“Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness — to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” — Henry David Thoreau, from “Spring,” Walden
We would do ourselves a disservice if we read this passage as merely a rhapsody to the beauties of nature. To me, the middle part — “at the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious…” — is the most interesting and important. Here he’s telling us not just why we need nature, but why we need it wild. “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”
It’s not all about us, Thoreau is telling us. And if we know ourselves and our human nature, we know that we need to be reminded as frequently, and in powerful ways. We need this more, not less, as the years pass and the power of our technology grows.
(About “A Year in Walden”)