Thoreau’s Walden (1854) is without question one of the fundamental works of the American literary canon. Its influence was expansive, inspiring the likes of Edward Abbey, Willa Cather, Marcel Proust, William Butler Yeats, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, E. B. White, Lewis Mumford, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many, many more. His Civil Disobedience (1849) was a pivotal work in the formation of the views of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Comparatively few have read one of his shorter works, Walking (1862), which I will be reflecting on.
As the title suggests, Thoreau begins this work with a panegyric about “the Art of Walking.” For Thoreau, walking is not an intentionally planned trip from a predetermined point A to point B; he means something entirely different than a looping walk around the neighborhood, park, or city. To emphasize this distinction, he uses the word sauntering, which he would describe as a free, uninhibited walk through uncultivated lands (woods, meadows, swamps), in which one’s direction is guided by their instincts alone. This activity, for him, is crucial to his livelihood:
I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least–and it is commonly more than that–sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.
The benefits of sauntering, as he sees it, are:
1) Health, mental and physical
2) Detachment from ‘worldly engagements’ and ‘obligations to Society’
What business have I in the woods, if I am myself thinking of something outside of the woods?
3) Time for thinking
When a traveler asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, “Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.”
He then critiques the sedentary habits of modern society:
I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them–as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon–I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.
I confess to say that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.
To call this moral insensibility seems extreme, but it is understandable when read in context of the larger picture of Thoreau’s thought. For Thoreau, Man is fundamentally a piece of Nature:
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil–to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.
Nature is man’s home, the soil from which man emerged, the marrow from which he lives. For this reason, it is important for humans to, in some cases, return to wilder, more natural habits. Society and civilization, and the accompanying lifestyle changes they have produced, are sometimes beneficial, sometimes harmful.
Nowadays almost all of man’s improvements, so called, as the building of houses and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap.
In an analogous way, Thoreau sees that mankind is also being deformed, becoming more and more tame and cheap. Thoreau exhorts us to fight this drifting, to return to wildness, and to prevent ourselves from becoming wholly cultivated. As he says,
I would not have every man nor every part of a man cultivated, any more than I would have every acre of earth cultivated: part will be tillage, but the greater part will be meadow and forest, not only serving an immediate use, but preparing a mould against a distant future, by the annual decay of the vegetation which it supports.
Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him.