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Thoreau’s environmental (re)vision

February 13, 2009

I want to highlight the argument from Buell’s essay “Thoreau and the Natural Environment,” and in doing so, focus our attention on the writing and revision we will be doing for the first writing project. I have been making the point in our recent discussions of Walden that (as I read it) the environmental perspective within Thoreau’s text emerges with the writing; that at some basic level (closer to the bottom of the pond; at least a bit beneath the muck and slosh of opinion) Thoreau’s environmental or ecocritical agenda is writerly; that to in order to improve our environmental perspective we need to improve the way we read and write–we need to be more deliberate in our reading of how books are written. We need, in other words, to read Thoreau the writer and grasp the nature of his writing.

We can add to this now, with Buell’s argument that the acclaimed environmental vision of Walden (and all that we now associate with Thoreau as environmental saint) is more complicated than we might think. And that among the complications, it does not begin where it ends; it is revised into Walden. That Thoreau’s vision is a matter of revision. Buell suggests there are various environmental projects we might read at any given point in Walden (or in the course of Thoreau’s evolving writing life). By my accounting:

  1. pastoralism
  2. Emersonian correspondence between nature and spirit (this one is excerpted out of the essay you read, but included in Buell’s book, The Environmental Imagination)
  3. frugality/asceticism: small-scale, sustainable agriculture
  4. natural history: Thoreau as field biologist, as early ecologist
  5. landscape aesthetics
  6. textual? losing reader in his text
  7. political

Buell argues that overall Thoreau moves from a more homcentric to a more ecocentric vision of nature in the course of his adult life; and Walden’s revisions reflect this change: thus the later sections of the book which are revised last are more ecocentric. But the notion of environmental projects reminds us that the vision is often competing and conflicting. Buell writes:

The growing empiricism of his natural history project, for instance, was partially at odds with his pastoral and correspondence projects but was both fueled and regulate by these more long-standing and more poetic interests. And second, the patchwork of convergent and dissonant motives just described, interacting with another dimension of his thought. . . produced both a certain astigmatism and a wondrous acuity of environmental vision: segmentation, disproportion, blurring of focus. One of Walden’s more frustrating charms is that it so easily loses the reader in the landscape of the text. [540]

Thus, Thoreau is not just refining his environmental vision through the craft of revision; he is also un-refining it–making it more (in his terms) extra/vagant. I associate this with the kind of paradox we have been considering in our reading. And this suggests to me that environmental vision is for Thoreau an activity of ongoing revision.

So, to read like Thoreau we need to understand his writing. And to do that we need to revise like Thoreau. We will take this up in workshop. What should this mean?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Sean Meehan permalink*
    February 17, 2009 8:19 pm

    p.s. Evidence that Thoreau and the complications of his revision and crafting–that is to say, our neglect of those complications–live on. A recent piece from Mother Jones, Thoreau’s Worst Nightmare

    Buell’s understanding that Thoreau has various environmental projects, often contradictory, seems relevant. Frugality is just one of them. I also see that some keep forgetting that Thoreau leaves the woods for as good a reason as he goes there.

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