The Discipline of Vicinity
On Visiting Walden Pond
September 26, 2013
Sep 26, 2013
9 Min read time
Far from a paean to the far-off and the frontier, Walden testifies to what is most next and near.
“I have come to it as if I could have been ‘away.’”
I came before I ever read Walden. I came during my reading of Walden, and after my reading of it. I understood that no degree was required and none conferred. I recognized it as a place in which to have the Thought of That Place.
I thought of the author as the-one-ahead.
I acknowledged the being-there-before-me of others. I understood that’s what Humanities means—the being here before, and after me, of others.
And where the non-agreement of these terms converged stood a cairn, commenced by Alcott. I heard my thrown stone make the abacus sound. I heard the sound of my amounting: a“finger among fingers.”1
I called the other fingers, “tourists.”
I called the other fingers, “fieldtrips.”
I heard the name “Henry,” said as if known. Again and again, people came here mentioning a man, saying “him” or “Henry,” as if neighbor and known.
How many wildernesses are entered mentioning the one man—and that one person not be discoverer of anything, or founder of anything, and that one person not be victor of anything? A sometime poet and pencil-maker. A tax-evader and walk-taker. A Harvard grad and a handyman.
Henry, said as if known.
I first came by train from Penn Station, by train from North Station, by foot from Concord Station. On the train I read: “Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening. . .”
Because of the proliferation of railroads, Emerson purchased Wyman’s woodlot. Because Emerson purchased the woodlot he jokingly called himself “landlord and waterlord”2 and later lent it to Thoreau, who when teaching in Staten Island was homesick.
Because Thoreau was homesick, he dreamt of return. Because returning, he could afford to go further: he went deeper into the meeting. He went a mile beyond his mother’s house, he returned to the first nature he remembered seeing, to the verge of Concord’s jurisdiction, to what wilderness still remained, to what vulnerability was yet possible, to expose himself to (not retreat from) “the infinite extent of our relations.”
Later I learned the cabin was made of scrap from a railroad-worker’s shanty.
“Meaning” was later defined by a poet as: the gathering of former tenants.3
Later I read the cabin was moved north of Concord to become a container of corn.
Later I read: “I would be little brother to a kernel of corn that is to feed the bodies of men.”4
It is no longer clear to me what precipitated my first trip to Walden Pond. Since my first journey, I have been there more than 300 times.
It was 1996, effectively for me the year of the beginning of the Internet. I had just returned from three years at Oxford University, where one still had to go to a little house in a little island of traffic to conduct one’s computing. I remember how strange it was to enter a house thinking the word “Away.” But the possibility of awayness (what we now call “connectivity”) resided in that household.
In some essential way I suppose my visit to Walden was a part of a larger attempt to apprentice myself to something beyond the university. (My “residence was more favorable. . .” Thoreau writes, “than a university.”) I did not want to enter again a museum dedicated to the not-touching-of-anything; I wanted to revive all the verbs that had grown still around my writing and inquiring.
And I was not alone: my generation was doing it also. Concomitant to the awayness of the Internet was the alternate awayness of the environmental movement, which went outdoors where the Internet went in, which went nearby where the Internet went elsewhere.
I found in Thoreau’s gesture and its supposed isolation the great convergence I had once sought from academia. In that little “hut of words” was the coming together of something so utilitarian and utopic, metaphysical and mundane, poetical and political and simple, simple, simple that it belonged to no single discipline, doctrine, or nation.
I knew from the outset it would admit me.
I hear lapping as the Pond’s language.
I hear police enforcing the not-coming of too many people.
I hear the chickadee’s language, so as not to speak it.
But of all the things I have heard while sitting at Walden Pond, the most frequent and confounding concerns how near to town Walden was.
I have heard it said in the form of a high-schooler’s wisecrack, a tourist’s lament, a scholar’s accusation—as if Thoreau had manufactured a fraudulent frontier.
Now I will show you what I am writing all this while, while sitting at Walden Pond. I am writing 90 times the word “neighbor,” as Thoreau wrote over 90 times the word “neighbor” or “neighborhood” in Walden.
Far from a paean to the far-off and the frontier, the text strikes me as a testament to what is most next and near—the discipline of vicinity.
Abutted by the highway and the newly-erected railroad, Thoreau’s Walden was situated at the crossroads of human presence and human absence, and he seems to have reveled in both and moved fluently between the extremities of both. A place of first permission. Just as “I walked in the woods to see the birds and squirrels, so I walked in the village to see men and boys.” Some evenings, yes, he would follow the railroad tracks into town to visit his mother for a civilized supper, and some nights, yes, he would permit himself the urge to strangle a woodchuck and devour it raw.
I note that Thoreau speaks continuously of our “natures”—himself and his neighbors as natures. Nowadays we would likely say “personality.” But the word “nature” allows for a greater wilderness within us and a more resonant relation. Whitman calls this the “joyous-equable” of being a nature, suggesting that “the inner never lost rapport we hold with earth, light, air, trees . . . . ”5
I hear myself pondering the choice of “Sherwood” as the name of Walden’s primary path, the curious elision of outlaws (Thoreau and Robin): “the outlaw / who has the strength of his own / lawfulness.”6
I hear the Kak dyela of Russian swimmers in Thoreau’s Cove, I hear casting-lines and kayak-oars. I hear the four-minute music, I hear the four-letter words. I hear the chipmunk crying out from his cavern, “Kingdom,” and shrieks at the coming through cobwebs. And, above and about me, I hear the creaking of the great grandchildren of Walden—pitch pines and sumac—as the wind comes to administer the next direction.
And all this gets to be included at Walden as Walden.
Here, if I sit writing on a rock, I will be photographed.
Here if I sit writing (especially in cursive) (especially a poem) on a rock overlooking Walden Pond, I will be photographed.
Here I suppose I am photographed because I am confused for the past, just as poetry is confused for the past, just as the wilderness is frequently confused for the past: fenced, designated, preserved, the pointed-to.
Mothers shush their children, and tourists respectfully whisper as they pass—as if my gesture of writing (the low-techness of it, the antique attentiveness of it, the near-distance of it, the Walden-likeness of it) were on the verge of extinction and warranted preservation.
There’s a line by Seamus Heaney in which he says of Death—“if it were nowadays.” It’s a shockingly subtle and unsettling line, suggesting that we set apart as “then” or “there” what is undeniably now and here.
Or, to put it differently, it isn’t that Thoreau didn’t go far, it’s that Walden was—and remains—near.
In its nearness to town, and the proximity it imposes on all who circumambulate the curious clock of it, Walden invites its visitors to acknowledge the continuous vicinity and nowness of nature and all that the wilderness includes in its abundant narrative. Leaf-fall, flooding, hawk-cry, windsnap, the broke-winged, the hang-nail of eroded roots, the iPhone fracas, the kids’ kerplunks, the chipmunk-scuffle, the camera-click, the sudden and sun-synced cicadas.
“Walden still for example no still.”7
Thoreau tells us that one of the reasons he left Walden Pond in September of 1847 was because it had become too “impressible”: his mind had begun to travel down identical paths; the edifice of his cabin no longer edified and awakened him. It had become too repetitive a residence, too (one might say) “residual.”
I myself no longer go to the gone-cabin. Over the years I’ve let go the parenthesis of one man’s time here. I now take part with others in the vast present tense of it: I swim in the Pond and its 10,000 years.
I am not more home now than I was when I first came. I am as single now, as I was then. I understand solitary as what we are, and “differently tenanted”8 as what the earth is, and Thoreau’s going there as an acknowledgment of what we are: alone, and visited.
In my most recent visits to Walden, I invariably think of Paul Celan’s distinction between solitariness and the “solidary,” a solitude that is turned “toward you.”9
A few weeks ago, while sitting on a rock in Thoreau’s Cove, a man swam up to me (having used the rock to spot his journey) and was startled to find me writing: “Why are you doing homework here?” he asked. I began to correct his impression, when I suddenly realized the rightness of his words. Homework.
It’s a curious home, exposed and doorless, not made of a man or of children, but made of making itself and of a respect for the structures that are daily rising up and plummeting in my vicinity. It is with this I have formed a family.
“My house returns from outside.”10
1. Cesar Vallejo, “[Until the day that I return, from this stone],” The Complete Poetry, trans. Clayton Eshleman (University of California Press, 2007).
2. Barbara L. Packer, The Transcendentalists (University of Georgia Press, 2007), p. 150.
3. Robert Duncan, “This Is the Poem They Are Praising as Loaded,” The Collected Early Poems and Plays (University of California Press, 2012).
4. Sherwood Anderson, “Death,” American Spring Song: The Selected Poems (Kent State University Press, 2007).
5. Walt Whitman, “Specimen Days,” Complete Poetry and Collected Prose (Library of America), p. 807.
6. Robert Duncan, “The Law,” Roots and Branches (New Directions, 1964).
7. Ann Lauterbach, “Still No Still,” The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta Press, 2012).
8. Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species and The Voyage of the Beagle (Random House, 2012), p. 406.
9. Paul Celan, The Meridian, trans. Pierre Joris (Stanford University Press, 2011), p. 139.
10. Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, “Permanent Home,” I Love Artists (University of California Press, 2006).
Photograph: flickr/Jonathan Hinkle
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September 26, 2013
9 Min read time