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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Modern Thoreau

Air Date: Week of May 16, 2003

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Although Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” was written more than one hundred years ago, commentator Tom Montgomery-Fate finds that many of its ideas are relevant today.

Transcript

CURWOOD: “Walden,” by Henry David Thoreau, is considered one of the most important pieces of 19th century American literature. And it remains immensely popular, even in today's fast paced society. Commentator Tom-Montgomery Fate explains why this might be.

MONTGOMERY-FATE: This month, I've been re-reading Thoreau's journal, “Walden.” How can a book written in the middle of the 19th century, before electricity and cars and indoor plumbing be so current, so predictive of the risks of unbridled technology and affluence. Thoreau lived alone for about two years in a cabin he built himself on land that belonged to his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

"I would rather sit alone on a pumpkin than be crowded on a velvet cushion," he writes. Thoreau powerfully captures a resilient hope rooted in his deep connection to the natural world, the trees and water, birds and muskrats. Many philosophers and psychologists have noted that in spite of our stunning affluence, Americans continue to search for hope, for something to believe in, for a remedy to the cynicism that accompanies a culture of "never-enoughness."

For some, the solution is a kind of romantic search for the wild, for the remembering of human relationship in the natural world. Urban and suburbanites alike long to escape the high-tech clutter and dizzying speed of their convenient but virtual lives. Some are desperate to get their hands dirty and plant flowerbeds and vegetable gardens. Others hike and camp and canoe in state parks and national forests and visit model or working farms. Often we hate to leave.

We want to slow down and be more connected to nature. We want to belong. Being, longing. Thoreau understood the difference between the two, between being satisfied where you are and always longing for something else. For a little bit more. It is “Economy,” the long first chapter of “Walden” which contains the book's most famous line: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." But few remember the next two sentences: "What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city, you go to the desperate country and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats."

The Latin root of the word "desperate" means “without hope.” Yet the word has also come to mean “frantic” and “dangerous.” Perhaps, in our culture of accumulation it also means the inability to be satisfied. In spite of Thoreau's love of the country, he implies we can feel desperate anywhere if we don't understand our connection to the natural world, if we're unable to be satisfied to belong.

Thoreau chose sustenance over satiation. He knew what enough was. This was his genius, and is, perhaps, the object of our greatest longing.

[MUSIC: Walt Michael “Arran Boat” Hammered Dulcimer: Retrospective Rounder (1998)]

CURWOOD: Tom Montgomery-Fate is author of “Beyond the White Noise,” a book of essays about living in the Philippines.

[MUSIC]

 

Links

Henry David Thoreau Homepage

 

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