Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

Today in 1854 Henry David Thoreau published Walden.

At SPEX we like to use Thoreau’s Walden as a starting point for many of our programs. Walden is a great example of what can happen when we step outside, wander onto a trail, or push off from shore into the pull of a river. We gain valuable perspective there. We can put our lives into brackets, so to speak, by temporarily putting them on hold—getting out of the house, out of the office, away from the digital screens, and the email. Then, when we are no longer occupied by our daily distractions we can consider how much good—or bad—those things bring to our lives.

When Thoreau went out into the woods around Walden Pond, he spent a lot of time observing and documenting nature and its rhythms, but that wasn’t all he studied. He studied himself, his neighbors, his community, and society in general. Away from society in the embrace of nature he was better able to study and understand society, its virtues, and its failings. So when he returned he published his book and it still helps us see our own society more clearly even today—that’s how powerful being outside is for our philosophical thinking.

In our experience, going into the Grand Canyon on a hike, or going through it on the Colorado River, is one of the greatest ways to reground the soul, gain perspective, and enjoy some thoughtful conversation with friends. The place takes us away from society and forces us to see the world again as if for the first time.

In 1980, Edward Abbey took a copy of Walden with him on a river trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers, departing on the day of that year’s presidential election. His own reflections on the state of society and the resulting conversations with Thoreau he had in his own mind, were published as “Down the River with Thoreau,” published in the book of the same name.

In the spirit of Abbey I took Thoreau’s Walden with me on my first river trip through the Grand Canyon, but I have to admit I did not open it more than a few times. And I did not write anything either. It was as if I was too overwhelmed by the newness of the perspective down there on the river. All I could do was take in as much as I could. And even to bring Thoreau into my mind was to bring too much of society and my own presuppositions about it into a space where I could truly see it more clearly. That’s at least one thing I think Thoreau accomplished in Walden and his time in the woods.

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