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Thoreau’s irony: biodegradable?

June 2, 2010

We see from the beginning of Walden Thoreau’s famous interest in puns and paradox and irony–the ways his argument turns upon, and turns under, the words we commonly and too easily use. For example: the play on pertinent and impertinent in the opening page.

Irony is pertinent to Thoreau’s project. And I would argue–though this sounds strange–irony is an important concept in Thoreau’s vision of sustainability. Or, at least, I think Throeau’s great contribution toward thinking about how we might live more sustainably (which we might take as our vision of his ‘live more deliberately as nature’) is that we need to be more aware of irony. Bad ecological thinking forgets that irony–the wandering of meaning, the doubleness of meaning–is another name for our strange relation to nature. So, we do something and think the change is only in front of us, or behind us. Good ecological thinking, it seems to me, knows that we can’t see the change and the relation all at once, because we can’t see the whole system. We need to be more deliberate in the irony of our actions.

I began to think of this, an ironic Thoreau as a biodegradable Thoreau, when reading  his essay “Walking”–as well as various places in Walden where Thoreau focuses, ironically, on the decomposition of nature, the most glorious and strange coming (as you will see) in the penultimate chapter “Spring.”  I mean not merely Thoreau’s interest in being green, in living with products that are biodegradable–the kind of thing you would find, for example, if you Google ‘Thoreau’ and ‘biodegradable,’ as I did, and found my way to a company that invokes Thoreau in the service of selling an ultra light wilderness toilet. I began to think, rather, of Thoreau’s own writing in relation to biodegradability; a writing that, in its desire to be a true and adequate expression and description of nature, to transplant nature to his pages (as he writes in ‘Walking,’ p. 278), would thus desire in some form to disappear. The toilet company takes up the motto of the wilderness conservationist: leave no trace. Thoreau begins to say the same thing about his own efforts to record and represent the nature he oberves and is familiar with.

1908 photo marking site of Thoreau's cabin

One of the ways this paradox (remember we began to speak of Thoreau’s contradictions in terms of paradox–opposites that attract, because they turn out to be related; think continuum or dynamic rather than either/or; think magnetic relation) comes out in his writing, so I have noticed, is in using the words expression and impression. Thoreau asks where is the adequate expression of nature (that is, its true description); and then turns to a related word, impression (writing makes impression, sketching, painting, photography–various marks or symbols that are analogs of nature) which evokes the implication that such representations of nature, if they are natural, organic, biotic (whatever the term) would be, by nature, impermanent, degradable. And for Thoreau, that would be a good thing. So, the page of the book that adequately expresses nature would need to somehow resist the conventions of the book–the presumption that the book is to be preserved. Thoreau is interested in the idea of a trace: something that is and isn’t there; is there in its absence. Like a footprint or a fossil.

The walker in the familiar fields which stretch around my native town sometimes finds himself in another land than is described in their owners’ deeds…. These farms which I have myself surveyed, these bounds which I have set up appear dimly still as through a mist; but they have no chemistry to fix them; they fade from the surface of the glss; and the picture which the painter painted stands out dimply from beneath. The world with which we are commonly acquainted leaves no trace, and it will have no anniversary. (‘Walking’ 284)

But, think how strange it is to apply this notion to his own writing: a trace that will leave no trace. I wrote an essay (and now a chapter in my book, Mediating American Autobiography) that focuses on this passage and other places where Thoreau’s interest in this idea of the trace that chemically decomposes can be understood in terms of photography. [if interested in this idea of Thoreau and photography and nature writing, let me know; would be glad to talk further] Reading Thoreau this time, I began to think there is more to explore specifically in terms of biodegradability–and how and whether Thoreauvians have taken this to heart. The Thoreau we love to read in the pages of his books–should those pages not be preserved in books? Should they go the way of the wilderness toilet paper? This seems to me an irony worthy of Thoreau’s name.

One of the issues here that we will continue to epxlore in Walden: there is more strangeness and otherness in Thoreau, despite and more likely because of (back to paradox) his alternate focus on being more familiar with the local. The familiar and the foreign are braided thoughts in Thoreau, in his language. One implication for us, it seems, is that in addition to pursuing the more familiar environmental perspective of becoming better aware of what is in our midst, paying attention to what is familiar, we also need to find ways to estrange that familiarity. I wonder what you think about this particular paradox and tension in terms of your own environmental views.

At the very least, you know now that if you have been beside yourself in your initial reading of Walden, struggling to make sense of his poetic play with language, you may be making more sense than you think.

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