiences. For Thoreau, though, it seems to be the experience of the Oversoul.

Diane’s Photo of Walden Pond

Walden, Chapter five Solitude

Because Thoreau recognized he was living a unique life on Walden Pond, away from the village and by himself, he quiets people’s concerns about loneliness. By the time I finished reading this chapter,I was ready to leave the village myself and find my own Walden Pond.

Thoreau expresses his delight in being part of the natural universe “when the body is one sense…I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature…”

Returning from one of his evening walks, he finds he has had visitors who leave touching calling cards made of leaves and twigs–a bouquet of flowers, a wreath of evergreen on his cabin table. He is pleased someone has come to see him, but he does not feel disappointment that he has missed his callers.

He continues to explain the source of his serenity.

There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still…it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they [other people] beyond any deserts that I am conscious of.

Only for only hour did Thoreau feel lonely and that he chalks up to an insanity.

I have never felt lonesome or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but one, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhoods of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was something unpleasant. But I was at the same time conscious of a slight insanity in my mood, and seemed to foresee my recovery.

For Thoreau it was more important to be near the perennial source of life, rather than to any man or his institutions–the depot, the post-office, or the barroom.

For the most part we allow only outlying and transient circumstances to made our occasions.

To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

Thoreau argued that we are never alone, really, if we will but recognize how we are a part of nature.

So also, owing to bodily and mental health and strength, we may be continually cheered by a like but more normal and natural society, and come to know that we are never alone.

Two people visit Thoreau regularly. Their appearances are somewhat mystical, and I’m not convinced they really exist. One visitor is an old settler, the original proprietor who is reported to have dug Walden Pond. “…he is thought to be dead, [but] none can show where he is buried.”

The second visitor is “an elderly dame…invisible to most persons,” who keeps an herb garden Thoreau enjoys. She tells him the origins of myths.

One more statement to convince us Thoreau never felt lonely away from his compatriots.

Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?

Nature is the healing force.

What is the pill which will keep us well, serene, contented? Not my or thy great-grandfather’s, but our great-grandmother Nature’s universal, vegetable, botanic medicines, by which she has kept herself young always,,,For my panacea, instead on one of those quack vials of a mixture dipped from Acheron and the dead Sea,…let me have a draught of undiluted morning air.

I am convinced Thoreau truly believed he was an integral part of the natural world that surrounded him at Walden Pond, and this belief warded off any loneliness he might have felt living away from the village.

Diane McCormick