The Tonic of Wilderness

In “Spring” Thoreau continues the vital job of reconciling science with his poetic vision of the world. He finds “life” even in Walden Pond itself:

Who would have suspected so large and cold and thick-skinned a thing to be so sensitive? Yet it has its law to which it thunders obedience when it should as surely as the buds expand in the spring. The earth is all alive and covered with papillae. The largest pond is as sensitive to atmospheric changes as the globule of mercury in its tube.

What scientists merely refer to as the laws of physics, Thoreau sees as a sign of a life force. In Thoreau’s world everything has a life of its own.

Most of us would surely see sand as inert matter, but he even finds signs of life in the patterns formed in the sand when hit by the sun:

What makes this sand foliage remarkable is its springing into existence thus suddenly. When I see on the one side the inert bank — for the sun acts on one side first — and on the other this luxuriant foliage, the creation of an hour, I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me — had come to where he was still at work, sporting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about. I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe, for this sandy overflow is something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body. You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it.

What most of us would probably only see as an interesting pattern, Thoreau sees as a basic principle of the operation of Nature:

Thus it seemed that this one hillside illustrated the principle of all the operations of Nature. The Maker of this earth but patented a leaf. What Champollion will decipher this hieroglyphic for us, that we may turn over a new leaf at last? This phenomenon is more exhilarating to me than the luxuriance and fertility of vineyards.

These patterns in the earth begin to take forms similar to trees and the veins of leaves, and Thoreau finds in this pattern signs of Nature, signs of the Oversoul.

We tend to think of the physical world as “dead” compared to the world of plants and animals, but not Thoreau:

The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit — not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic. Its throes will heave our exuviae from their graves. You may melt your metals and cast them into the most beautiful moulds you can; they will never excite me like the forms which this molten earth flows out into. And not only it, but the institutions upon it are plastic like clay in the hands of the potter.

Spoken like a true geologist! Ironically, his view of the world is much closer to the view of modern scientists, at least those who subscribe to the theory of plate tectonics, than his contemporaries would have been. In a very real sense, the earth is “alive” with forces constantly at work shaping and reshaping our planet’s geography.

It’s not surprising that someone who can get so caught up in geology would greet spring even more excitedly:

The first sparrow of spring! The year beginning with younger hope than ever! The faint silvery warblings heard over the partially bare and moist fields from the bluebird, the song sparrow, and the red-wing, as if the last flakes of winter tinkled as they fell! What at such a time are histories, chronologies, traditions, and all written revelations? The brooks sing carols and glees to the spring. The marsh hawk, sailing low over the meadow, is already seeking the first slimy life that awakes.

One can only suspect that spending a whole Eastern winter in a small cabin heated by a woodstove would make anyone excited about the onset of Spring, an effect not unknown to we who live through the long, cloudy, wet falls and winters of the Pacific Northwest.

And though I live in the Evergreen state and grass probably has a slightly different connotation for those of us foolish enough to plant expansive lawns, I, too, still look forward to the green grass of spring:

The grass flames up on the hillsides like a spring fire — "et primitus oritur herba imbribus primoribus evocata" — as if the earth sent forth an inward heat to greet the returning sun; not yellow but green is the color of its flame; — the symbol of perpetual youth, the grass-blade, like a long green ribbon, streams from the sod into the summer, checked indeed by the frost, but anon pushing on again, lifting its spear of last year’s hay with the fresh life below. It grows as steadily as the rill oozes out of the ground. It is almost identical with that, for in the growing days of June, when the rills are dry, the grass-blades are their channels, and from year to year the herds drink at this perennial green stream, and the mower draws from it betimes their winter supply. So our human life but dies down to its root, and still puts forth its green blade to eternity.

This paean to grass must surely call to mind the equally famous transcendentalist Walt Whitman, does it not? Published nearly a year before Whitman first published Leaves of Grass, it certainly makes us wonder how Whitman was affected by Thoreau’s powerful work or whether his ideas developed independently, especially considering that at various times Emerson considered both of them as potential American Scholars.

Thoreau expands the metaphor, or symbol as it were, to the general sense of rebirth that spring often symbolizes:

A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in winter while it is already spring. In a pleasant spring morning all men’s sins are forgiven. Such a day is a truce to vice. While such a sun holds out to burn, the vilest sinner may return. Through our own recovered innocence we discern the innocence of our neighbors. You may have known your neighbor yesterday for a thief, a drunkard, or a sensualist, and merely pitied or despised him, and despaired of the world; but the sun shines bright and warm this first spring morning, recreating the world, and you meet him at some serene work, and see how it is exhausted and debauched veins expand with still joy and bless the new day, feel the spring influence with the innocence of infancy, and all his faults are forgotten. There is not only an atmosphere of good will about him, but even a savor of holiness groping for expression, blindly and ineffectually perhaps, like a new-born instinct, and for a short hour the south hill-side echoes to no vulgar jest.

It seems it is in this sense of rebirth that Thoreau’s optimism is founded. It is the Christian concept of forgiveness, and consequent rebirth, recast in a transcendentalist metaphor

This optimism, though, is balanced against the realization that most people never take advantage of this new opportunity to redeem themselves:

A return to goodness produced each day in the tranquil and beneficent breath of the morning, causes that in respect to the love of virtue and the hatred of vice, one approaches a little the primitive nature of man, as the sprouts of the forest which has been felled. In like manner the evil which one does in the interval of a day prevents the germs of virtues which began to spring up again from developing themselves and destroys them.

According to this view, virtue and evil cannot coexist. Perhaps that explains why so much of the grass that began so vigorously in spring has often turned yellow by this time of year.

Thoreau’s observation of a graceful hawk again reminds me of Whitman’s barbaric yawp:

On the 29th of April, as I was fishing from the bank of the river near the Nine-Acre-Corner bridge, standing on the quaking grass and willow roots, where the muskrats lurk, I heard a singular rattling sound, somewhat like that of the sticks which boys play with their fingers, when, looking up, I observed a very slight and graceful hawk, like a nighthawk, alternately soaring like a ripple and tumbling a rod or two over and over, showing the under side of its wings, which gleamed like a satin ribbon in the sun, or like the pearly inside of a shell. This sight reminded me of falconry and what nobleness and poetry are associated with that sport. The Merlin it seemed to me it might be called: but I care not for its name. It was the most ethereal flight I had ever witnessed. It did not simply flutter like a butterfly, nor soar like the larger hawks, but it sported with proud reliance in the fields of air; mounting again and again with its strange chuckle, it repeated its free and beautiful fall, turning over and over like a kite, and then recovering from its lofty tumbling, as if it had never set its foot on terra firma. It appeared to have no companion in the universe — sporting there alone — and to need none but the morning and the ether with which it played. It was not lonely, but made all the earth lonely beneath it. Where was the parent which hatched it, its kindred, and its father in the heavens? The tenant of the air, it seemed related to the earth but by an egg hatched some time in the crevice of a crag; — or was its native nest made in the angle of a cloud, woven of the rainbow’s trimmings and the sunset sky, and lined with some soft midsummer haze caught up from earth? Its eyry now some cliffy cloud.

Though he has never claims it as his own symbol, it seems that this falcon could well serve as a symbol of Thoreau himself coming near the end of Walden. One could almost imagine Thoreau his “eyry now some cliffy cloud” looking down at we mortals wondering why we have yet learned to fly, still clinging to our possessions here on earth, weighted down, unable to even get off the ground.

Strangely enough we, too, can experience this exhilaration:

Ah! I have penetrated to those meadows on the morning of many a first spring day, jumping from hummock to hummock, from willow root to willow root, when the wild river valley and the woods were bathed in so pure and bright a light as would have waked the dead, if they had been slumbering in their graves, as some suppose. There needs no stronger proof of immortality. All things must live in such a light. O Death, where was thy sting? O Grave, where was thy victory, then?

But first we have to escape the confines of our offices and our homes to experience the light directly and not merely in a book or on a CRT screen, where life itself seems virtual.

Thoreau even instructs us on how to recapture this joy:

Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness — to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.

Little wonder environmental activists have adopted Thoreau as the head of their movement, for he, better than any other writer, seems able to articulate the spiritual basis for the environmental movement while capturing the joy that all of us who have trekked the wilderness have felt at one moment or another and relating it to our spiritual growth.