Thoreau goes to town (Walden 117)

Detail of an 1852 map of Concord, Massachusetts. The Thoreau family home is labeled near the top; Ralph Waldo Emerson's house is in the lower right corner. Library of Congress

Detail of an 1852 map of Concord, Massachusetts. The Thoreau family home is labeled near the top; Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house is in the lower right corner. Library of Congress

Thoreau really wasn’t that isolated at Walden Pond, and he didn’t want to be. He liked his alone time, but walked into town every day or two to hear the latest news and gossip. He found it “as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs.” He writes about it in a chapter in Walden titled “The Village.”

As we’ve already seen, Henry was an avid observer of nature. But his habit of observation didn’t leave him when he entered town. If you’re a birdwatcher or observer of wildlife, imagine walking through a city doing the same thing with people:

Prairie dogs, via Wikimedia Commons

Prairie dogs, via Wikimedia Commons

“As I walked in the woods to see the birds and squirrels, so I walked in the village to see the men and boys; instead of the wind among the pines I heard the carts rattle. In one direction from my house there was a colony of muskrats in the river meadows; under the grove of elms and buttonwoods in the other horizon was a village of busy men, as curious to me as if they had been prairie-dogs, each sitting at the mouth of its burrow, or running over to a neighbor’s to gossip. I went there frequently to observe their habits. …I observed that the vitals of the village were the grocery, the bar-room, the post-office, and the bank; and, as a necessary part of the machinery, they kept a bell, a big gun, and a fire-engine, at convenient places; and the houses were so arranged as to make the most of mankind, in lanes and fronting one another, so that every traveller had to run the gauntlet, and every man, woman, and child might get a lick at him.”

I thought Henry was being smug the first time I read this. Okay, Henry can be smug — we can admit that. But have you ever looked at a place while imagining that you weren’t there to observe it? David Cain writes about this at his blog, Raptitude. Cain writes about watching a scene as if he’s watching a movie — a detached observer, not personally part of the scene at all:

“And something amazing happens: all of my concerns and interests just disappear. I watch the moment unfold however it pleases. No part of me is invested in the moment, it just becomes whatever it wills to be, and it doesn’t matter what happens. The effect is exhilarating and liberating. It seems to be quite a miracle that there is even something happening at all. And it’s always, always beautiful.”

I think this is what Henry was doing when he observed the world around him. Later, upon reflection, he could pass judgment or find humor or meaning in a situation. Here, with tongue firmly in cheek, he’s talking about observing human behavior the way he would observe animal behavior, just watching and listening.

Thoreau was influenced by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in “Nature” (1838) of something very similar to what David Cain describes: “Standing on the bare ground — my had bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing. I see all.”

Emerson was talking about the experience of being in the woods, but Henry carries the idea back into town.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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