Saturday, November 01, 2014

New England Reflections and Platypus Readings: Platypus Travels Part LVI/The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXIV

Our travels this summer took us all over Connecticut and Massachusetts on the trail of historic locations and famous figures.  One place we were particularly delighted to see was Walden Pond, the site a which Henry David Thoreau conducted his famous experiment.  Both my wife and I have taught a selection of Thoreau's works and it was a treat to see Walden complete with a replica of Thoreau's cabin (the original was sold for scrap shortly after he vacated it).

I don't know what I think of Thoreau's thought.  On the whole, he seems more useful as a critic than as any positive role model.  On the other hand, we had a nice long chat with a wonderful park ranger at Walden who had been inspired in her job by Thoreau's love of nature.  If Dana Gioia can co-opt lapsed Catholics as part of a larger Catholic literary culture, maybe Thoreau can be treated as a lapsed Puritan.  His thought, iconoclastic, numinous, visionary, and full of a wonder and love for creation, certainly helped to solidify the move from Post-Puritan to Yankee.  This Christ-less Quaker still followed the internal light and managed to become something of a secular saint.  Most times, I don't think he deserves that -maybe he approaches it at his best moments.

Thoreau has many disciples in modern America.  I can feel his presence hovering over Wendell Berry and Marilynne Robinson.  I have known people who have taken up the call to simplify and turned to organic farming (ironic since Thoreau spends much of Walden attacking the cupidity of New England farmers).  Some have flourished and some have failed.  I've had students who have connected with Thoreau, particularly his essay Walking.  These students often come from families that spend a good deal of time hunting, thought I've also had one who was a nascent park ranger who particularly seemed to get it.  I have the most success in winning new admirers for Concord's Curmudgeon on our senior year "Thoreau Walks".  These are hour-and-a-half treks into the woods and farmlands that surround the school spent admiring nature and reading aphoristic passages from Walking.  One of the tragedies of living in Houston is that each year the available open space to walk has grown dramatically less.  This irony is far from lost on the students and it poses a real challenge to the die-hard-libertarian-no-zoning tendencies that all Houstonians have as a birth right.

So where do I fall in the end?  Preserving nature is second nature to me.  I grew up in a town with at least three sizable parks and a zoning laws that set some 11-15% of the land aside as open space.  One of these preserves was behind our house and even as a rather inactive child I benefited from it ways I can't even begin to express.  The wanton devastation of the natural world I've seen in just four years of living in North Houston appalls me.  On the other hand, I don't know that Thoreau provides a firm foundation from which to resist these depredations.  A sneer and a suggestion do not a coherent worldview make -not even a coherent argument.  So, in the end, I think Thoreau is a trailblazer.  He clears paths and suggests possible routes.  That's all he ever claimed to do.  It's up to us to chose the way.

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