Unable to face delving through the density of genre crap – romance, crime, celebrity, war, new age- that now makes up the local library collection (and it’s not unique in this – try any provincial library), I was about to stumble out when I spied a new edition of Thoreau’s Walden, that classic tale of the mid 19th century American ecologist who lived in Connecticut and went bush for a couple of years, building himself a small house in the forest by Walden Pond and leading a reclusive life. He spent his days observing the weather, the flora and fauna and the seasonal changes on an intimate level and writing about the experience in a unique way, using it as a means to comment critically on the industrial and commercial milieu of mid 19th century capitalism – the growing commodification, the alienation of man from his work and the meaninglessness of the routine social life.
He touches on Native American culture, theosophy, on yoga, on anarchism (he was later to write a highly influential tract on civil disobedience) and Thoreau, of course, anticipated the modern ecologist (deep or shallow), who sees that the only solution to man’s current dilemmas lies in us becoming once more, obedient to natural rhythms.
Reading Walden I was particularly struck by the following: That tasks in touch with the natural world have their own rhythms – they simply are, one just does e.g. in making and placing shingles; in hoeing two acres by hand; in collecting nuts for winter… It seems an essential lesson in this time- driven world (have to get this done by five o’clock sort of thing).
His lack of preciousness. Much of the forest around Walden was second growth, the train could be heard, men came to cut ice… there is no pretense that this is ‘untamed natural wilderness’, to quote the current West Coast brand which achieves the surreal in three words. This other life goes on, he has a dialogue with it and will one day return to it (he took over his father’s pencil making factory).
Finally, he is not an extremist, is content to relate to this patch of ground. In this age of increasingly frenetic travel to see new sights he suggests we get to know our own backyard, heal it if necessary, adapt to its seasons and learn respect. This resonates for me as each afternoon I walk the dogs down to the creek and see the small changes, the ducks coming and going, the blackberry growing each year…
And as the Croesus Track becomes no longer a backyard but a tourist commodity with contractors, road closures, concessions, poisonings, monitorings, helicopters, out of town corporations arriving – the whole circus focused on ‘untamed natural wilderness’ – I feel the contradiction, and alienation, of the ‘national park’.