The Political Function of Nature in Thoreau’s Walden: “Walking”

In the chapter “Walking” excerpted from Walden, nature is depicted as an Edenic real separate from that which man normally inhabits, and is portrayed as having some inherent sacred meaning that is available only to a certain type of man with inborn capabilities. Throughout the chapter, Thoreau outlines his contradictory perspective of the wild environment, praising its spiritual value and advocating that it be accessible to all men, yet underscoring the exclusivity of the true capacity to interpret nature using his ideal framework to a select group.

He outlines a specific type of man in his writing called a Walker. This is one who possesses the ability to remember the minutest of details of nature walks from years ago; this man is not merely one who casually strolls through the woods on his way to the country store or, say, a woman who enjoys picking flowers for their beauty.

According to Thoreau, “No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence, which are the capital in this profession. It comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a Walker.” (Thoreau, 261)

This description of the idealized Walker is laden with political implications. For the sake of example–to say that one must possess a gift from God in order to appreciate public nature grounds is more subjective than to say the poor man who works the land with his hands can better appreciate it than the rich man who owns it, because he is more physically involved in its cultivation. Thoreau’s designation of a divinely selected class of “Walkers,” being defined by no objective political measurement system or standard, implies that the selection and labeling of these Walkers is entirely up to the author himself.

As a point of argumentative contrast, Thoreau later presents the idea that private landscape (ideally) ought not exist. He states, “the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom.” (Thoreau, 267) Ideologically, it seems as though the writer doesn’t quite know which position to take. He advocates for increased physical accessibility of the land while boldly claiming in a way akin to philosopher John Calvin (the author of the ideology of predestination) that it can only be truly appreciated by a few. By the end of the reading, I was convinced he was merely trying to carve out a special place for himself in nature rather than improve anyone else’s ability to appreciate the wilderness.

Thoreau, Henry D. Walden, Civil Disobedience and Other Writings. 3Ch./Art: Walden; Walking p5-70, 260-287. Pub. WW Norton 2008

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3 responses to this post.

  1. i think your last sentence gets close to understanding Henry’s’ writing. He writes about himself and his experience..if others understand his view then they might adopt his practices.

  2. Posted by bharta1 on October 10, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    Really good blog post. In the same way that Thoreau sets up his exclusive Church of The Walkers in Nature, he definitely cuts a difficult path to follow. Walking in nature is good, but only some can do it or are ‘ordained’ (I like that). And the people who walk on the highways have their blinders on and are ignorant or worse, they enjoy them more. As for the private property, which is negative, Thoreau also discussed how people are also vagrants and squatters in their own homes. No one, anywhere, is within the bounds of his kind of redemption. I could see a Marxist begin to raise an eyebrow when he displays the etymology of “sauntering” and everyone invariably is “but equally home everywhere.” But the Marxist would be disappointed because this ritualistic walking is so deeply rooted in individualism and the Marxist may shy away from the incendiary anarchism that one could project or derive from the text. I think you are right in assuming he is trying to find himself a niche to hole up in, and he does offer a slight apology for his narcissism in the beginning of Economy, that his experience is subjective and limited at that, as we all are limited. It is easy to criticize someone who may be egocentric, and today being so seems almost sinful, but to have conviction does take some ego. Resolution is the most beneficial when someone recognizes that they are apart of what they created, and acknowledge their self-worth. Thoreau gets one thinking about their own subjectivity and how wide or small their scope is. How open or closed off they can be. Here also could be the point where the cautious person might say, don’t let people start thinking about themselves, the streets will be rampant! It’s difficult to be all good and no bad or the other way around. He was shinning a light on himself to see what he could find and he had the bravery to commit to what he said and that, I think, is why his writing is so powerful when it really hits its mark.

  3. Posted by brightgirl04 on October 13, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    I thought it was interesting that you find Thoreau to be a selfish person who sees nature as a place for himself rather than help others learn to appreciate the wilderness. I do find Thoreau’s tone as rather pedantic. Thoreau finds civilized people too stupid to learn and appreciate all the wilderness has to offer.

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