Posts Tagged ‘politics’

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


Wilderness as a Political Frame: The Reluctant Hero

I once heard a description of the “Reluctant Hero” – he is the most revered figure in storytelling, because he is the one who is charged with a noble mission, but he is forced to do so out of duty. His humility is his royalty. Luke Skywalker, Neo Anderson, Harry Potter, and the list goes on.

I experience Washington Irving as the Reluctant Hero. He has been prodded and cajoled into writing about his travels. And so in his introduction, he acknowledges that he has been demanded to write, and so as a reader we know that Irving is aware that many shall read his writings immediately upon publication. His readers are in the palm of his hands. What is even more alluring is that Irving seems to have no agenda; after all, he writes that “it is a simple narrative of every day occurrences” (9). Irving writes as a quiet man, a man who observes all, much as the Indians will observe the white man.

And yet, upon closer observation of Irving himself, one could deduce that he is a liberal writing for a conservative audience. He sides with the Indians, not the white man; the wild prairie, not the pastoral farm. He never forces his ideas upon others, but he slips them in. Nature – and those who live in tandem with nature – is the frame in which he poses his  ideas.

Irving’s writing is soft and subtle, but his political attitude is also soft and subtle. His views on Indians are made quite clear in the simple way he describes their beauty as “figures of monumental bronze,” while one of the white men that they encounter is described as a “tall raw-boned old fellow.”

When Irving’s traveling party encounters an Indian, they invite him to accompany them on their travels. Upon a moment’s notice, the Indian agrees, and Irving comments that “We are a society of slaves, not so much to others as to ourselves; our superfluities are the chains that bind us, impeding every movement of our bodies and thwarting every impulse of our souls” (34). His words declare quite boldly that society with its trappings is a prison – that nature is the escape, and that those who live within nature are free, such as this young Indian. These are the “figures of monumental bronze” – beautiful in their freedom to roam. And yet he immediately follows such a declaration with, “Such, at least, were my speculations at the time.” He allows the immediate experience to dictate his ideas, thereby disowning any political commentary. He allows his reader to draw his or her own conclusions about nature and society.

But of course, Irving knows that he is the Reluctant Hero, and people want to believe a hero.

Question 4: Nature’s Value in Politics

Reading the journals and letters of the Expedition of Lewis and Clark enlightened me to the fact that nature was represented in the first few years of the 1800s as a means to show respect and gain personal and political connections.  Lewis and Clark were mapping out the unknown areas of the North American continent, and while much of what they discuss in their journals and letters is regarding the nature and surroundings of the areas they visited, many of the aspects are strongly inter-connected with political ideologies and the complex, and often volatile, relations between nations.

Within the readings, there were many instances that showed the way nature is used politically, but I will delve into two that stood out to me particularly. The first occurs in Lewis’ journal of the journey, in the submission dated July 18th, 1805. As Lewis describes a river the crew comes across, he states “this handsome bold and clear stream we named in honor of the Secretary of war calling it Dearborn’s river” (Lewis 159). This statement, although written in a personal journey, has as much to do with describing the river as it does complimenting a man of high authority within the United States government. By simultaneously describing Secretary Dearborn and the river as “handsome bold and clear” Lewis is able to get in good graces with those in power and effectively do the job he was set out to do (documenting the sights and people of the then-uncharted portions of the American continent). Clearly, in this use, Lewis had personal motives, and he used nature as a means to achieve what he needed.

The second instance in which nature is used politically and as a means for personal gain occurs in the instruction letter Jefferson writes to Lewis on June 20, 1803. In this letter, Jefferson describes the relations with countries of Europe, and how these countries are handling the Lewis and Clark expedition. He describes how Lewis and Clark should handle relations with British citizens on the American continent: “[protection] from the minister of England will entitle you to the friendly aid of any traders of that allegiance with whom you may happen to meet” (Jefferson 61). This statement provides very interesting insight into the relations between nations of the day; only 25 years prior England and what would soon become the United States were at war. By the early 1800s, though, England is putting their faith and contributions behind an American enterprise, largely for the knowledge of what the rest of the American continent consists of. By offering the British something of value, the United States is able to better themselves as well. This instance, coupled with the one described before, shows that nature can be used in a multitude of ways, for both political and personal gain.



Jackson, Donald, ed. “47. Jefferson’s Instructions to Lewis.” Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition /with Related Documents. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962. Print.

Lewis, Meriweather and William Clark. “Journal Entry July 18, 1805.” The Journals of Lewis and Clark.  Ed. Bernard De Voto. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1953. Print.