I think “Solitude” is an especially timely chapter from because our technological interconnectedness is eroding what little time we have to be alone. Because with a phone and social media, you never really have to be alone, just you and your thoughts.
Thoreau needed more alone time than most people. Even when he wasn’t living in the woods (which was most of his life), he liked to take long walks daily if he could.
But imagine what it would be like to have your own one-room house in the woods, no phone or electronic media of any kind. You can walk to town every day and socialize, but when you are home… you are generally all by yourself in a quiet house amid the sounds of nature. Here’s what Henry said about it:
“I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was something unpleasant. But I was at the same time conscious of a slight insanity in my mood, and seemed to foresee my recovery. In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary, and also that the nearest of blood to me and humanest was not a person nor a villager, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.”
Bear in mind that the next chapter is titled “Visitors,” in which Henry admits that he loves society as much as the next person, and is not a hermit by nature. He apparently enjoyed long conversations with people and was interested in what they had to say. But, being the kind of person that he was, when he’s writing about solitude, he’s all in favor of it and it’s the best thing ever, and he sounds dismissive of human company. And when he’s writing about visitors, he can describe another person at length and in detail as if that other person were the most interesting subject ever. He lived quietly, but intensely.
Another thing I notice here is the way he mentions becoming “suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature.” I think the word “sensible” is key. Whenever Henry writes about nature, he describes it in deeply sensory terms. Though at times he goes on and on about abstract ideals, nature itself is not abstract to him. It is something he sees and hears and touches and tastes and smells.
And then he thinks that no place could ever be strange to him again. I think he means strange as in “a stranger” rather than strange as in weird. It’s another blurring of the boundary between observer and observed, between self and surroundings. Why wasn’t he lonely? Because it was no longer just him. He felt he’d become part of a larger whole.
(About “A Year in Walden”)