Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Concience by the Pond

by TOM HAYDEN, a social activist since the 60s, has been a California State Assemblyman and state senator. He is a professor at Occidental College and the author of nine books.

ON THE 150TH ANNIVERSARY of Walden, several new editions of the classic were published. Some are elegantly footnoted or designed. Others explore the recurring significance of Thoreau as a mirror reflecting America's nature, and Barksdale Maynard's detailed history of Walden Pond itself contains invaluable new material for students of Thoreau.

Rachel Carson kept Walden by her bedside. Annie Dillard wrote her master's thesis about Walden Pond. Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were affected by it in their early years, as was Pete Seeger. Arlo Guthrie named his cat after Henry; my wife named a dog. Besides these individuals, millions of anonymous backpackers carry their own paperback editions of Walden wherever they seek respite.

These days Thoreau is mainly remembered for the self-conscious life he lived, and for his vital role in the creation of environmentalism. In his own time he embodied ideas that others merely discussed in their parlors. The liquid clarity of Thoreau's sentences arose from the natural simplicity in which he was grounded.

The danger in such memories is that he becomes a harmless icon whose example is salutary but obsolete. The problem is that Thoreau cannot be understood through Walden alone. One wonders if the prestigious publishers of these volumes will issue new editions of the whole Thoreau, the Thoreau who drafted Civil Disobedience (1849), who penned Slavery in Massachusetts (1854), A Plea for Captain John Brown (1860), and Life Without Principle (1863), who kept thirteen notebooks on Native Americans, and whose last mysterious words were "moose" and "Indians" -- or whether he will be reduced to an ascetic hermit.

In 1960, I was spellbound as a student editor listening to a representative fresh from the Southern sit-ins cite Thoreau's refusal to pay taxes for the Mexican war. His conversation with Emerson from jail -- "Why Henry, what are you doing in there?" "Ralph Waldo, what are you doing out there?" -- was the most powerful expression of the credo that carried thousands of young people, mostly African Americans but some whites as well, to fill the southern jails in protest against racial segregation: "A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority... but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight."

The same Thoreau inspired the resistance to the Vietnam War and to domestic police brutality: "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison... It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race, should find them." It was also this Thoreau who framed the issue of voting in a larger moral context: "Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, by your whole influence."

Since Thoreau drafted both Walden and Civil Disobedience in the two years spent at Walden Pond, we must conclude that there was only one Thoreau, not an earlier nature writer and a later champion of Indians, Mexicans, tax-refusing war resisters, and violent abolitionists. The message linking all the issues Thoreau addressed was to live naturally wild and free, like the rest of Creation, not in conformity to institutions or dogma. "Action from principle," he wrote in Civil Disobedience, "the perception and the performance of right, -- changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with any thing which was." In essence, action -- the fully lived life -- creates an evidence of its own that the social order can change, just as the natural order changes through the drama of evolution.

The lesson of Thoreau is not that environmentalists and nonviolent spiritual seekers should retreat from the worlds of poverty, racism, and war, or focus on voluntary simplicity alone as the antidote to consumption. Their natural dignity, he seems to argue, requires that they understand themselves as carriers of a "wildness" that resists all bondage. To be faithful, if we would follow Thoreau into the woods, should we not follow him to the prison cell? If we respect the reasons he retired to his cabin -- a radical act at the time -- why not admire his defense of Captain John Brown?

Thoreau's call is to live heroically as nature does, to feel both the inner and outer as one, to link personal self-reliance with direct action in the world, and to resist the nature of any state that does not conform to the state of nature.

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