Wildness, and Thoreau at 200   Leave a comment

thoreauLong-time readers of this blog know my admiration for Henry David Thoreau (who rhymed his name with “borrow”). I’m well into a new biography* of him, and reminded by a New York Times book review that today is his 200th birthday.

*Walls, Laura Dassow. Thoreau: A Life. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. (Go for the Kindle edition; hardcover is $35!)

Partly from Thoreau (1817-1862) and his Transcendentalist circle, but also of course from vivid Medieval conceptions, Westerners get Nature-with-a-capital-N, that idealized if not deified Presence. In the same millennium-old perception, we get two Books of Wisdom as well. The Book of Scripture, the Bible, yes. But also the Book of Nature. (Ah, but which is volume one and which is sequel?)

From the Concord, Massachusetts man and his most famous book, we learn his credo: “In Wildness is the preservation of the world”. For there is a tameness that allows us to live together at all, that is much but not all of what we mean by “civilization”, and another (or perhaps the same) tameness that makes us lie down in front of the onrushing disasters of the day, provided they don’t touch us too directly and painfully.

Or at least not right away. (Boil me gradually, and I’m a happy frog or lobster.) A few posts ago, I wrote of making coffee in an analogy for doing ritual: any trade deal made or broken is fine with me — until it deprives me of a ready supply of overseas beans. Or let’s say I do step forward, full of fire and righteous indignation (is there any other kind?!) to protest a worthy Druid-y cause, putting my life on the line, what then? Isn’t my life always on the line? As one follower* of a certain wilderness prophet cautioned us long ago: “I may even give away all that I have to the poor, and give up my body to be burned. But if I don’t have love, none of these things will help me”. More to the point, I’d say, will they help anyone else?

cernunnosThere’s also a wildness in “a certain forest god”, as John Beckett calls Cernunnos. As without, so within. There’s a wildness in each of us that politicians are eager to sedate and numb to stasis with material consumption and soundbites and spin. There’s a wildness like that of the Wild Hunt of European legend and myth, which modern Pagans, among others, have elaborated in provocative directions. The wildness of Nature isn’t Sunday-afternoon safe, and direct contact with it (if we survive) can strip away our pretences and excuses, can initiate us into powerful awareness and lasting change.

But like Tolkien’s Ents, we don’t like to be “roused”. I’ll fight tooth and claw for a comfortable cage, if one’s on offer, rather than for freedoms I claim I desire. For someone like Thoreau, Walls declares, “The dilemma that pressed upon him was how to live the American Revolution not as dead history but as living experience that could overturn, and keep overturning, hidebound convention and comfortable habits”. For we humans stand at the hinge, the pivot, the axis, in and of nature and yet able for a time to hold ourselves apart from it. Because where else is there?

Still, we strive to contrive and survive, little Sarumans every one of us. “Once out of nature”, writes W B Yeats in his almost infamous poem “Sailing to Byzantium”,

I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling …

Artifice, civilization, nature, justice? Just let me live forever, something in me cries. Just that, and I’ll sacrifice everything else to achieve it. You too can sail to Byzantium — for a price.

“Send lawyers, guns, and money”, says Warren Zevon in a song with the same title. “I’m the innocent bystander. Somehow I got stuck between the rock and a hard place. And I’m down on my luck …” Solutions present themselves. Not all deserve us. Few have anything to do with luck. And innocence or guilt completely misses the point of now. We’re all in it.

But wait …

“Once out of nature”? Are we now in that impossible place? Is that the legacy of the much-bandied about “Anthropocene“, our mythical present day, that time when human action carries geological force? “Health”, said Thoreau, “is a sound relation to nature”. “Physician”, says the Galilean master, quoting wisdom already proverbial in his time, “heal thyself”.

Oh Yeats, let me take bodily form from every living thing, let me know form, let me inhabit nature fully, and I will understand better, I will heal, and I will be healed.

/|\ /|\ /|\

*1 Corinthians 13:3.

Images: ThoreauCernunnos/Gundestrup Cauldron.


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