How I began my lifelong walk with Henry Thoreau

"I know what your trouble is," my wife called when I entered the house one wintry afternoon after working two hours in my greenhouse.

"What's that?" I asked.

"You have spring fever," she said.

Actually, she was wrong, even though we were experiencing two weeks of bitter and almost sunless weather that prevented my daily walks. More than that, I longed for a tramp in field and wood.

In the essay "Walking," Henry David Thoreau states that he could not stay in his chamber for a single day "without acquiring some rust." Thus, I had moved about in the greenhouse, plucking dry leaves and making geranium cuttings, in order to stall oxidation.

A good many years before reading the essay, I had become an outdoorsman at every opportunity. As a 13-year-old, I made wildflower and butterfly collections and learned to identify all of the birds in our county. Even so, it was probably Thoreau who started me on this adventure in nature.

It came about after I ran across an old book that had belonged to a brother several years my senior. The book was "History of American Literature," by Leonidas W. Payne Jr., published in 1919. Turning the pages, I happened to stop at a photograph of Thoreau and began to read. What fascinated me was a writer who had sympathy and understanding with nature. Thoreau found something "serene and grand" in the woods, Payne wrote.

That may have been the spark that prompted me to ask Mother for a butterfly net, which she sewed at once, and caused me to order a field guide to birds. No doubt that same spark was to make me a devoted reader of Thoreau's works.

The sketch of Thoreau's life in the old book made interesting reading, It explained that Thoreau received a Harvard education but preferred "chic-a-chic-dees" to "DD's." He was a disciple of philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who called him a "Bachelor of Nature."

The best story about the poet-naturalist concerned his first published volume, "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers" (1849). It is a tour account made by him and his brother John.

Partly a narrative, the book is composed mainly of the writer's thoughts, moral observations, and poems. Most readers then found the work dull and dry. A thousand copies were printed, but only about 100 were "disposed of by gift or sale." The publisher mailed the rest of the edition to Thoreau's home. He later remarked that he owned a library of 900 volumes, all of which he had written himself.

That sketch was a small sample of what I would read by and about Thoreau in the coming years. In two universities where I taught, "Walden" (1854) and selections from the "Journals" were always on the required list for sophomore English. They never failed to inspire lively discussion.

It is noteworthy that a number of Thoreau's poems have an outdoor setting. A stanza from "Rumors of an Aeolian Harp" identifies a vale without toil or strife,

There love is warm, and youth is young,

And poetry is yet unsung,

For Virtue still adventures there,

And freely breathes her native air.

In "The Summer Rain," the poet has a bed of "herd's grass and wild oats," a nicer spread "than monarchs use," and "violets quite overtop" his shoes.

A surprise and new delight was added to my reading of Thoreau in 1993, when I became the owner of his hitherto unpublished volume "Faith in a Seed." It's the kind of book that I read all at once but never finish.

Learn to saunter

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks - who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived "from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going à la Sainte Terre," to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, "There goes a Sainte-Terrer," a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. 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.

From Thoreau's essay 'Walking,' first published in 1862.

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