In The Practice of The Wild, Beat poet, Zen student, and environmentalist Gary Snyder writes of stepping off the beaten path. This metaphor brings to mind the 19th century Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who advocated for “absolute freedom and wildness,” and who strongly preferred sauntering through the woods to walking the public road. These authors have attracted a large following among nature-lovers, environmentalists, and even anarchists, many of whom crave independence from the constraints of modern society, and some of whom advocate for “rewilding” or a return to ancestral lifestyles. But a close reading of Snyder and Thoreau finds little support for “human wildness,” i.e., a state of being free of social constraint. Rather, they portray wildness as a fleeting experience and use the word more as a metaphor for creativity and originality. Once we understand this point, we find that the key to absolute freedom is not to be found in nature, but rather in the spirit of self-reliance and self-discipline – or put differently, the wild must indeed be “practiced.”
The mission was to complete the remaining twelve peaks needed to scratch the month of May off the Grid, and accordingly I arranged to take a week off of work. But the Rock The Ridge 50-miler left me with a sore ankle, which required a reduction in speed and mileage. In Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Walking,” he used the word “saunter” to describe the act of sallying forth into the woods, which was for him the adventure and escape of his day, and he likened this daily saunter to the motion of a stream flowing downhill to the ocean:
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.
— Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”
To complete the Grid for May, I’d need to saunter instead of run — and rather than pushing myself, I’d need to “flow” through the mountains, just like a stream, except I’d be going uphill as well as down…
The east coast naturalist John Burroughs was a passionate observer of the forests, animals, and especially the birds of his native Catskill Mountains. He wrote unabashedly, “I find I see, almost without effort, nearly every bird within sight in the field or wood I pass through (a flit of the wing, a flirt of the tail are enough, though the flickering leaves do all conspire to hide them).”
This was no idle boast. Theodore Roosevelt, himself a great birder, acknowledged Burroughs’ mastery in his 1905 book, Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter, where he wrote that “No bird escaped John Burroughs’ eye; no bird note escaped his ear.”
As a Burroughs fan and someone trying to improve his own skills, I was thrilled to discover recently that the master had left behind some advice on the art of observation. Several of his essays contain how-to tips, including “The Art of Seeing Things,” “Sharp Eyes” and The Gospel of Nature, which I’ve tried to summarize in this blog post.
But first a few words of caution, in the form of a caveat Burroughs offered his readers: “I have as little hope of being able to tell the reader how to see things as I would have in trying to tell him how to fall in love or to enjoy his dinner. Either he does or he does not, and that is about all there is of it. Some people seem born with eyes in their heads, and others with buttons or painted marbles.”
The other day the idea occurred to me to total up the numbers in my training log. The calculation showed that I’d recently completed my 1,000th mile barefoot. I reflected on the odyssey that had led to this unexpected milestone, and an account seemed in order.
I picked up a beech leaf and examined it: the leaf was pale yellow in the center and dark brown around the edges. I knew that soon these leaves would carpet the forest floor in layers of beige, but for now, the forest was sparkling in the late October sunlight, and the beech trees glowed like gold.
The scene brought to mind Henry David Thoreau’s 1860 essay “Autumnal Tints,” in which he wrote, “There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate.” He meant that by diligent study of nature we learn to appreciate its beauty. He summed up the essay by encouraging readers to pay attention to nature:
When you come to observe faithfully the changes of each humblest plant, you find that each has, sooner or later, its peculiar autumnal tint; and if you undertake to make a complete list of the bright tints, it will be nearly as long as a catalogue of the plants in your vicinity.
— Henry David Thoreau, “Autumnal Tints”
And so, this fall, I tried to do as Thoreau suggested, that is, as I hiked, ran, and drove through the eye-shocking autumnal displays in upstate New York’s Shawangunk and Catskill mountains, I tried to “observe faithfully.” Here is my list of the brightest tints….
Henry David Thoreau’s 1862 essay, “Autumnal Tints,” contains colorful descriptions of New England’s fall foliage, including sugar maple and northern red oak, as well as more humble plants like bearded grass and pokeweed. Of special interest to me was Thoreau’s commentary on the red maple (Acer rubrum): he’d noticed that as early as the 25th of September a small red maple on the edge of a meadow had already turned a “far brighter red than the blossoms of any tree in summer” and that the tree was all the “more conspicuous” in contrast with the rest of the forest, which was still green:
Some single trees, wholly bright scarlet, seen against others of their kind still freshly green, or against evergreens, are more memorable than whole groves will be by-and-by. How beautiful, when a whole tree is like one great scarlet fruit full of ripe juices, every leaf, from lowest limb to topmost spire, all aglow, especially if you look toward the sun!
— Henry David Thoreau, Autumnal Tints
In recent weeks I’d spotted solitary maple leaves dotting the trail, splashes of scarlet among the prevailing greens and browns of the forest floor. This Sunday would be the 25th of September — and based on Thoreau’s essay it seemed precisely the right time to go scouting for the season’s first red maples to have fully changed their color. My friend Steve Aaron was looking for a mountain to climb, so I invited him to join me and Odie the Labradoodle for an attempt on Fir Mountain, one of several pathless peaks that rise above the headwaters of the Esopus Creek.
Sitting on the porch one summer weekend afternoon, I became conscious of a great cacophony emanating from high in the trees and deep in the bushes, but of the many creatures buzzing, chirping, trilling, squawking, screaming, and clattering away, none was visible. Could I learn to distinguish any of these sounds and associate them with their respective species? And would I ever catch a glimpse of these secretive singers?
Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century Transcendentalist and author of Walden, came under attack in the New Yorker last fall for his individualistic philosophy and seemingly anti-social attitude. This isn’t a new issue. His contemporaries regarded him as crusty and contrary and called him a hard man to like. The naturalist John Burroughs wrote that he lacked sympathy and compassion.
Is it OK to admire Thoreau’s writing, if he was really such an unfriendly person?
It was with this question in mind that I recently read Men of Concord, a book published in 1936 that contained selected entries from Thoreau’s journal over the period 1838-1860, with a special focus on interactions with his neighbors in the Massachusetts town of Concord. The idea came from N. C. Wyeth (1881-1945), a popular illustrator during the early 20th century and a great admirer of Thoreau’s work, who conceived of the book as a way to help the public appreciate Thoreau as a great American philosopher. He contributed twelve original oil panels, which were reproduced as color plates in the book and which are on display today at a museum exhibition in Concord.
In Whitman: A Study, the Catskills nature-writer, essayist, and philosopher John Burroughs (1837-1921) defended Walt Whitman (1819-1892) against the hostile reactions of contemporary scholars, for whom Whitman’s poetry was too coarse, racy, and controversial. In the book, Burroughs presented Walt Whitman as the “poet of democracy” and described him as a primal man, visionary of the open air, barbarian in the parlor, force of nature, and prophet. But Whitman: A Study isn’t just about Whitman, it’s also an exposition of Burroughs’ philosophy. Inspired by both science and nature, Burroughs saw natural processes at work within society, and he explained how both physical strength and the vitality of culture can fade if we lose our connection with the natural world. This message seems just as relevant for our information age as it was 120 years ago when Whitman: A Study was first published.
In his prime, John Burroughs (1837-1921) was one of the most popular writers in America, with a huge following of readers and relationships with the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and railroad tycoon E. F. Harriman. His passion was the birds, forests, rivers, and mountains of his native Catskills, and his writings reveal a scientist’s powers of observation and a nature-lover’s emotional connection to the land. In 1919, at age 82 he appeared in a short film, shown leading a trio of young children around his Catskill farm. He points out butterfly, chipmunk, grasshopper, and then the following words appear on the screen:
I am an old man now and have come to the summit of my years. But in my heart is the joy of youth for I have learned that the essentials of life are near at hand and happiness is his who but opens his eyes to the beauty which lies before him.
Today, these words are remembered by a dedicated group of Burroughs enthusiasts. But despite his enormous popularity, his hasn’t become a household name like other American naturalists such as Henry David Thoreau or John Muir. I wondered, why?