Environmental Philosophy

Henry David Thoreau

   According to Malcolm Clemens Young, in his analysis of Thoreau’s journals, “Thoreau bases his understanding of the wild on the answer to a question which he asks repeatedly in his work: Why do we find such pleasure in beholding nature? Why do the features of nature that seem most alien simultaneously elicit so much feeling” (Young, 247). It is true that Thoreau asks these questions constantly, but does he actually answer them? In studying his essay “Walking,” readers can begin to understand his conclusions about the true essence of Nature and the Wild and man’s relation to such things and from that, begin to seek further understanding of how man has separated himself from Nature.

   An important aspect Thoreau emphasizes in his explanation of the essence of nature and the wild is that it has no ownership by anyone but God. As he illustrates in the essay, “…the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is now owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom…” but, “to enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself form the true enjoyment of it” (7). To “enjoy something exclusively” means that no one else can, which may seem like an obvious implication. But the importance of this exclusivity, is that it implies complete ownership, which is not humanity’s right any more than it would be the right of any other creature on this earth. For us to exist together, we must share this world. Man’s subordination of nature is a major component which differentiates him from other creatures—while man wants to change it for his own benefit, rather than allow all things to benefit with him. Thus, man’s most powerful and damaging weapons are “the bushwhack, the turf-cutter, and the spade.” Our cultivation of the earth goes against nature so even if “the wind blows our cornfield into a meadow,” we have the ability to change it back, to render things contrary to what “nature intended” (16).  

   Another important consideration is that the change we cause in the world is very difficult, if not impossible to reverse. Mankind’s technology can manipulate the land, but should he want to reestablish what it was before, cannot be done by human hands. Thoreau asserts that changing the landscape is “deforming it” and making it “more tame and cheap” (4). There seem to be very few ways for us to coexist with the wildness that the earth inherently holds. Every change requires it to be structured, and to fit into man’s needs, thus  destroying wildness’ essential unpredictability. This mutability is evident in Thoreau’s description of his home’s landscape, which, “can be walked in a ten mile radius for ten years without ever becoming familiar” (4). Man’s capacity to recognize his surroundings, is limited to things that have a fixed existence. Since the natural world is constantly changing with or without human intervention, there is no way to completely keep track of its character. If nature truly is “a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features,” then our lack of understanding will always prevent us from an ability to recreate it (25).

   Man’s inability to create and recreate nature, generates a conceptualization of the wild which can be held akin to the qualities of God; lawless, powerful, and free. Young describes this parallel as Thoreau understands it: “the wild is humanity’s purest way to visualize God”  because both God and Nature are beyond our control, but, at the same time, are a “deep part of ourselves” (Young, 249). Based on his understanding of God and Nature, it is easy to see that Thoreau’s walks hold a religious significance to him. Much like the method of a philosopher, he uses the landscape to answer his questions, formulate new ones, and have spiritual connection to God as he understands Him to exist “in nature.” Thoreau’s philosophical nature explains why he advocates for man’s ignorance rather than his knowledge. Accordingly, man is far more valuable when he knows “nothing about something and knows that he knows nothing,” than when he “believes he knows everything about something.” Through that ignorance, nature improves the quality of man because it humbles him, but only if he will admit to his “negative knowledge” (22).

   Thoreau also encourages man’s interaction with nature because he believes it will “produce a roughness of character,” and from exposure to certain influences, “will allow for our intellectual and moral growth” (3). These benefits find their roots in man’s fundamental connection to “the wild.” Humanity once was a part of the wild’s unpredictability, because he lived within the laws of nature and thus was subject to the capriciousness it evokes. This gave humanity a kind of kinship with the natural world. It was a “part and parcel of nature” as Thoreau describes, and an attribute long lost to our species (1). Now, though man “cannot remember when he lost his wildness,” it still exists within him (18). This is nature’s “subtle magnetism,” which will “direct man aright if he unconsciously yields to it” (7).  

     This “magnetism” exists on a larger scale through man’s natural attraction to the west rather than the east. Thoreau attributes his own propensity to travel southwestward, to the west’s perceived quality of holding “the future and a far more unexhausted earth;” far superior to the east towards which he travels “only be force” (8). “Mankind’s progress from east to west” is simply a magnification of his own unconscious inclinations, caused by man’s desire to “follow the sun” (9). Sir Francis Head, an English traveler illustrates the west in a comparison of America to the old world:

            Brighter and more costly colors where the heavens appear infinitely higher, the sky is bluer, the air is fresher, the cold is intenser, the moon looks larger, the stars are brighter, the thunder is louder, the lightning is vivider, the wind is stronger, the rain is heavier, the mountains are higher, the rivers longer, the forests bigger, and the plains broader (11).

    This is because America is more untouched than the lands of Europe and Asia, and, without man’s long-standing influence, has retained its purity. Thoreau describes this “virgin mold” to be most visible in the “impervious and quaking swamps,” which are the “strength and marrow of Nature” that “gives the same life and goodness to both man and the trees” (2, 16). Though man often fails to coexist with nature adequately, its essence is created for the substantiation of everyone and everything, including humans.

            This leads to the question of man’s “superiority” to much of the natural world. As much as man desires to tame and control the wild, he also is “refreshed” by surrounding himself with the “raw material of life.” The “Wildest part of the earth is that which is most Alive, ” that which is “the preservation of the World” (15). But why destroy something held to be so valuable? Thoreau finds great appreciation and worth for animals that “reassert their native rights”  and display “seeds of instinct” despite man’s drive to stomp them out (24). No one has ever “cried ‘whoa’ to man” so what right does he have to “tame animals which have no natural disposition to be domesticated” (24)? Does this mean man only finds value in the earth’s potential purpose and capacity to be conquered? Thoreau believes that the best civilization is that which is partly uncivilized. He strives to create a world where not all men are “cultivated” so that some may be part of a “mold preparing against a distant future,” a time he describes as the “evil days” (7, 24).  

    But how can Thoreau’s mold of “uncultivated men” be established if not all of humanity even has the capability to understand this necessity? Though “Nature has such affection for us as her children,” man is quickly “weaned from her breast to a society that’s culture is exclusive to men,” leaving no room for to have a protective response to its destruction (20). Thoreau’s desire to “speak a word for Nature” comes from his ability to “wander,” a profession that separates him entirely from the world of law, politics, and captivity (1). He asserts that wandering “cannot be bought by any amount of wealth and is only achieved by the grace of God” (5).  But if others cannot  experience the wild as he does, they will have far less motivation to preserve it. It seems our only hope lies in showing humanity what it is missing. Nature’s “expansion towards the heavens,” which often goes unnoticed as it is “over the heads of man” (28). Thoreau advises most strongly for us to “live in the present” and never “lose a moment of passing life in remembering the past” (26). If we do this, we may realize that nature, like mankind, is no “solitary phenomenon” and though some aspects of it, like the rising sun, will last “forever and ever,” it is of utmost importance to retain as much of it as possible (28).

Works Cited

  1. Thoreau, Henry David. “Walking.” 4Shared.com. PDF File.
  2. Young, Malcolm Clemens. The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2009. Print