Henry David Thoreau is one of those writers everyone wants a piece of — anarchist, proto-environmentalist, libertarian, tax resister, accidental arsonist, Transcendentalist and romantic. It’s easy to see why he’s figurehead material.

When I wanted to photocopy some of his work at the library, the duty librarian thumbed through the book and hmmm-ed her approval, before asking if I’d read Thoreau’s writing on civil disobedience. My American brother-in-law, thrilled I was reading Thoreau, hailed him as a hero of the ecology movement.

Although Thoreau never set himself up as a poster-boy for any movement or -ism, his writing was an advocacy of sorts –- a lyrical, heartfelt recommendation to live in a manner that was true to man: simply, freely, in nature’s midst, and supplying as much as would meet his basic needs by his own hands. Thoreau lived by these principles, on Walden pond, for many years, and wrote a long, Rousseau-esque novel about doing so. Observant, self-conscious and purposeful, he styled himself a rational creature, in touch with his senses and his will.

Before repairing to Walden pond, however, Thoreau had numerous visions of an idealized existence, granted to him unexpectedly, in quiet moments, as if to suggest that his future life lay in wait for him, solid even in shadow, like the contours of land sighted from sea.

His were powerful, almost prophetic, visions. Visions that urged him to alter his course once and for all. One such vision came on a bright July morning, in 1844. Thoreau had made a solitary climb to the top of Mount Greylock, which, at some 3,600 feet above sea level, is Massachusett’s highest peak. After building a fire and feasting on a dish of rice, Thoreau had spent the night alone on the flat summit, under a wooden door held down with a stone, and he’d woken at first light to encounter the sublime.

His record of the experience appeared five years later in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, in which a leisurely boat trip Thoreau made with his brother is documented in journal form. Ostensibly the book is a travelogue. But A Week is really a memorial to his brother who died not long after the river trip. Although Thoreau never once mentions his brother by name, his account of their trip is spliced into long tracts of philosophical reflection and spiritual extemporisation, the mood of which is by turns melancholy and euphoric.

The writer Jon Krakauer jokes that Thoreau’s book is 90% digression and 10% travel-log, which is true. But to me Thoreau’s intellectual meanderings are the meat and potatoes of the book and the preamble to his moment of mountain-top revelation – or amble, if you will – is as delicious as the climax, running as it does over some ten pages of fluidly compelling narrative.

‘I had come over the hills on foot and alone’ he begins, ‘in serene summer days, plucking the raspberries by the way-side, and occasionally buying a loaf of bread at a farmer’s house, with a knapsack on my back, which held a few traveller’s books and a change of clothing, and a staff in my hand’.

Here is Thoreau, then: the simple traveler. And yet inside his head ideas are brewing that are anything but simple. He muses on the feel of the uneven land underfoot, and how the rising valley walls limit his visual field, even as they fire his imagination. He admires the smattering of farmhouses placed at ‘noble’ elevations, and the awe that stirs in him as he crosses hay-fields then brooks, all the while climbing steadily. He says the farmhouses remind him of Hugenot homesteads on Staten Island, built snug inside the leafy recesses of the valley, yet looking out over widening vistas that take in miles of forest, and also the salt marshes that stretch to the sea, where one might spot a faint vessel on the horizon, a day or so into its voyage back to the Old World from where the Hugenots had come. What a romantic!

The characters Thoreau meets as he climbs are straight out of a fairytale. A woman in the doorway of a farmhouse, brushing her long black hair. (She mistakes him for a student from Williamstown). And, higher up, a farmer who warns him that nobody ever goes off the path. This is a lovely metaphor for self-discovery and Thoreau works it beautifully. Because, of course, he does leave the path, willfully, and just-because, straying into the forest to find an alternate route to the mountain’s peak. More: he boasts that the way is not nearly so difficult as the farmer has made out.

Now if this were truly a fairytale Thoreau would be punished for his transgression. He’d encounter a huge and hungry bear, for example, and be forced to wheedle his way out of danger and humiliation. But it is not a fairytale. It is a tale of self-reliance. Thoreau has a compass to guide him, and a rice supper in his knapsack. Nor has he any need of creature comforts. Once at the summit he builds a fire, digs for fresh water, and fashions a bed out of a few planks of wood. He even finds entertainment in a few scraps of newspaper in which some party had wrapped their lunch.

Up early to see the daybreak, Thoreau finds that an ‘ocean of mist’ has formed around him, rising to the base of the observatory tower – the only building on the summit – and shutting out every vestige of the earth below. It leaves him with the sensation of  ‘floating on this fragment of the wreck of a world, on my carved plank, in cloudland,’ much like some kind of celestial surfer.

Immediately sensing that this ‘new world’ into which he had ‘risen’ in the night, was ‘the new terra firma perchance of my future life’ he begins searching the ‘undulating country of clouds’ that corresponded ‘in the varied swell of its surface to the terrestrial world it veiled’. He goes on:-

‘It was such a country as we would see in dreams, with all the delights of paradise. There were immense snowy pastures, apparently smooth-shaven and firm, and shady vales between the vaporous mountains, and far in the horizon I could see where some luxurious misty timber jutted into the prairie, and trace the windings of a water course, some imagined Amazon or Orinoko, by the misty trees on its brink. . . It was a favor for which to be forever silent to be shown this vision. The earth beneath had become such a flitting thing of lights and shadows as the clouds had been before. It was not merely veiled to me, but it had passed away like the phantom of a shadow, and this new platform was gained.

When the sun begins to rise on this ‘pure world’, Thoreau makes his own ascent, becoming,

‘a dweller in the dazzling hills of Aurora, into which poets have had but a partial glimpse over the eastern hills — drifting amid the saffron-coloured clouds, and playing with the rosy fingers of the Dawn, in the very path of the Sun’s chariot, and sprinkled with its dewy dust, enjoying the benignant smile, and near a hand the far-darting glances of god.
 

He pities the common man, down below on the ground, permitted to see only the dark underside of heaven’s pavement, except at moments when a favourable angle presents itself and faint streaks of the rich lining of clouds can be glimpsed fleetingly. But up in the clouds, granted a full view of his paradise, Thoreau can barely find words adequate to describe the ‘gorgeous tapestry’ spread before him. Only verse conveys how he witnesses God ‘Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye / Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy’.

Naturally, no sooner than this glorious but fragile epiphany is attained, it fades suddenly, owing, Thoreau believes, to some unworthiness in him. As he stands, motionless, on the summit, he feels as if the heavenly pavement rose to embrace his wavering virtue, plunging him back down into the ‘forlorn world’ when he would have had it snatch him up to heaven.

Thoreau’s is a vision equal to any of Isaiah’s celestial transports, or Ezekiel’s sky-bound chariot rides. It is a genuine revelation – a uniquely privileged show. Heady and ecstatic, Thoreau is carried off the mountain to his own peak of experiential contentment. And then, just like the prophets of old, when he is dropped back down to earth, newly minted, he becomes a messenger. Not, as it turned out, of divine knowledge imparted to a select cohort, but of a better way of living that is purer, cleaner, closer to Godliness.

* * *

There were so many images and ideas in Thoreau’s account of his climb to tease out and delight my group. But even leaving aside the keenest of them, the notion that by virtue of making a physical ascent – literally leaving the world behind you – the spirit is free to soar, there was plenty to discuss. Cassandra had known a latter-day ‘Thoreauvian’. He had no TV, and only three shirts to his name, but he seemed happy as Larry. ‘People just clutter up their lives with things they don’t need,’ she said.

Colin, another newcomer, well-read in contemporary psycho-geography, liked the way Thoreau deliberately sets out to get lost. He left the path. And when you leave the path you find something different. Something new. Otis chimed in with hearty agreement. ‘I love the way he has no plan. He needs a spoon, so he whittles one. He didn’t bring a book to read, but he finds a bit of newspaper. I’m convinced that this is the way to live.’

Clive re-read the passage where Thoreau bemoans the way people conclude that they are lost just because they aren’t familiar with the place they’re in. Such a person is not lost at all, says Thoreau. He is not beside himself. He is standing in his own shoes on the very spot he happens to be in, and for that moment that is where he lives. Rather it is the places that have known him that are lost. In any case, says Thoreau: ‘Who knows where in space this globe is rolling?’

Various people commented on the theme of getting lost –  a thrill we’re fond of replicating safely, in mazes, and of toying with when we chuck aside our maps and abandon ourselves to the chance encounters offered by a weekend city-break. But this is not the same as the thrill of losing oneself, of letting the world fall away. Or, as someone pointed out, of emptying oneself in order to be filled with something else.

We’ll never know whether or not Thoreau invented the detail of finding a bit of paper to read. But it is priceless. In the little scene he describes of reading by firelight, the paper stands in for the entire world below. And it doesn’t hold up. Doesn’t compare. Instead of communicating matters of import, what Thoreau reads strikes him as ‘strangely whimsical, crude and one-idea’d, like a school-boy’s theme, such as youths write and afterwards burn. The opinions were of that kind that are doomed to wear a different aspect tomorrow, like last years fashions.’ Ouch.

The funny thing about writing about Thoreau is that it is almost as exciting as reading Thoreau. I find that my head is fizzing with ideas as I make these notes, and my heart a-leaping with unsung desires. Thoreau had the rare gift of being a brilliant writer as well as a brilliant thinker. And he could communicate that tingle of possibility that contemplating wholesale change sometimes engenders, along with a swashbuckling bravado about actually making it happen.

Every now and then it really does feel great to rise up above the clouds and wonder what might happen if you actually did leave the city grind behind you for good. Give up TV. Quit your high-powered job and turn to cheese-making. Start sewing your own clothes. Home-educate your children. Start ‘skipping’ for food. Throw out your hair shirt. Apologise to everyone you’ve ever wronged. Share your wealth with strangers. The impulses that Thoreau inspires are revelations in themselves.

Note to Self: when feeling a little blue, read some Transcendentalism.

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