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Thoreau’s “Walking”: field work in the senses of words

August 30, 2014

We have started to think, with help from Burroughs, Berry, and Buell, of correlations that link or mediate what might initially seem to be oppositions. For example, for Burroughs, the tension between art and science, or the tangible and the intangible, can be related with something he calls “love.” For Berry, another name for the correlation of simplicity and complexity is “pattern.”  For Buell, in more recent environmental criticism, it is something he calls “environmentality” in which nature and human culture are bound together.

A useful artistic-scientific tool for doing some field work in this newer discipline blending the literary and the ecological is the Oxford  English Dictionary. This is the dictionary that investigates the etymological histories embedded in the natural and cultural history of English. As we see in “Walking,” and will continue to see in Walden, Thoreau uses this tool, etymology, for his field work and expects us, perhaps even demands us, to do the same.

You have free access to the OED through the library. Get used to using it. You can start with any number of words that Thoreau in “Walking” puts before us for examination: ‘saunter,’ most famously; but also, “senses,” “wild,” “village,” “nature,” culture,” “trace,” “decay.” And on.

Some field notes from Thoreau’s “Walking”. The essay was published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1862, shortly after Thoreau died. It was based on a popular lecture he had been giving on the subject of walking and the wild.

The play on senses: [13] When we walk we naturally go to the fields and woods; what would become of us if we walked only in a garden or a mall? Even some sects of philosophers have felt the necessity of importing the woods to themselves since they did not go to the woods, “They planted groves and walks of Platans” where they took subdiales ambulationes in porticoes open to the air. Of course, it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations, and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is; I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? I suspect myself, and cannot help a shudder, when I find myself so implicated even in what are called good works — for this may sometimes happen.

The focus on language, etymology, roots and meanings of words, language itself as organic (your first writing project). Think about using the OED: [18] The village is the place to which the roads tend, a sort of expansion of the highway as a lake of a river. It is the body of which roads are the arms and legs; a trivial or quadrivial place, the thoroughfare and ordinary of travellers. The word is from the Latin villa, which together with via, a way, or more anciently ved and vella, Varro (13) derives from veho to carry, because the villa is the place to and from which things are carried. They who got their living by teaming were said vellaturam facere. Hence too apparently the Latin word vilis and our vile; also villain. This suggests what kind of degeneracy villagers are liable to. They are way-worn by the travel that goes by and over them, without travelling themselves.

A nonlinear (non-Euclidean) view of nature/a non-European view of civilization: 2.2  The outline which would bound my walks, would  be, not a circle, but a parabola, or rather like one of those cometary orbits, which have been thought to be non-returning curves, in this case opening westward, in which my house occupies the place of the sun. I turn round and round irresolute sometimes for a quarter of an hour, until I decide for the thousandth time, that I will walk into the south-west or west. Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free

[35] I do not know of any poetry to quote which adequately expresses this yearning for the Wild. Approached from this side the best poetry is tame. I do not know where to find in any literature, ancient or modern, any account which contents me, of that Nature with which even I am acquainted. You will perceive that I demand something which no Augustan nor Elizabethan age — which no culture, in short, can give.

The problem of culture/cultivation–the interest in decay. 3.[8] I would not have every man nor every part of a man cultivated, any more than I would have very 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.

Thoreau’s version of ‘leave no trace’–a problem then for writing nature? 3. [17] For my part, I feel, that with regard to Nature, I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world, into which I make occasional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the state into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a moss-trooper.(8) Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will o’ the wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no moon nor fire-fly has shown me the cause-way to it. Nature is a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features. 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, As it were in some far away field on the confines of the actual Concord, where her jurisdiction ceases, and the idea which the word Concord suggests ceases to be suggested. 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 glass; and the picture which the painter painted stands out dimly from beneath. The world with which we are commonly acquainted leaves no trace, and it will have no anniversary.

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