When I made up my Challenges for 2015, I listed the reading of Walden written in 1854 by Henry David Thoreau as something I finally needed to do. After working in the field of preservation for the National Park Service for over 30 years, it had always been an embarrassment not be able to say I had read it. Everyone said it was the “classic” tome on the living in harmony with the environment.
I started reading it but by the end of the first chapter, I was struggling. Thoreau in writing about trying to live the simplest of lives while living in a small cabin in the woods, wrote down his thoughts in the most convoluted and complicated way possible. Reading every sentence was a brutal experience both because most sentences were at least 100 words long, wandered all over hill and dale, and were just so damn depressing.
A great example of both confusing writing and eternal condemnation of all men (and I guess women) is found in this one paragraph:
“Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor of youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of an absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give to the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they were only less young than they were.”
And to totally endear him to all GEEZERS, he finishes with, “I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.”
He also wrote about such uplifting ideas as:
—“Why should they (farmers) begin digging their graves as soon as they are born?
—“The better part of a man is soon plowed into the soil for compost.”
—“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
After making myself get through the first chapter, I skipped ahead and randomly read a few passages. Here’s one example of what I found:
“The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful does not approach to grandeur, nor can it much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore; yet this pond is so remarkable for its depth and its purity as to merit a particular description.” Thoreau then goes on for a dozen sentences describing in excruciating detail the attributes of a body of water I think he just said was not that special.
Stop! Enough! I can’t stand any more. Henry, I may agree with you that man needs to do with less and live in better harmony with the earth, but what good does that do when all you make me want to do is put a bullet in my brain. Death is preferable to living in a world as miserable (and boring) as you describe.
So, I gave up on this challenge. Personally, I doubt anyone has ever read this book in its entirety. Why people tout his book, I have no idea—Thoreau now heads my list of historic figures I would least like to meet, but most like to punch. To me, Walden is less about how to respect the environment and more about how rotten humanity is (and how to use a thousand commas in a thousand different ways).
To make up for my failure at meeting this Challenge, I decided instead to go back and reread what to me was a most outstanding book about the relationship of man to the natural world: Ishmael. Written by Daniel Quinn in 1992, this work of fiction talks about the long discussions a man has with a gorilla. The book is criticized for not always being based on actual facts, but it is insightful enough to bring tears to your eyes, it is depressing enough to want to make you want to do something to save the environment, and is just hopeful enough to give you hope. I truly enjoyed reading this book for the third time. If you are interested in a simple explanation of why we have such massive environmental problems today, this is the book for you.
I want you to be able to experience this book for yourself, so I won’t say anything more, except to give you the last lines of the book just to spark your interest:
WITH MAN GONE
WITH GORILLA GONE