A Literal Paradox

Henry David Thoreau was an explorer of the natural world. He contributed to the first-wave of environmentalism which focused its attention specifically on the environment, unlike the current second-wave which brings human design into the discussion. Thoreau witnessed the madness of war and oppression. This cultivated his distaste for society and led him to develop a keystone of environmental literature; Walden. Thoreau set out to build a cabin in the woods of Walden and create a simple life for himself. He built his own cabin and grew some of his food. Thoreau felt it necessary to go beyond society for fear of being “only but a machine” like he believed his peers were at the time. In doing so he found the beauty and spirituality of nature. He found himself away from the dehumanization of man and inside the transcendentalism of earth.

It’s no secret that Walden was and still continues to be a popular work. It’s taught in an array of classes from environmental science to art. So why do we continue to dissect this book written more than 150 years ago? It’s because of Thoreau’s combination of storytelling and the adventure of finding something bigger than yourself. One of the key points he made was “we can never have enough of nature”. There was no human-driven greed or over-exploitation of resources. Nature was simple and beautiful, all of the things he felt were missing from society. He left to pursue a happiness he couldn’t find with other people. Is that why we go into nature? Are we searching for a happiness we can’t find? Or is it now the only place we can truly be alone?

Thoreau also touches on dehumanization which I felt correlated with Buell’s idea of “technodominationism” in The Future of Environmental Criticism. Both Thoreau and Buell believe man has taken over the world by some undeclared right given to us at birth. Buell said it came from “God’s mandate for men to dominate over creatures and subdue them”. This holier than thou belief can be found in Thoreau’s criticisms of society. To paraphrase, he believes the egos of man are what destroyed the soul of life and what feeds the sin of society. Ironically, Thoreau takes on an egotistical tone in his writing. It’s no doubt that Thoreau’s literary compositions continue his legacy, however it’s the content of his writings that show his true character.

Upon final analysis of the first two chapters of Walden, the main concept I’ve taken away is the irony of it all. There is plenty of irony in the text, but my quarrel is with the author himself. To begin my argument it’s important to note that the frequency of environmental writing has increased since Thoreau’s publications but that it was catalyzed by the popularity of Thoreau’s own piece Walden. Firstly, Thoreau seemingly distanced himself from society for their way of thinking and frequently condescends those from his past to make his way of thinking seem superior. He destroys all respect for his peers and says, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. This is a valid opinion on the oppression of that time until you realize that Thoreau contributes to the same cyclical routines that he reticules.

He goes to Walden to prove a point to society. To prove that he is capable of having a fulfilled life without the trials and tribulations of the outside world. In doing so he is living his life to show society that they are wrong and he is right. He strives for approval and justification yet writes that “public opinion is a weak tyrant”. He is writing a book for the very people he despises. My question is simple… Why not experience nature to yourself and keep it for yourself if you are so angry at society? Why would you share the beauty you found? If the answer is so others would follow in your footsteps wouldn’t that be paradoxical to the reason you left? Because now nature is no longer natural. His book brought the masses into nature and is now run over and rummaged through by people who turn it into tourist attractions and gift shops. Society brought the same negativity to the ‘outside world’. The only difference is before Walden their destructive habits were confined to their populated epicenters and after Walden it spread to the environment.

I believe Thoreau had an appreciation for nature but was too caught up in his own ego to understand the negative consequences of his creation. He didn’t want to distance society, he wanted to lead it. A point can be made that Walden didn’t protect the spirituality of nature but instead was responsible for its destruction.

“All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

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