Last time, Thoreau described the close attention he paid to life in town — giving it the same level of detached observation that he gave to wildlife in the woods. Just a few paragraphs later he describes the opposite of mindful attention — the experience of being so deep in your own thoughts that your body operates on auto-pilot:
“It was very pleasant, when I stayed late in town, to launch myself into the night, especially if it was dark and tempestuous, and set sail from some bright village parlor or lecture room, with a bag of rye or Indian meal upon my shoulder, for my snug harbor in the woods, having made all tight without and withdrawn under hatches with a merry crew of thoughts, leaving only my outer man at the helm, or even tying up the helm when it was plain sailing.
“I had many a genial thought by the cabin fire ‘as I sailed.’ I was never cast away nor distressed in any weather, though I encountered some severe storms. It is darker in the woods, even in common nights, than most suppose. I frequently had to look up at the opening between the trees above the path in order to learn my route, and, where there was no cart-path, to feel with my feet the faint track which I had worn, or steer by the known relation of particular trees which I felt with my hands, passing between two pines for instance, not more than eighteen inches apart, in the midst of the woods, invariably, in the darkest night.
“Sometimes, after coming home thus late in a dark and muggy night, when my feet felt the path which my eyes could not see, dreaming and absent-minded all the way, until I was aroused by having to raise my hand to lift the latch, I have not been able to recall a single step of my walk, and I have thought that perhaps my body would find its way home if its master should forsake it, as the hand finds its way to the mouth without assistance.”
I think the order is deliberate here. Henry said clearly that he went frequently to town to hear the news and gossip. For all his praise of solitude, he was a sociable person who clearly enjoyed the company of others. So within a few pages he tells us of his need for social contact, and also of his habit of observing human behavior in the same detached way that he observes animal behavior (a solitary activity within a social setting), and then he tells us vividly of being so deep inside his own head that he’s oblivious to all that’s around him — three very different ways of responding to the world, each rewarding in its own way.
(About “A Year in Walden”)