Unattainable Wilderness In Walden

According to Thoreau, in order to attain a true connection with Wilderness, you will need to strip yourself of almost everything we have come to establish as normal and valued- possessions such as money, luxury, and even the acceptance of technology. A connection to Wilderness is represented as generally unattainable in Walden because of the extreme simplification of human life one must undertake to become closer to the land. This being so, Thoreau indicates how difficult it is for the wealthy to truly have a connection with the land, wilderness, and thus, themselves.

Thoreau argues that men cannot appreciate “[life’s] finer fruits” if they “are so occupied with the factitious cares and [superfluous] coarse labors of life” such as wealth, work, and luxury (Thoreau 7). In this way, Thoreau differentiates himself from the modern man and demonstrates how his lifestyle has brought him closer to nature than a civilized man could claim to be. Interestingly, Thoreau shows that the very luxuries men work their whole lives to obtain are, in actuality, “hindrances to the elevation of mankind” (Thoreau 13). He argues that we get wrapped up in consumption stating we will “surely not [want more of the same but rather] richer food, larger and more splendid houses …more numerous incessant and hotter fires, and the like” (Throreau 14). By always being consumed by wants we are brought farther away from all things natural and are not drawn to the organic lifestyle that Thoreau advocates for.

Thoreau does not make it easy for man to be connected with nature by any means. Who would want to adopt his meager lifestyle? He seems to imply that you are either living a bare “[simple] and [wise]” life and enjoying a relationship with wilderness or you are working your life away for material possessions that will drive you even further from nature- is there no middle ground in this extreme scenario (Thoreau 51)?  Although he claims it is not, Thoreau seems to write an “ode to dejection” claiming you must choose either one or the other when it comes to human interaction and luxuries and a relationship with Wilderness (Thoreau 60).

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

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by bharta1 on October 10, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    Yeah, wilderness appears to be very difficult to find, coming from Thoreau. Even though he lived his experiment in a ‘wilderness’ he was only a few miles from town and people came to visit him. Where do we delineate where wilderness begins? Irving thought the frontier marked the end of civilization, for Crevecoeur it may have been the woods or the first step off the farm. It’s a shame, the fervor and grit and beauty in Thoreau’s writing is restrained because he is immovable, gives himself no room for concessions and is extreme, radical even. And when it comes to the fact that he sets out no middle ground, his declaratives and proclamations sit ambivalently right there, in the middle. Thoreau’s sort of directionless stance on classism covers all the bases, the Eco-Marxist would laud him and then be totally appalled by him, and the same goes for the Social Ecologist.
    When he talks about living ‘voluntary poverty’ and the results is an onset of mental wealth, I was never too clear as to what that was like from Thoreau—to attain this ‘wilderness’ of the mind. Why must we be simple and intellectual and not just simple? I think he assumes all will be enlightened or enhanced when they begin to assimilate within nature. But the situation also seems to leave out both rich and poor because they’re both moving in the wrong direction and each as they become more and more distant, set in their ways, become less and less capable of grasping Thoreau’s prerequisites to get into the wilderness class. In fact, when he bought out the Irish squatters railroad shack, it reminded me a lot of modern gentrification where the poor are pushed out to some place of no origin.
    I think also too, this will probably come up a lot, is that if many or everyone were to heed Thoreau’s call back to wilderness, wouldn’t it become overrun and in doing this, revert back to exactly what he doesn’t want? It’s a bad hypothetical but the possibility is there, especially relating to Walking. His experiment at Walden Pond, however, shows the difficulties of what he was trying to do and it may not be possible.

  2. Dear Lindypeek,

    I completely agree with you on the fact that Henry David Thoreau believed that living a simpler life will get you closer to nature. However, I do not believe Thoreau wants us, the reader, to choose whether we live a luxurious lifestyle or a lifestyle connected to nature. Thoreau says “one young man of acquaintance, who has inherited some acres, told me that he thought he should live as I did, if he has the means. I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead” (Thoreau 53). It is evident that Thoreau claims that living a luxurious lifestyle make is harder to live closer to nature because we constantly have to worry about money and our houses. At the same time, Thoreau wants us to find our own way of living. He does not expect us to live to the expectation of our family or friends. Thoreau wants us to be wise enough to discern which path is life we go down. If people choose to follow Thoreau’s way of life then a lot of people will be unhappy because they will have endure hardships like maybe not finding shelter to find a place to rest, working so that they may buy their food, and walking from place to place. Thoreau places much emphasis on houses. According to Thoreau, poor people often buy their houses because it is cheaper for them, meanwhile rich people do not buy their houses because it will be too expensive. What I got out of this is that rich people tend to care more about the aesthetic component of a home too much. Rich people tend to have an image of being civilized. However, Thoreau views “the civilized man as a more experienced and wiser savage” (Thoreau 34). A civilized man might have a permanent place to stay and be wealthy but a wealthy man always wants more! Going back to what you said about being consumed about living a lavish lifestyle; one of the points Thoreau brings up is, freeing ourselves from this sort of condition. Thoreau’s solution is simplicity. “I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand…” (Thoreau 65). This life is too short to complicate our lives. He is not saying to let go of every care to be moderate and not focus on superficial things.

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

  3. Posted by bhough on October 12, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    I completely agree with the original post’s statements about man’s inability to connect with nature. Thoreau clearly wishes he could live in a society (or, if need be, remove himself from society) that could value nature as much more important. One point in ‘Walking’ where I thought this came through especially was when he discusses animals who ahve been civilized. He states: “I love to see domestic animals reassert their native rights,- any evidence that they have not wholly lost their original wild habits and vigor…” Throughout his writing, I found that Thoreau turned every statement he made into somehow yearning for nature’s simplicity and frowning upon civilized life.

  4. Thoreau’s example of becoming one with the wilderness is presented as tough and requiring a lot of discipline, but it is not unattainable. Who ever has a desire like the author to have a true connection to the wilderness and nature also has the energy and motivation to develop the discipline to live such a life. The cost of such a change in life is high, such as no technology, no luxuries, building everything by hand, and a long list of inconveniences, but the reward is worth it. Thoreau wanted to be different than the civilized men and he wanted a true relationship with nature that would not be tainted by the civilization around him. Thoreau did not want to be apart of a culture that was full of things he didn’t agree with, such as changing wardrobes based off of what someone else is wearing or going to school to be educated but never acquiring the skills and experience necessary. Thoreau wanted to live life instead of being told how to live by a set of cultural norms. Thoreau’s decision to develop a genuine relationship with the wilderness was solely for himself as can be seen in the fact that he didn’t beg anyone to join him. In conclusion, all the handwork and sacrifice that went into Thoreau’s experience was worth it because he did connect with nature and he did create a distance between the civilization he knew and his new life.

  5. Posted by teagueoreagan on October 13, 2011 at 2:53 am

    I recall reading that particular passage about what qualifies as “hindrances to the elevation of mankind” and it struck a particular chord (13). He says that …”access to a few books [ranks] next to necessaries” and says they can be acquired relatively inexpensively (13). Well I suppose they are relatively inexpensive if you have the luxury of disposable income. What could be more necessary in the “elevation of mankind” than an education to gain literacy and the expensive, complicated printing presses that create the books necessary to acquire “elevation” of mind? For without the presses books would cost a fortune and without a profit motive a great many writers would most likely never publish. What the hell does he know? He has already attained a certain level of enlightenment by standing upon a figurative step ladder of luxuries without which he would not even be able to pen such statements. He entirely negates the attainment of knowledge in his scheme of four necessities, saying access to a few books is good enough. He provides no room for sustainable intellectual growth in his ideology and then negates the luxury of being well-read and educated, as if he is pretending that the aforementioned figurative step ladder does not exist even as he is standing on it for the luxury of knowledge is locked away in his mind. Is not the incessant burning need of humans to constantly learn an admirable trait? He completely misses the immaterial luxuries that are vital for sustainable personal growth and necessary for the continuation of the species.

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