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The Irony of a Biodegradable Thoreau

September 3, 2016

We see right away  in Walden Thoreau’s interest in puns and paradox and irony–the ways his argument turns upon, and turns under, the words  we commonly and too easily use, when one word turns out to mean something different than we expect. Thoreau, we recognize, is deeply interested in language. This is why we begin the course attending to the “poetics” of environmental writing. For example: the play on pertinent and impertinent in the opening page of Walden, or the play upon saunter in his essay “Walking”. We can think back to “Walking” and the attention he gives to etymology there–words as a form of the wild, wanting more wildness in the expression of nature, attaching like dirt to the pages. This interest in etymology will be evident throughout Walden.

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 sustainable, environmental living. Or, at least, I think Throeau’s great contribution toward thinking about how we might live more sustainably or naturally (which we might take as our vision of his view of wildness necessary for the preservation of the world) 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. Irony, in “the good sense” (the phrase is from “Walking”), seems closer to what Wendell Berry means by solving for pattern, and what I suggested in my last post as organic reading. Such “irony” understands what Berry also calls “analogy”–the relations of patterns. In Berry’s view, all is related: from organelle to organism  to biosphere. An organic understanding recognizes this paradoxical or contradictory or ironic sense of things that are both here and not here, familiar and strange, at the same time.  Think of it this way: if as an organism I am linked to the organelle and the biosphere, then I am myself and never myself at the same time. This kind of ecological philosophy, we will see, will link writers as diverse as Emerson, Berry, Leopold, Thoreau.

Irony, in the bad sense, is when we solve for problem. This IBM commercial on “Tracking Food through the Supply Chain” seems, to my eyes, terribly and vividly ironic, in that bad sense. It is not hard for me to imagine what Berry would say about this vision of scientific intelligence solving the problem of food spoilage. Why do people eating food on a farm need help getting their food delivered? [ironic answer: because they are no longer growing food that they can eat]. In a nutshell, this is Michael Pollan’s argument (featured in the documentary “Food Inc”), something Pollan derives from the thought of Berry, among others. (We will return to these ironies in the last section of the course in our focus on the ethics of food).

I began to think of this, an ironic Thoreau as an organic or biodegradable Thoreau, when reading 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 a 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 observes 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. Recall that Buell defines “environmentality” as the property of any text (or broadly, human artifact) since it necessarily bears traces of its environment, its surrounding context.

One of the issues here that we will continue to explore in the coming weeks as we travel to 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. This is an implication of his notion of “two views of the same,” as he describes it in his journal. 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. We need to read and see carefully, as Thoreau emphasizes (giving an entire chapter to it); but also, as we see in moving to the very next chapter after “Reading,” the labor of reading (head or hands) is not sufficient. So, a contradiction, or paradox set up in the very movement of the book from chapter to chapter. “I love a broad margin to my life,” Thoreau explains, suggesting he needs room to contradict even what he has just written.

Perhaps we can view this sort of paradox and irony of marginal living as a literary form of biodegradability. Read this book, this chapter, carefully, but not for too long. It won’t remain. We will get back to this vision of life (and waste) when we read the “Spring” chapter.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, the many senses of his words, sense that seem to turn (decompose?) into other words before your eyes, you may be making more sense than you think.

A good digital resource for Thoreau readings and general research: The Thoreau Reader.

For some critical insights related to Walden, browse some of the critical materials included in our Norton Critical Edition of the text.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 2, 2012 5:27 pm

    Maybe I read it incorrectly, but I had a hard time seeing a higher purpose in Thoreau’s discrepancies. It will be fun to discuss this in class. Also, the Youtube link and the “wilderness toilet” link did not work for me… Just a heads up!


  1. Horton: Environmental Irony « Pilgrims of the Chesapeake

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