In Wildness is the Preservation of the World


Walking quoteThe title of this post is a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s essay, Walking, published posthumously in 1862, but which he wrote and rewrote during the 1850s. I was thinking of that line this week when Council officially opened the new Black Ash Creek Park, in the northeast of the Georgian Meadows subdivision.*

I was thinking of it not in terms of the park – a pleasant, family-oriented, structured space with playground equipment, a small pavilion, basketball court and a chess table – but rather about the untamed green spaces around the park. It is this small patch of wildness that delights me, not the carefully manicured grass or artfully curved sidewalk that borders it.

I’m sure kids – the older ones – will see those woods, the trail, the fields as a magnet for play. I’d hate to think we live in such a paranoid, dangerous world that children can’t be free to explore such spaces, to discover for themselves the magic of the woods. Maybe I’m naive, but I want to believe children can still play outside the confines adults build for them. At the very least, I hope parents take their children for walks into those woods: teach them to love, appreciate and respect the wild, to care for it, to protect and defend it.

Not all unbuilt space should be clear-cut for a housing development. Some wild space has to be retained for our collective enjoyment, and sanity. We need, as Thoreau wrote, wildness to complete ourselves.

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say, A penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago. I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust, and when sometimes I have stolen forth for a walk at the eleventh hour, or four o’clock in the afternoon, too late to redeem the day, when the shades of night were already beginning to be mingled with the daylight, have felt as if I had committed some sin to be atoned for—I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.

Walking defined Thoreau’s philosophy of nature, described through his experiences while walking into the nearby woods; like Buddhist walking meditations on our role in nature and civilization. It later became one of the key essays in the American Transcendentalist-environmentalist movement of the mid-late 19th century. It still has resonance today.

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.

Thoreau associated the uncultivated, untamed wild with freedom, with a greater philosophical state that approached, even broached spirituality. For him a walk in the woods was equivalent to those pilgrims who walked to the Holy Land: saunterers, or “saint-terrers” – Holy-Landers – as he wrote.

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.

In an age when people will drive two blocks rather than walk, Thoreau’s exuberant passion for walking may seem an antiquated voice. But at the same time in a time of urban redesign, walkability scores and active transportation initiatives, he seems a prescient voice. But walking alone is not his focus: walking outside the boundaries is.

Thoreau understood that people needed wilderness if nothing more than as a contrast to better appreciate their over-cultivated, manicured and constrained lives. But also that, in the wild, our thoughts are not constrained by those walls, those rules and those conventions. We become freethinkers when outside the confinement of our civilization. That time spent in the wild made us better able to live in our towns and cities.

Let me live where I will, on this side is the city, on that the wilderness, and ever I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness.

Black Ash Park opening

When I was in elementary school, living in the then-new suburbs of Scarborough, there were still wild areas to explore, to escape to, unconstructed green spaces to play in. We neighbourhood kids learned from being ourselves in those places, constructing our forts, playing our games, climbing trees and wading in creeks. Earlier, easier, less fearful times.

Every year, though, the new homes crept closer, covering the fields, ripping up the woods, bulldozing the farms, until one day you could no longer see uncut grass or untended trees. The creek covered by culverts. Today, no trace of those wild areas exists outside of a few swards of parkland.

When I had just finished elementary school, our family financial situation was so dire we were forced to move to a low-rent place, selling our cosy bungalow and moving to a small, cramped apartment in West Hill. Its sole saving grace was that it was on the edge of a large, uncultivated woodlot, with pond and stream, and long-abandoned farm fields and orchard (although the house was still inhabited).

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps. When, formerly, I have analyzed my partiality for some farm which I had contemplated purchasing, I have frequently found that I was attracted solely by a few square rods of impermeable and unfathomable bog—a natural sink in one corner of it. That was the jewel which dazzled me. I derive more of my subsistence from the swamps which surround my native town than from the cultivated gardens in the village.

I spent many happy hours in those woods, at the pond collecting sticklebacks and catching frogs and turtles. Learning how the trees and plants grew together. Where the bees and wasps nested. I wandered among the trees and dead leaves, looking for salamanders and newts under the decayed logs, watching the squirrels and chipmunks cavort. I loved that space, those private, quiet times. Looking back 50 years, I realize that I learned so much, developed my love for nature in those untended, unstructured hours by the pond.

This is my dreamtime, a time of personal mythos that I remember and describe, but cannot take anyone back to, because the places are now built upon, sanitized, and the wildness banished. But we should all have a wild space in our memories, not just streets, houses, traffic and sidewalks. I want to preserve that space around Black Ash Park so our residents and their children can have their own memories of a small bit of Thoreau’s “wildness.”

And, if it all aligns as it should, the people of Georgian Meadows, indeed all of the town, will have this little bit of wildness at the periphery of their new park, to enjoy and explore for generations to come. Both spaces serve a purpose, both fulfill us, and both are better together than separate.

Nowadays almost all man’s improvements, so called, as the building of houses and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap. A people who would begin by burning the fences and let the forest stand! I saw the fences half consumed, their ends lost in the middle of the prairie, and some worldly miser with a surveyor looking after his bounds, while heaven had taken place around him, and he did not see the angels going to and fro, but was looking for an old post-hole in the midst of paradise. I looked again, and saw him standing in the middle of a boggy Stygian fen, surrounded by devils, and he had found his bounds without a doubt, three little stones, where a stake had been driven, and looking nearer, I saw that the Prince of Darkness was his surveyor.

Today, Thoreau’s Walking is not read nearly as often as his other works, Walden and Civil Disobedience. But it should be. It reminds us of what is important, not merely what is convenient or comfortable.**

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* The image quote at the top is from Thoreau’s particularly potent essay, Life Without Principle (1863). The full quote is:

If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down!

I like to believe my own town is interested in preserving some of that wildness, not merely, as Joni Mitchell sang, paving it: “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot.” We nee to preserve, not simply develop, the wildness.

In that essay, Thoreau also wrote,

What is called politics is comparatively something so superficial and inhuman, that, practically, I have never fairly recognized that it concerns me at all. The newspapers, I perceive, devote some of their columns specially to politics or government without charge; and this, one would say, is all that saves it; but, as I love literature, and, to some extent, the truth also, I never read those columns at any rate. I do not wish to blunt my sense of right so much.

**  Walden is one of those books we’ve all read, usually in school, but like most works of philosophy and social commentary we were forced to read, not really well understood unless one works at it and pays attention. Walden is a quintessential work that belongs on lists of the 100 books every civilized person must read. And it’s not something that can be condensed and emasculated into a TV show. It’s full of pithy quotable stuff, like this:

 If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

I also think his other works deserve our reading and regular re-reading as well. Fortunately, we are blessed with the availability of many inexpensive paperback versions of Thoreau’s works, so there is no excuse for every household not to have one.