Posts Tagged ‘thoreau’

Spirituality of nature in Emerson’s “Nature” and Thoreau’s “Walking

I chose this topic for my final paper because I found Emerson and Thoreau to be the most interesting authors we have read this semester. I found their writings on the religious aspects of nature to be the most interesting because they incorporated aspects of Christianity into their transcendental ideals. They also seemed to have a more open interpretation of religious morals and where those can be found. Nature served as the incarnation of God on Earth as well as a place of worship in their writings. I want to focus mainly on the “Spirit” chapter in Emerson’s “Nature” and the beginning of Thoreau’s “Walking”. Emerson explains his thoughts on the spirituality of nature in his chapter titled “Spirit” which would be my main focus. Thoreau likens nature to God and Heaven in the beginning of “Walking” which would be another focus of my paper.

1. How do the authors combine aspects of Christianity with their perspective of nature?
2. Do the authors see nature as the incarnation of God, a place of worship, or both?
3. How does “human nature” play a role in the authors’ interpretation of morality?

Question 3: Burroughs’ criticism on Thoreau

After reading “A Critical Glance into Thoreau” by John Burroughs, Burroughs views Thoreau as “a dreamer, an idealist, a fervid ethical teacher, seeking inspiration in the fields and woods” (Burroughs 487). That quote simply establishes a general ground for all of those people who label themselves nature writers. Generally speaking, every Nature-writer escapes into nature and away from civilization to find a deeper connection to Nature or connect things that occur in Nature to human emotions. At the same time, Burroughs see’s Thoreau as “not a great philosopher, he was not a great naturalist, he was not a great poet, but as a nature- writer and an original character, he is unique in our literature” (Burroughs 488). This is where I disagree with Burroughs. A person who raises moral questions or proposes a new theory can be classified as a philosopher. Thoreau addresses the busy lifestyle. People can get consumed with the idea of getting rich, or always trying to have more but Thoreau says we should live a simple lifestyle. “I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand, instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail” (Thoreau 293). Thoreau may not have been a great naturalist but Thoreau did call to attention economy, the value of money in the lives of human beings and true knowledge. In essence, “Thoreau was in no sense an interpreter of Nature… but if he sees anything unusual in Nature, like galls on trees and plants, he must need to draw some moral from it and indulge his passion for striking expression and fantastic comparison, usually at the expense of the truth” (Burroughs 489). Thoreau simply does not criticize an issue but offers a solution. In Walking, Henry David Thoreau says “I rejoice that horses and steers have to be broken before they can be made the slaves of men, and that men themselves have some wild oats left to sow before they become submissive members of society” (Thoreau 306). If a person simply nods in agreement with what Thoreau said then they might not understand the subliminal message. Horses are naturally wild animals but in order to be tamed and domesticated they first must be broken by the owner. One technique some use to tame a horse is they usually tie the leg of a horse until the horse is tired and then the owner gently stokes a horse so that the horse knows it is safe. Similarly in society, we have norms. If a person does not “fit” the norm then society as a whole will make sure he or she becomes like everyone else. Thoreau’s message is simple. Everyone has a natural wild spirit to them. Society sets the norms of how to act. We should not be easily submissive to what others expect of us but just be individuals. Therefore, Burroughs is correct to criticize Thoreau for not incorporating so much Nature and human emotions but Burroughs should reevaluate his criticism for Thoreau not being a philosopher or an interpreter of Nature. Thoreau’s examples do incorporate Nature and human beings as well as offer insight about how to live a better life.


Thoreau, Henry D. Walden Civil Disobedience and Other Writings. 3Ch/Art: Walden; Walking p. 5-70, 260-287. pub. WW Norton 2008

Mazel, David (ed). A Century of Early Ecocriticism. Ch./Art Excerpt p. 26-47. pub. University of Georgia Press 2001

Wilderness in “Walking” as Eden and Freedom

In Henry David Thoreau’s “Walking”, wilderness is likened to Eden. Thoreau sees the wilderness he walks through as the true destiny of man. Civilization, in Thoreau’s mind, is a false way of living that destroys man’s soul. Thoreau calls wilderness “the Holy Land” and calls himself a “knight of a new, or rather an old, order”. This shows how Thoreau believes that true happiness is to be found in the wilderness and not in the societies created by man. This can also be seen in his quote, “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps” which shows his affinity for all forms of nature not just the beautiful parts.
Thoreau also considers wilderness to be freedom in his essay “Walking”. By leaving the village behind to go walk in the woods made Thoreau feel free from all of his civilized worries and responsibilities. Even domestic animals are able to be reclaimed by nature by breaking the bonds of domesticity. Thoreau describes the escape of his neighbor’s cow as “any evidence that they have not wholly lost their original wild habits and vigor; as when my neighbor’s cow breaks out of her pasture early in the spring and boldly swims the river, a cold, gray tide, twenty-five or thirty rods wide, swollen by the melted snow”. This shows how he feels that it is always possible for man to free himself and become a part of nature again. The instincts that are inside of every living creature compel them to return to nature and live freely in paradise.

The religious parallels of Thoreau’s Walking

Henry D. Thoreau’s Walking contains religious parallels with wilderness representing paradise as he describes when he walks through the wilderness, “in the midst of paradise” (264).  Thoreau’s references to Adam and paradise, “As a patriot, I should be ashamed to think that Adam in paradise was more favorably situated on the whole than the backwoodsman in this country” (272), to demonstrate that the primitive woodsmen are more connect with nature through wilderness than Adam.  The argument Thoreau is conveying is that paradise was primitive before the arrival of Adam; paradise inNorth America is represented by the primitive wilderness not yet influenced by man who Adam represents.  Once Adam is introduced into paradise, man arrives inNorth America and the fall of man must occur.  This is represented by man developing the wilderness with greed and expansion being represented as Satan, “in the midst of paradise.  I looked again, and saw him standing…surrounded by devils…I saw that the Prince of Darkness was his surveyor” (264).  Another reference to Adam and the fall of man is discussed by Thoreau about man’s ignorance compared to man’s desire for knowledge:

A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful while his knowledge, so called, is oftentimes worse than useless besides being ugly.  Which is the best man to deal with,—he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it but thinks that he knows all? (282)

This passage represents that it is knowledge and greed that separates man from paradise of wilderness and just as Satan tricked Adam and Eve into eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge which lead to their banishment of paradise, it is knowledge that man possesses that separates them from the primitive paradise of wilderness.


Thoreau, Henry D. Walden, Civil Disobedience and Other Writings. 3Ch./Art: Walden; Walking p5-70, 260-287. Pub. WW Norton 20080

Wilderness in Thoreau’s “Walking”

Wilderness in Thoreau’s Walking is portrayed as a pure, Eden-like world where the landscape is not tainted by civilization. He finds joy in walking through Nature and never coming across any signs of civilization. Thoreau feels his day is not complete unless he walks through the wilderness at least once a day. Nature in the “New World” seems brighter, more colorful, and the heavens infinitely higher in the eyes of Thoreau. He considers a human that is closest to nature to be the most alive. “How near to good is what is wild! Life consists with wilderness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him” (Thoreau 274). The closer to nature you were for Thoreau, the more alive and human you are. In Thoreau’s eyes, if you take the wild out of an animal, you are turning them into a slave, or you become submissive to a society that desires to tame you, to take the life out of you. Thoreau would argue that wilderness is sacred and a true human being is someone that is directly connected to nature.

I would argue that Thoreau considers civilized people to be less human than Native Americans because civilized people’s spirits have been broken, they have no connection to the natural world. “Here is this vast, savage, howling mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man, – a sort of breeding in and in, which produces at most a merely English nobility, a civilization destined to have a speedy limit” (Thoreau 281). Thoreau seems to feel that civilization is akin to a cage for the savage within us all. He rejoices in animals fighting to stay wild, and likens our separation from nature to being separated from our mother at a young age. He doesn’t discriminate against gender and race, but he does show compassion to the working class people, wondering why they haven’t committed suicide because of their, in a sense, enslavement. He also pity women, wondering how they can stand the space they have been confined to within society. Instead of looking upon wildness as something beneath him like many other Europeans, he embraces the idea, considering it above the mundane lives of civilized people. He excludes civilization from nature, looking at it as the reason the untamed world will disappear to begin with. Every being that is still untamed is included in his conception of nature. The more connected to experiencing the natural world you are, the more alive and free you are in Thoreau’s eyes.

Thoreau also mentions European’s ancestors, saying that “Our ancestors were savages” (Thoreau 273). He goes on to state, “It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the Northern forests who were” (Thoreau 273). He correlates being wild and connected to the natural world to being warriors, capable of defending yourself and conquering. With this statement, he is also proclaiming that without the savage within us, we will be unable to defend ourselves; we will become sheep to the preying wolves. He doesn’t seem to be basing his ideas off of a romanticized sense of nature so much as a need to be able to survive in an untamed world.

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

2. Analysis of the function of wilderness in “Walking”

In “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau uses the wilderness as a place in which he emphatically encourages people to seek refuge from their daily woes. Thoreau consistently describes the wilderness as an escape, somewhere a person can go to and simply be free. Thoreau highlights the wonder of the wilderness through “the art of Walking” (260) which he insists is an activity that one should partake in for a good four or more hours a day. For Thoreau it seems that the wilderness is merely a refuge, it offers to him no commercial value nor does he see it in that respect. This view of the wilderness as a haven from the every day is a very idealistic image as well as one that cannot hope to be adopted by people from all social classes.

Through his admiration of the wilderness and his countless hours spent walking through it, Thoreau forgets that many people do not have the luxury of time nor the financial ability to appreciate nature only for its intrinsic value. While Thoreau is content to spend his time “sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements” (262) others in lower social classes are forced to work, many of them plowing the fields that Thoreau does not appreciate. This whimsical approach to wilderness could simply be overlooked were it not for the audacity of Thoreau to belittle the livelihoods of the people who make their living off the commercial value of nature, “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps” (174).

This delusion of nature and its tangible qualities and values begs the question of whether Thoreau is credible in his view of the wilderness. He views it romantically, “the jewel which dazzled me” (174) but seems to forget that where it not for the exploitation of this jewel he would not have the roof over his head, the paper he is writing on, or the other luxuries in his life that nature affords him. Thoreau’s acclaim for wilderness is essentially useless in that it is merely the idea that nature is to be enjoyed and rarely to be used, an idea that has never nor will ever substantiate society.

Thoreau, Henry D. Walden Civil Disobedience and Other Writings. 3Ch./Art: Walking p. 260-287. pub. WW Norton 2008

Wilderness as cruel.

 Wilderness, as told by Thoreau in “Walden,” is presented as a temperamental, cruel supplier and controller of the inhabitants put to live on the Earth. It is a difficult place to sustain oneself in, requiring that an individual provide for themselves the necessities to prevail in its harshness. Both directly and indirectly, the people depend on the wild and it’s elements to survive.

“The accidental discovery of the warmth of fire, and the consequential use of it, at first a luxury, arose the present necessity to sit by it” (Thoreau 12). While humans may have come across this source of heat “accidentally,” it has become something the humans depend on. In the same paragraph, Thoreau goes on to say that humans use their man-made shelter and clothing to maintain their own internal heat, but are benefitted much more by using this source of warmth made possible by nature’s resources.

With that said, think of this…

Thoreau says nature is “as well adapted to our weakness as to our strength” (Thoreau 11).  Nature, or the wild, knows precisely what humans need to survive. It can bring on a cold harsh winter and wipe out all resources, leaving humanity with nothing to live on.  Taking away the warmth of fire we have grown accustomed to, would leave humans cold. A harsh winter season can deplete wild animals hunted for food and other necessities mankind depends on.

On the other hand, while the wild can attack our weaknesses, it can also cater to our strengths.  In the wild, he explains how man finds a way to conduct business, build a home, establish relationships, and learn to live efficiently with all resources surrounding us.

Even with the negative critique Thoreau points out concerning the wild, he says “when you think of getting a farm, turn it thus in your mind…the oftener you go there the more it will please you…” (Thoreau 60). The more thought and analysis one gives the wild, and the more one likes the idea; the more “pure” and “comforting” it becomes. The wild can present problems, but it is man’s job to find a way for nature to cater to his strength rather than weakness.



Thoreau, Henry D. Walden Civil Disobedience and Other Writings. 3Ch./Art: Walden; Walking p. 5-70. pub. WW Norton 2008