Ripples from Walden Pond

by Jonathan Wallace

I love Thoreau but at the same time, I am so damn disappointed in him.

I first read Walden when I was in my twenties, a very appropriate time. My life had become a sort of railway train, rushing inexorably down the tracks from college to law school, a career and a certain kind of life with all the baggage and assumptions. Walden was one of those three or four books in a lifetime that bursts upon you like a revelation. You have the sense that the book is a monument created and then left in your path by someone who has already lived your life, has taken your inmost fears and your greatest challenges, placed them in some kind of philosophical order and then left you a half-decrypted explanation. Thoreau himself says in Walden, "How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book." Did he know or did he hope his own book would be one? Each of us is lucky to have a few books like this, to which we can keep returning as we grow and change, to confirm the insights we gained earlier and to discover new ones. I have turned to Walden at happy moments in my life, to help me understand and celebrate them. When I have suffered losses, Walden has helped console me and reconcile me to them as well.

Walden absurdly became a bone of contention between me and my father. When I was in law school, he became fearful that I would fail to apply myself to anything, but would flit from discipline to discipline, project to project, forever. He said to me one day: "I'm afraid you're becoming a dilettante." Later, when he saw me reading Thoreau, he snarled: "Thoreau was a dilettante." Apparently he felt he had gone too far, because sometime after that, he apologized, not in words, but by the gesture of purchasing me a woodblock print as a gift. It contained a quote from Thoreau about being young and hearing some wild note in the universe. Unfortunately, the artist had chosen to illustrate this precept with a depressing sketch of a dead bird. It was a horrendously ugly work and I put it away at the bottom of my closet, where, seventeen years after my fathers' death and in the process of moving from Brooklyn at last, I found it and threw it away.

I am proud to report that at age 52, I finally seem to have fulfilled my destiny, or the curse my father placed on me, of becoming a dilettante--and am proud to be one. In the years in between, after being a lawyer, I became a corporate executive, a part time journalist, an author of nonfiction books, a playwright and (in the last of several careers) an emergency medical technician on ambulances in New York City's 911 emergency system. During those years, I also defended Haitian refugees in deportation proceedings, taught children to use the web, drafted amicus briefs to the Supreme Court, mentored children as playwrights, was a driver for the Red Cross after 9/11, and volunteered for Safe Horizons working with beareaved families. Along the way, I also wrote a few novels and science fiction stories, and campaigned for freedom of speech on the Internet. I have a chance, before I am done, to leave no blowing leaf unchased.

Walden's most powerful message to me, though I was unable to do anything about it for years, was about the empty, mindless, repetitive nature of civilization, and the personal feelings of relief and liberation available to one who chooses not to participate.

For me, the first vivid image in Walden was that of the man with the farm on his back:

How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture and woodlot.

Note by the way what a well-turned sentence it is, rolling off the mind's tongue almost like blank verse: "poor immortal soul....well-nigh crushed and smothered" and "acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture and woodlot." Reread those last words in particular: each of the five items on Thoreau's list rings like a bell as it falls upon and crushes the poor soul responsible for pushing it all down the road.

Immediately after comes Thoreau's great thesis: "But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost." A few pages later, sounding his theme that we have lost touch with our lives, comes this resonant insight:

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live.

He despairs "of getting anything quite simple and honest done in this work by the help of men." Compare Isaiah Berlin's declaration that "of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made." Along my own pathway, I learned about human jealousy, politics, the quest for domination in every type of organization, and the plain bloody-minded stupidity and destructiveness of people. My own visual metaphor for our organized, civilized lives was the sand pit of a small insect predator known as an ant lion, which waits for ants to fall in and then devours them. Above the lion is a tangle of ants with two concerns: each one desires not to be eaten by the lion, but also wants to make certain no other ant escapes from the pit.

Not much further into the first chapter of Walden is perhaps his most famous statement, that "men have become the tools of their tools." Beginning in the 1980's, when I was a lawyer specializing in computer software, I began a life-long contemplation of the human relationship to technology, and recognized the truth of the assertion. "Technological determinism" is the proposition that humans create tools because they are possible, and then allow their lives to be structured and many times destroyed by these tools for no other reason than that they could be created. Nuclear weapons are of course still the prime example: first the mind figures out how to make one; then there is a race to make one, because if we do not, someone else will; then there all the consequences of having them, including the deaths and radiation from Hiroshima, the balance of fear during the extended cold war era, minds like Edward Teller feverishly justifying their existence by proposals that we use bombs to blast harbors in Alaska, and finally the fear that an Al Qaeda fanatic will bring one into Times Square in a suitcase. What is lacking throughout this saga is any sense of the human being as a moral actor, scanning the range of available choices and selecting only those technologies which are compatible with our moral goals. Global warming is also a tale of technological determinism; we have destroyed the climate because the technologies were possible that would do it, and seemed worth using at the time. I also find a minor instance of technological determinism in the current predilection among Iraqi insurgents to torture their victims with power drills before putting a bullet in their heads.

Thoreau then makes a statement which I have remembered every time a project of mine has come to nothing due to human malice and greed, for example when a company I founded and grew for five years was captured from me by a sort of modern corporate pirate:

Men have an indistinct notion that if they keep up this activity of joint stocks and spades long enough all will at length ride somewhere, in next to no time, and for nothing; but though a crowd rushes to the depot, and the conductor shouts "All aboard!" when the smoke is blown away and the vapor condensed, it will be perceived that a few are riding, but the rest are run over--and it will be called, and will be, "A melancholy accident".

Emblazon that one on your banner as you set out in life: "A few are riding, but the rest are run over". Think about the sheer number of human activities to which it applies. For example, the stock market, where the broker sells the shares on the first day and makes his money, to the institutional investor who flips the shares for twice what he paid, to a less sophisticated investor, who sells to the average person who believes that he will be able to game the system with the best of them. When the smoke clears, only the first two sellers, the broker and the institution, are likely to have made any money, and the last purchaser of the stock is "run over", having bought the stock for far more than it will ever be worth again. If you trace the chain of most human activities--not only wars but companies, universities, product launches, the publication of books, charitable campaigns, the activities of legislatures--you can look down the timeline for the moment where, inevitably, a human sacrifice occurs. There always comes a day when it seems "necessary", feels very convenient, to seize someone standing at your elbow and hurl him overboard (or even into the boiler), for that sense of momentary relief.

Walden is full of lines that toll like bells and can be extracted as wonderful aphorisms. But it is also notable for crazy, lovely language:

I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse fly, or a humblebeee. I am no more lonely than the Mill Brook, or a weathercock, or the North Star, or the south wind, or an April shower, or a January thaw, or

Wait for it--

the first spider in a new house.

Or try this:

I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travelers I have spoken concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who have heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.

And here is my favorite Thoreau mystification, which comes back to mind in every election year:

If the legislature regards [the existence of a pond], it is chiefly to regulate the number of hooks to be used there; but they know nothing about the hook of hooks with which to angle for the pond itself, empaling the legislature for a bait.

There is an obscure revolution, a fanaticism shining within the pure humor of those words.

Walden in addition to phrases of cynicism and despair, contains lines of optimism and hope. Just a few paragraphs after despairing that anything can be accomplished with the help of men, Thoreau says:

In the long run, men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.

More than any other, the passage I have turned to whenever I needed solace is the one occuring at the end of the book. First, Thoreau posits that "a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip..." Then comes his wonderful, mystic last paragraph:

I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. The sun is but a morning star. There is more day to dawn.

It is the Biblical blessing of "more life", the wish to find more, the knowledge that there is more life in us, Goethe's dying desire for "more light". I have turned to these words many times when I needed to remember that there is more life in me, that I am not done yet, that there is a mysterious spring within each of us which will run until it ends, in its own time, not bidden by any other. At age 52, as if I have lived backwards in time, I sense that the reservoir in the darkness is far greater than I ever knew it to be when I was twenty-two.

Thoreau goes wrong, I believe, when he states that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation". Anyone who has worked an ambulance in the Bronx can testify to the pleasure (and I mean innocent pleasure harming no-one) that people in desperate circumstances derive from companionship, each others' bodies, or a can of beer. I don't think even Thoreau would have criticized this, proponent of animal (if not sexual) comfort that he was. Perhaps he meant to say that the mass of wealthy men are desperate, having their barns and houses fixed upon their backs; but even that was wishful thinking. Donald Trump and the pirate who captured my company both seem to relish their existence.

My disappointment in Thoreau begins when I exit the four corners of the page and examine his life. This of course is a dangerous enterprise; nobody, not Shakespeare,Philip K. Dick or Thoreau, is as good outside the page, and it is a well known fallacy ever to judge the work by the life, rather than the other way around. But as I have aged, I have seen Thoreau more in perspective, as a man whose cabin in the woods was built in the most civilized, most sanitized woods available--one where Indians and large dangerous predators had been thoroughly eliminated. And that cabin of his was within walking distance of his mother's home, where he could go for meals if he got too hungry or lonely. I also had the experience of being poor, in 1981 and 1982, within walking distance of my parents' brownstone. In August of the latter year, I made only $75 the entire month--but raided their refrigerator whenever I couldn't buy food for myself.

In August 1980, a few months after graduating law school, I embarked on an adventure inspired by Walden, I walked three hundred miles on the Long Trail across Vermont, spending three or four days at a time alone in the woods without seeing another human. Although these were also sanitized woods without primitive tribes or large predators, I think now that during that time I may have gotten further away from civilization than Thoreau ever did at Walden Pond. There were many nights I wasn't in walking distance of anybody or anything.

In the 1840's, when Thoreau lived and wrote, there was a solitude more real, more dangerous, more testing of the adventurer, at the other end of the continent: woods where the possibility existed of being killed by Indians, by lawless white men, or by wolves or bears. Put in that context, Thoreau's solitude seems like a precious, childlike philosophical exercise, a sort of mental toy. Thoreau wrote his famous summation of the theme of Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived.

This is beautiful language, but given how short the physical arc Thoreau traveled from civilization, easily succumbs to parody:

I went out on my back lawn because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived.

It isn't really fair to be disappointed with Thoreau. If he had gone to Montana instead of Walden Pond, he would have had to be a different, and in his own mind, lesser person: he might have had to kill to live, to ensure his own enjoyment of the solitude. That wasn't who he wanted to be. But nowhere in Walden is there any conscioousness that he is only able to enjoy his woods because others killed for him.

It is a very interesting phenomenon that the people who went West and did the killing, the ones who as a consequence lived in true grandeur and terror, produced nothing remotely approaching Walden as literature. I suppose you can kill or you can write, but not both.

Similarly, Thoreau's famous night in jail for a matter of conscience is laughable placed next to the experience of people like Nelson Mandela, who sacrificed and suffered far more than Thoreau ever had to (or ever would have dared to, I suspect).

The most recent decision I made which was inspired by Walden (I hope not the last one of my life) was to work on ambulances. I have worked in the New York City 911 system for five years in order to front the essential facts of life, and not to discover at the end I've never lived.