It wasn’t mere crankiness that made Henry David Thoreau suspicious of civilization and all its defenders, titles, and awards. Rather, he thought that civilization already had more champions than it deserved, and that it was not his particular genius to be another. Civilization consistently (and incorrectly) rates itself above Nature, Thoreau felt, just as humans rate themselves above animals. (And, a Jungian might add, just as the conscious mind rates itself above the unconscious mind.)
Thoreau appreciated the potential for human advancement, but saw that if the advance is not grounded in Nature — the wild, the uncivilized — then society becomes tame in an unhealthy way, as cows are tame, or chickens, or sheep. Without a foundation in capital-N Nature, the civilized person is split and deteriorates from within.
Rather than pit civilization against Nature, human against animal (and conscious against unconscious), Thoreau saw a full life as possible only when the two elements work together. Although his Walden Pond experiment is often interpreted as Thoreau turning his back on civilization, it was hardly that. He walked to town daily, lectured at the lyceum, received visitors, borrowed, lent, farmed, and marketed his crop in the village. He wrote with the great hope of his books being read by his fellows, for above all he was a writer, an artist, a communicator.
But if it had come to choosing between Nature and civilization, Thoreau saw his deeper essences mirrored in Nature. Was he misguided to so value the wild? His critics suggest that he couldn’t make it in normal society, and thus made his relationship with Nature into more than it should be for a human. Thoreau’s supporters, on the other hand, say that his supreme respect for Nature was precisely his genius, and argue that our lack of proper regard for the wild is what has made civilization so destructive. Having repressed Nature, we have become wild in a strangely distorted way, behind the mask of civilized respectability.
For friends of Thoreau, the prognosis grows more and more grim. The small-n nature that remains has become diseased from within — as Thoreau might have told us it would. The growth of civilization is out of control, a cancer on the earth.
I started this essay in Mexico City, where there are twenty-six million people and three million cars. While I was there, I heard on the radio news of an epidemic of mild retardation in babies that was traced to lead poisoning. Simply breathing in Mexico City is equivalent to inhaling two and a half packs of cigarettes a day, and the air is so thick that the magnificent snowcapped mountains surrounding the city have disappeared from view. I’ve been told birds sometimes drop from midair onto the streets and sidewalks, overcome by pollution. (That must have been years ago, for the only bird I saw or heard during my stay was a rooster in a neighbor’s back yard.) On good days, the air is officially declared “unsatisfactory”; more often, it is “dangerous.” People are advised to stay inside or, if they drive, to keep their windows rolled up and their air conditioners on. Along the Periferico highway, every hour is rush hour, save perhaps from two to six in the morning. And during peak use, the subway is so vacuum-packed that women ride in special cars to protect against indecency. Faces on the street are unhappy, if not desperate. Grinding poverty is the norm. Meanwhile, a small middle class barely holds on, and a few live in obscene luxury — though they, too, have to breathe.
The threat of crime is omnipresent. Those who can afford it live behind gates with armed guards, their windows protected by iron bars. Leaving the house always brings the threat of robbery — not to mention traffic jams, no place to park, long lines, and bureaucratic hassles. Whenever possible people stay home, safe for the moment behind their bars, and watch television. It’s a hell of a life, and everyone I met there was making plans for escape.
Now I am back home in rural West Virginia. The motto of my state is “Mountain men are always free”; its slogan, “Wild and wonderful.” My wife and I live in a four-room bungalow a mile outside the town of Petersburg. A hundred yards from our house, there’s an active beaver dam on Johnson Run, a creek that feeds a branch of the Potomac. Every now and then, a fox streaks past our front porch at dusk, miles ahead of the dogs barking in the hills. In the nearby forests there are bears, bobcats, and — some of the local woodsmen testify — still an occasional panther.
Upon my return from Mexico, there was a heavy snowfall, followed by a cold snap that brought the temperature down to twenty below zero. The rivers and creeks froze hard enough to skate on, so in the afternoon I took a break from my desk and skated for miles through the countryside. The roads had shut down, giving the feeling of living a hundred years ago. In just forty-eight hours, I had gone from one world to its opposite: from Mexico City, where the air is sometimes so thick that one can stare at the sun at noon, to West Virginia, where on a crisp, moonless night I can find the path by the shine of the Milky Way.
The country is now an extension of the city. If one squints or wears blinders, one may still get the impression of broad horizons and healthy nature, but open eyes can’t avoid seeing where things are headed.
In 1925, Robinson Jeffers, writing from the shores of the Pacific in a tower he had built by hand, warned that young people should “keep their distance from the thickening center. . . . Corruption never has been compulsory.” He added, “When the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.” It is in the spirit of Jeffers and Thoreau that I have always chosen to live a mile outside of town in one of the mountain states.
But it’s a long way from 1925 to the edge of the twenty-first century, and we can no longer say with confidence that corruption is not compulsory. The cancers in such places as New York, Los Angeles, and Mexico City are neither isolated nor contained, but are the expanding centers of a systemic disease that now runs through the entire planet. There is no mountain remote or tall enough to offer refuge from this cancer — any more than the uninvaded tissue of a cancer-infested human body can actually be called “healthy.”
Take West Virginia, for example. In the ten years I have lived in the “Wild and wonderful” state, I have seen nothing but a steady deterioration of the spirit behind that slogan: a mountain gouged for a power line; a forested hill clear-cut to an obscene nudity; factories thoughtlessly expanded; every town’s chamber of commerce preaching Growth as if it were the Gospel, until the local people are convinced there is something in Growth for them, something they call, mysteriously enough, a higher standard of living. As if these mountains, a place John Denver referred to as “almost heaven,” weren’t high enough.
Meanwhile, every bear has been roused from its winter den, shot with a tranquilizer gun, and electronically tagged so its movements can be monitored from environmental labs. In the fall, the deer, turkey, and wildfowls are not hunted but harvested according to wildlife demographics. Fish no longer reproduce and grow in streams; instead, they are fattened in hatcheries and stocked by the Fisheries Department. It’s the same story in all the mountain states, from Maine to Oregon. The day is approaching when every remaining wolf that howls in the night will be recorded on some naturalist’s wildlife seismograph.
The wild is no longer wild in any real sense. Thoreau’s Nature is gone. Even if we live in the country, we now live within and against the urban mind, and there is nowhere left where we can go to escape it. The West as frontier ended at the Pacific. Go any further and you come to superindustrial Japan. Backtrack to the mountains — Jeffers’s solution — and you learn soon enough that the earth is a single body not unlike our human bodies. If it is seriously diseased in one or several places, it is just as certainly diseased through and through.
The country is now an extension of the city. If one squints or wears blinders, one may still get the impression of broad horizons and healthy Nature, but open eyes can’t avoid seeing where things are headed. Even in rural county airports, small jet runways are under construction so corporate executives can fly to the mountains with their staffs and computers, and run their businesses from ski lodges and country estates. With modern gadgetry, a country person can see the same movies, hear the same music, and “attend” the same business conferences as a city person. For those who can afford to buy up huge chunks of mountain real estate — actors, executives, sports heroes, and the like — there is less and less reason to live in the city. And so the country, the wild, begins to disappear. West Virginia becomes Washington, D.C.’s back yard, Baltimore’s playground, Pittsburgh’s second office, Cincinnati’s game preserve. And we backwoods followers of Thoreau find ourselves displayed as quaint anachronisms.
All the while, the earth’s cancer grows exponentially. There may not be twenty-six million people on my mountaintop, but acid rain falls here, too, and the overstressed trees represent a breakdown in the earth’s immune system. Unfortunately, holistic approaches to the problem went out of style after the reforms of the sixties and seventies, about the same time that Mexico City considered — and rejected — a vast expansion of its public-transportation system, reasoning that purchase and maintenance of automobiles put more money into the economy than subway tokens.
We inhabit one planet. Mexico City is West Virginia. Knowing this poses a dilemma for the modern follower of Thoreau: if the earth has lost its capital-N Nature, then a Thoreau-like stance of aggressive independence loses its vitality, for the primary meaning of that stance always lay in its insistence on preserving that particular mirror of the soul, Nature. Without the wild, the follower of Thoreau becomes a ritualist, a Sunday Thoreau at best, whose living godhead has been destroyed. Even aggressively putting one’s life on the line to slow the advance of civilization risks sentimentality. Trying to save what cannot be saved is tantamount to living in the past, looking backward instead of forward, a fatal error.
For those of us convinced that Thoreau’s was a watershed vision, one now effectively beyond the possibility of being realized, what will be our future guiding principles, our future experiments in living? If corruption is compulsory, should we just dive in? How does one live conscientiously in times gone wrong?
We could fight development, against all hope. For a few years now, perhaps for the sake of my conscience, I have proselytized myself blue-faced to my fellow mountaineers to remember our freedom and wilderness myths. After a while, preaching always sounds hollow, especially to the preacher. Current mountaineers want, above all, to enjoy a higher standard of living, like the one they see on television. Capital-N Nature is as far away as Daniel Boone and Indians. It is something for museums and history books.
Recently, I’ve been reading Walt Whitman, who tells me this: Here is but a slice of eternity; there are plenty of worlds left; everything dies; I die, and this world I inhabit dies as well. Dying is another stage of living, and there is nothing to keep me from being alive right into the dying. Even if my world is dying, proximity to its death can help me appreciate life all the more. One can never know the full value of anything until it threatens to become lost forever.
So, sitting on my front porch, a warm rain falling on the roof, I become alert: the last rain, the last country porch, the last tin roof. Or walking in the mountains at dusk, stumbling upon a fox, I expand, like Gandhi, who died with the name of God on his lips: the last fox, the last forest, the last walk in Nature. Standing at the edge of a swamp, I rejoice in the peepers’ last song, in the last meadow, in the last spring. And taking a morning bath in a branch of the Potomac (one of the best things that I do), I take my last swim, in the last river, on the last morning.
In his epilogue to the Viking Portable Thoreau, editor Carl Bode concludes that Thoreau was a sick man. Diagnosis: unresolved Oedipus complex, overattachment to his mother, ambivalence toward his father. Despite his literary achievements, Thoreau’s personal life was a failure, according to Bode.
Bode goes so far as to say (1) that Thoreau wrote “to make up for his deficiency,” his inability to enjoy a “normal” sexual relationship with a woman or a “normal” friendship with a man; and (2) that his aggressiveness and “excessive independence” were compensations for incipient homosexuality, for which Thoreau felt such enormous guilt that “at the unconscious level he ended his life of his own accord.”
Bode’s major evidence for Thoreau’s desire to die is a comment made by Sam Staples, Thoreau’s jailor, after Staples left Thoreau’s deathbed. “Never spent an hour with more satisfaction,” Staples said to Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Never saw a man dying with so much pleasure and peace.”
Not even in passing does Bode consider that Thoreau might have lived his life to such a depth, and consequently such a height, that he arrived at his death without fear. Might not a Sam Staples of Socrates’s day have left the philosopher’s deathbed also saying, “Never saw a man dying with so much pleasure and peace”?
Carl Jung considered a positive attitude toward death and dying to be a sign of psychic health. He saw that those “who filled up [life’s] beaker . . . and emptied it to its lees” inevitably came to see death “as only a transition, as a part of a life process whose extent and duration are beyond our knowledge.”
Thoreau was not afraid to die for the same reason he was not afraid to leave Walden Pond after two years, two months, and two days. Why did he leave? He said he had several more lives to lead. To be born means to die, but Thoreau was one of those who saw also that to die means to be reborn. Does Bode forget that Thoreau’s life at Walden Pond was steeped in Hindu reflection, which Thoreau identified, of all the philosophies that he loved, as the one nearest to his heart? Is it beyond the reach of Professor Bode’s imagination that a man might become his philosophy?
Jung points out that only a person with faith in eternal life can fulfill any particular life, especially the stages of dying and death. A faith in eternal life, however, is very different from belief in the afterworld. Thoreau was a man who believed in very little, but he left behind in his works a big faith, a living faith, and — if I may put it so — a dying faith.
Thoreau’s deathbed remark to the minister, who had asked him if he could see the other shore, summed up his life, his work, and his philosophy in five small words: “One world at a time.” Later he added, in his last complete sentence, “Now comes smooth sailing.”
His final words were “moose” and “Indian.”