Thoreau’s “Tonic of Wildness”

“Can I go for my walk?” Jessica asks the question halfway through our home-school day. The arc of her interest in geometry has waned; her eyes wander outside already. I let the rest of her go.

This will to walk is recent and new. One day she simply announced that she would. Even then she wasn’t interested in a walk, or walking per se, but in her walk, something done by her, for her, with her.

Since then she has owned her walks. And when she returns from the fields and forest, the glow in her eye and the ray on her cheek tell stories her words sometimes match. She shares tales of the chipmunk she saw nibbling nuts, the stick that took shape beneath her whittling knife, or the dreams of the garden she plans to plant that formed in her mind.

Is this how Jessica should be spending her home-school time?
I am rereading Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s account of his two-year “experiment in living” simply and deliberately on the shores of Walden Pond. Though I read him many years ago, I am startled this time by how familiar the work seems: he launched his experiment for reasons that resound through our family’s move here to the farm. He wanted to establish a perspective on contemporary society that would allow him to evaluate its values and practices, with an eye to making improvements. He wanted to wake up his senses, free his thoughts from their ruts, and live a life he loved to live. We do too.

For his part Thoreau was concerned that the obsessive-consumptive habits of society were dulling people’s senses and enslaving them to a quantity and quality of labor that failed to nourish their best selves. As he laments, “The better part of man is soon plowed into the soil for compost,” with predictable results. While the production of goods and services and the technological mechanisms for making and marketing them all flourish, individual humans don’t. Depressed by the sense-numbing pace of life, people crave distraction from expensive entertainment that ties them ever more tightly to their treadmills.

In Thoreau’s memorable words: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation… concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind… There is no play in them.”

Here on the farm, we share his concern, especially when it comes to kids. Teen persons in our culture have no purpose but to be educated for enterprises they will not be able to accomplish for another ten years. They scramble to compete for grades, awards, and victories that have no immediate bearing on their daily lives. Otherwise, they exist to be entertained. So separated from their bodily selves, they are easily seduced by virtual visions of pleasure, and quickly addicted to the rush they get by plugging in and pulling away from their connectedness with natural world. Is it surprising that so many teens feel alienated and depressed? Is it so surprising that they too, like the rest of us, cast about for the quick fix?

Addressing his contemporaries with prophetic wit, Thoreau asks: “What is the pill which will keep us well, serene, contented?” Thoreau’s response expresses the same intuition that guided us here: the only possible pill comes from grandmother Nature’s medicinal chest. The tonic of wildness.

Why Nature? Nature, according to Thoreau, awakens his senses in ways that feed his thoughts; Nature thus entices him participate in the ongoing work of creation—his own included.

For sure, Thoreau is interested in natural phenomena in general. An avid observer of plants and animals, earth, pond, and sky, his book chronicles changes of seasons and the cycles of a day. Yet he doesn’t go to Walden to observe nature per se. He seeks a time, space, and experience that will help him to a true account of life in all its manifestations. Human life included. He wants to sink beneath the surfaces of social doing and find a rocky real on which to stand.

What does he find? What a body knows. He finds endless movement—an ongoing movement of universal creation creating itself in him, around him, and through him. The rhythms of the natural world train his senses to see and smell and hear and taste the waves and trajectories of life’s becoming.

Further, once trained by Nature to notice Her movement, he sees and senses his own participation in it. He too is part of Nature’s ongoing work; Nature lives through his currents of feeling, his arcs of sensations, and the meandering of his own daily walks. Most importantly, for Thoreau, Nature lives in and through the rooting and unfolding of his thoughts. To live like Nature, then, is to find the freedom to think the thoughts that make of the day what it can be. As he writes: The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions… let us spend our lives in conceiving them.”

Nature, then, for Thoreau, is much more than a beautiful context or convenient set of metaphors for human pursuits. Nature is teacher and guide. Nature offers him the sensory education that he needs in order to be able to think about anything—whether railroad or woodchuck—with the same careful attention to its value relative to the “necessaries” of human life.

Our family moved for this same enabling proximity to the natural world so that we might bring our senses to life, find our freedom, and learn to live in love. Our mission: CliffsNotes to Walden.
Jessica comes back from her walk with tales of being stuck in a tree. She ventured out on a branch that led her onto another tree, and then found that the path was one way only.

“How did you get down?” I ask.

“I slid like a sloth down the branch and then dropped.” She smiles as she sits down to write. I smile too. I’m grateful. She is in good Hands.

In this home-schooling venture, I’ll take all the help I can get.

1 thought on “Thoreau’s “Tonic of Wildness”

  1. Steve Schwartzman

    My father was a great fan of Thoreau, so I read Walden as a teenager on Long Island. In those days it was the philosophical and political parts that grabbed me. Now, half a century later and long since settled in central Texas, I’ve also come to resonate to Thoreau’s appreciation of nature. My “living to create,” as you phrase it elsewhere, has found one outlet in photography, particularly of the native plants in my region:


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