Henry David Thoreau

Date: 1862

Part I.

Introductory Note.

Henry David Thoreau was born at Concord, Massachusetts, July 12, 1817, and died there May 6, 1862. He was one of the most markedly individual of that group of philosophers and men of letters which has made the name of the little Massachusetts town so notable in the intellectual history of America.

Thoreau came of a family of French descent, and was educated at Harvard. "He was bred," says his friend Emerson, "to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun." The individualism which is implied in these facts was the most prominent characteristic of this remarkable person. Holding that "a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone," he found that a small part of his time, devoted to making lead - pencils, carpentering, and surveying, gave him enough for his simple needs, and left him free for the rest of the year to observe nature, of think, and to write.

In 1845 Thoreau built himself a hut on the edge of Walden Pond, and for over two years lived there in solitude, composing his "Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers." During these years he kept a journal, from which he later drew the volume called "Walden," and these are his only two books published during his lifetime. From articles in magazines and manuscripts, some eight more volumes have been compiled since his death.

Interesting as is the philosophy which permeates the work of this solitary, his books have found readers rather on account of their minute and sympathetic observation of nature and the beauty of their style. The following essay on "Walking" represents all three elements; and in its charming discursiveness, in the absence of any structure to hinder the writer's pen from wandering at will, and in the responsiveness which it exhibits to the moods and suggestions of nature, it is a characteristic expression of its author's spirit.

Walking [1862]

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, - to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee and every one of you will take care of that.

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, - who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived from "idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going a la Sainte Terre," to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, "There goes a Sainte - Terrer," a Saunterer, a Holy Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word form sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. But I prefer the first, which, indeed, is the most probable derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.

It is true, we are but faint - hearted crusaders, even the walkers, nowadays, who undertake no persevering, never - ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearth side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return - prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again - if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.

To come down to my own experience, my companion and I, for I sometimes have a companion, take pleasure in fancying ourselves knights of a new, or rather an old, order - not Equestrians or Chevaliers, not Ritters or riders, but Walkers, a still more ancient and honourable class, I trust. The chivalric and heroic spirit which once belonged to the Rider seems now to reside in, or perchance to have subsided into, the Walker, - not the Knight, but Walker, Errant. He is a sort of fourth estate, outside of Church and State and People.

We have felt that we almost alone hereabouts practised this noble art; though, to tell the truth, at least, if their own assertions are to be received, most of my townsmen would fain walk sometimes, as I do, but they cannot. No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital in this profession. It comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of the Walkers. Ambulator nascitur, non fit. Some of my townsmen, it is true, can remember and have described to me some walks which they took ten years ago, in which they were so blessed as to lose themselves for half an hour in the woods; but I know very well that they have confined themselves to the highway ever since, whatever pretensions they may make to belong to this select class. No doubt they were elevated for a moment as by the reminiscence of a previous state of existence, when even they were foresters and outlaws.

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