Thoreau and the Milky Way

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EVENT: Philip Hoare is at the Bookshop on Thursday 20 July to discuss his latest book RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR, an exploration of the human fascination with the sea, with Olivia Laing. Book tickets here.

In March 1845, Henry David Thoreau left the New England town of Concord and set out for the woods around Walden Pond and, having borrowed an axe for the purpose, began to cut down white pines on land owned by his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. As Thoreau shaped the timbers, he stopped to eat his lunch of bread and butter, reading the newspaper in which it was wrapped. He was constructing a hut, an unfixed locality, citing Indian teepees as eminently suitable to their purpose and eschewing the mortgages to which his fellow Concordians were shackled. The philosopher hoped for a reconnection, albeit a temporary one. ‘We no longer camp as for a night’, he wrote, ‘but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven’. He sought utopia by the water’s edge, just as William Blake, after ‘three years’ slumber on the banks of the Ocean’ in his Sussex cottage, had proposed a new Jerusalem.

The son of a pencil-maker, Thoreau was educated at Harvard University, and had briefly been a teacher – he gave it up after finding corporal punishment an offence to his sensibilities. In 1842 his twenty-six-year-old brother had died in his arms, from lockjaw caught after cutting himself shaving. Thoreau was consumed with grief. He later proposed marriage to a young woman, and was rejected. Thereafter he would drift through life, working as a surveyor, measuring out the land while pondering its metaphysics. Now he had retreated to a New England wood (albeit the same wood he and his friend Edward Hoar had managed to set on fire when camping there the previous year). Even in his attempt to distil utopia into a commune of only one, Thoreau could not help but be part of the greater world. When he bought the frame of his shanty from an Irish navvy – for four dollars and a quarter – there was another price to be paid: by the family effectively evicted by the transaction, and by their cat, which went feral and was killed when it trod in a trap laid for wood-chucks.

By the sandy shores of Walden, in among its trees, Thoreau unpacked his shack and trundled it, bit by bit, by cart to his pond-side site, laying out the parts to dry and bleach in the sun (having been told by a ‘Patrick’ that another Irishman had already stolen all the nails). He dug a cellar beneath the hut where he could overwinter his potatoes; all houses, he wrote, were ‘but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow’. He was burrowing into the land like a badger.

Friends helped him raise the frame of his house, in the way Shaker barns were raised as communal efforts, and he took possession on the Fourth of July. Construction continued as he built his chimney using stones from the pond, claiming them, as he did the timber, under squatter’s rights. Thoreau relished labour for its own sake. If we all built our own houses, he said, ‘the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged’. Instead, ‘we do like the cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built’.

Thoreau saw transcendence in almost everything he did, and wove philosophy out of commonplace actions. He lived in his own quietude, finding it more fruitful than the alternative. ‘The man I meet’, he said, ‘is seldom so instructive as the silence he breaks’. Made insular by the beauty of the natural world, he wrote about himself, reasoning that, ‘I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well’. And if he lived in a dream, what of it? What else should we do with our sixteen hours of wakefulness? Nothing more useful than the eight hours we spend dreaming.

Shingled and plastered, ten feet wide by fifteen feet long, with eight-feet-high posts, Thoreau’s hut contained an attic and a closet, a tiny cellar with two trap doors, and a brick fireplace. Outside was a wood shed. All built by himself, for $28.12½, including $1.40 transportation (‘I carried a good part on my back’). He reckoned the price to be less than the annual rent paid by most of his townsfellows, another good reason to recommend the effort. ‘I brag for humanity rather than for myself’.

Walden Pond is wonderfully cold on a late spring afternoon. I push out from shore, reluctant to go far, knowing Thoreau’s plumb line drew more than one hundred feet in depth as he surveyed its dark extent. In midsummer, this place is alive with people and noise, with children and canoes and picnics. Today, it is silent and still, save for the concentric rings sent out by my body. It’s hard to believe that Boston is only half-an-hour away. The railroad runs close by: it did so in Thoreau’s day, although for him, the whistling trains merely reminded him of his solitude. On the other side of the road, there’s a replica of his hut, complete with a bunk covered with a green woollen blanket; a single bed is as eloquent as any obituary, or any passing star. ‘Why should I feel lonely?’, reasoned its occupant, ‘is not our planet in the Milky Way?’ ‘We are wont to imagine rare and delectable places in some remote and more celestial corner of the system... I discovered that my house actually had its site in such a withdrawn, but forever new and unprofaned, part of the universe’.

Thoreau’s daily swims were a communion, undertaken at dawn. ‘I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things I did... Morning brings back the heroic ages’. Ever analytical, he tried to examine the very colour of the water – ‘lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both’ – and noted that a glassful held up to the light was crystal clear. And in a dreamlike image, he observed that when the body of a bather – presumably his own – was seen through the water, it was ‘of an alabaster whiteness’, the limbs ‘magnified and distorted withal’. Nowadays analysis of the pond water in summer betrays a high volume of human urine.

Walden Pond became an extension of Thoreau’s hut; he even used its white sand to scrub his floor, wetting and scattering it before brushing it clean. Were all these activities, so exactingly and intensely enumerated, ways of forestalling darker thoughts? The black water offered liberation and transcendence. ‘After hoeing, or perhaps reading and writing, in the forenoon, I usually bathed again in the pond, swimming across one of its coves for a stint, and washed the dust of labor from my person, or smoothed out the last wrinkle which study had made, and for the afternoon was absolutely free’.

In nearby Concord, after swimming in the clear green weedy river behind Nathaniel Hawthorne’s house, hoping he wouldn’t mind, I visit the basement of the town library where the curator emerges from the vaults with an armful of oversized documents. Protected by plastic sleeves – they flap rather worryingly in her hands – she lays them out on the table with a mixture of reverence and familiarity. I am allowed to inspect, but not photograph, these relics, prophylactically sheathed in myelar. The air has been sucked out of them; the human messiness has been excluded. Seen through thin plastic they remain remote, even though they’re lying on the table in front of me.

Thoreau’s careful draughtsmanship charts the pond as finely as navigator might chart the sea. Tiny numerals record the depths – 30’, 91’, 121’ – and ruled lines divide its expanse in precise, faint ink, as though Thoreau had trailed a sepia fishing rod behind him as he rowed across the pond. He may have sought to disprove those who believed Walden to be bottomless, but in the figures an implicit poetry seeps out; mere mathematics could not confine his thoughts. These points could be constellations as much as charts of a body of water. As his plumbline drew water, so Thoreau drew the pond. To him, ‘there was no such thing as size’, his friend Emerson wrote. ‘The pond was a small ocean; the Atlantic, a large Walden Pond. He referred every minute fact to cosmical laws’. Walden was everything. ‘It is earth’s eye’, Thoreau said, ‘looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature’. Yet in imposing his lines on the wilderness, wasn’t he destroying what he observed, even as he’d managed to burn three hundred acres of it by mistake?

In a tall glass case against a pillar that supports the silent mass of books upstairs – who reads them now? Certainly not the people sitting at the tables, their faces turned pale by their laptops – Thoreau’s instruments are displayed. The polished wooden tripod and theodolite mark the measure of the man, as if he’d just stepped away from it to take account of the land around, taking in all that beauty and not believing it.

As he lay dying of the disease which consumed him in a tiny Concord attic in 1862, aged forty-four, Thoreau edited his final text, ‘Walking’. It’s here, on the table. I copy the words from his own hand, closing the gap between his then and my now. It is his last will and testament, by default: ‘I wish this evening‘ – the two words were excised in the edit for posterity – ‘to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and a culture merely civil, – to regard man as a inhabitant or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society’.

New England – both empty and full of history, settled and unsettling – allowed such a transformation for its utopians and its Transcendentalists. Emerson had experienced an epiphany on Boston Common: ‘Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all’. Other peers of Thoreau took matters to an extreme. Samuel Larned was the genteel son of a Providence merchant who had become obsessed with his own consumption. He’d spent a year living only on crackers; another year devoted to eating only apples. When he stayed at Brook Farm he declined to drink milk and wore vegan shoes. He also swore at everyone he met, ‘Good-morning, damn you’. We might diagnose Tourette’s syndrome, but Larned believed that profanities uttered in a pure spirit ‘could be redeemed from vulgarity’.

Larned and his young friends were the Apostles of the Newness, marked out by their ‘long hair, Byronic collars, flowing ties, and eccentric habits and manners’. In 1842, three of them set off on a walking tour, wearing broad-brimmed hats, sack coats and as-yet unconventional beards. They took no money with them, relying on people they met to provide them with food, although, as Richard Francis comments, ‘given their severe dietary restrictions, that wasn’t asking much’. When they arrived at Emerson’s house, he quickly moved them round to the back door where their swearing wouldn’t disturb the neighbours. Their appearance was becoming more extreme: by the time Larned and his friends came visiting the following year, they were ‘peculiarly costumed’ in smocks belted about the waist and made of ‘gay-coloured chintz’.

The sight of these visionary young men dressed in what looked like blouses got up from flowery curtains must have made a certain impression in the streets of Concord and Boston, as similarly dressed young men would do in Woodstock a century later. Even at the time they were referred to as ‘ultra’, as if set outside the pale. That year, 1843, Larned found his natural home in the nearby commune of Fruitlands, whose members declined enslave animals to plough their fields and used, ate or wore nothing animal or produced by slavery, from cotton to whale oil. Some went naked under the New England sun, while their leader, Bronson Alcott, bathed in cold water, rubbing his body afterwards with a ‘friction brush’. He also claimed to be able to enter a kind of psychic state with sparks flying from his skin and flames shooting from his finger tips, ‘which seemed erect and blazing with phosphoric light’ as if he were a Blakean being. When he closed his eyes, they ‘shot sparkles’, and in his ears he heard a melody, ‘as of the sound of many waters’.

In contrast to these extreme eruptions around him, Thoreau’s was a quieter resistance. If he was said to be an ugly man, he became beautiful by virtue of what he observed and absorbed. ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life...’ He too discovered slowness, seeking meaningful leisure ‘for true integrity’, free of property and employment. At Walden, he found the earth’s eye. And as he looked into the water, he saw the rest of us, too. His last coherent words, knowing he was about to die, were ‘Now comes good sailing’.

‘RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR’ is published by Fourth Estate, priced £16.99. Join Philip Hoare and Olivia Laing for a discussion of the book at the Bookshop on Thursday 20 July. Book tickets here.

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