Consolation in solitude: Retracing the steps of Henry David Thoreau
In a time of grief, Ben Shattuck follows in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, and shares his journey with humor and insight in “Six Walks.”
It’s hard to escape the long shadow of Thoreau if you’re a New England writer who wants to engage deeply with the natural landscape. Readers will be forgiven if their first reaction to the subtitle of Ben Shattuck’s “Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau” is to bemoan yet another book inspired by the iconic American naturalist.
But rest assured that Shattuck’s memoir is much more than a paean to Thoreau. In this resonant little volume of reflections, which is enhanced by the author’s beautiful drawings, Shattuck frames his personal journey from despair to delight against the backdrop of six outings inspired by Thoreau’s mid 19th-century excursions. The result evokes not just Thoreau but Annie Dillard, and is a significant addition to what British nature writer Robert Macfarlane has called “the literature of the leg.”
There is a sharp divide – both temporal and emotional – between the first and second halves of “Six Walks.” The narrative begins at a low point – sea level, both emotionally and geographically. Shattuck, in his early 30s and living alone by a salt marsh on the southern coast of Massachusetts, is feeling lost and haunted by bad dreams following a bad breakup and an accident that cost him a fingertip on his left (drawing) hand. He writes, “I couldn’t find a way out of the doubt, fear, shame, and sadness that had arranged a constellation of grief around me.” One cold May day, he decides to walk Cape Cod’s outer beaches, from elbow to fingertip, ending at Provincetown – duplicating the route Thoreau followed in 1849, when he was 32.
Thoreau (whom Shattuck oddly refers to by his first name) set out, walking stick in hand, dressed in a three-piece suit and broad-brimmed hat, carrying a knapsack filled with practicalities, including a spyglass for bird-watching and a fishing line and hooks. Shattuck, on the other hand, sets out woefully unprepared on a cold spring morning – in a bathing suit with bare legs and running shoes held together with duct tape, which quickly comes unstuck in the sand. His backpack contains bread, apples, carrots, a brick of cheese, a notebook, and Thoreau’s “Cape Cod” – but no sunscreen or sleeping bag.
Shattuck writes that he hopes “for the waves and wind and weather to reshape the masses of my subconscious as they had shifted the dunes of Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown.” He adds, “Isn’t this always the hope, heading out for a long walk? That in your aloneness the landscape will relieve you? That your mind will be renewed, calmed?”
But it wasn’t so much the landscape that briefly “halted the conveyor belt of sadness” moving through him. Instead, serendipitous encounters with kind strangers take him out of himself, beginning with an older couple in Wellfleet who provide a dinner of fried scallops and a warm bed for the night.
His relief, alas, is short-lived, and exacerbated by Lyme disease from a tick bite in the marshes. Still, he proceeds with other treks, burdened by aching joints and a heavy heart. At the summit of Mount Katahdin, he amusingly contrasts Thoreau’s response to the majestic views with a hiker overheard complaining, “Seriously? No service?” On his first-ever visit to Walden Pond, he’s mistaken for a Thoreau re-enactor. He hikes under ski lifts on Wachusett Mountain, and stargazing, like Thoreau he imagines, feels “the comfort of one’s own smallness in the world, to displace bulging selfhood.”
After his night on Wachusett Mountain, Shattuck doesn’t resume his project for a couple of years. By then, his “shortening of spirit” is gone. What happened? He fell in love with actor/writer/comedian Jenny Slate. (They’re now married and have a daughter.)
He is more expansive in his happiness. One of his most intriguing walks is not in the footsteps of Thoreau, but of his own ancestry. He hikes 16 miles southwest from his house to the Rhode Island border, where his great-great grandparents built a summer home in Sakonnet Harbor.
Wary of being tedious, Shattuck sticks to the fascinating highlights of his family history. His great-great grandfather, Henry Demarest Lloyd, was a prominent 19th-century Chicago journalist who broke the story of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil monopoly. Shattuck's ancestor and his wife espoused humanitarian and socialist ideals, as did their eldest son. Not so their younger son, the author’s adulterous, laudanum-addicted great-grandfather, Demarast Lloyd, who bought the Massachusetts peninsula on which he erected a main house (where Shattuck’s aunt now lives) and a dance hall, which was converted to the house in which Shattuck grew up and still lives.
Shattuck takes a few more trips – paddling the Allagash, back to Cape Cod with Slate – but the fact is, by the end of this book, he no longer feels the compulsion to wander. He revels in contented domesticity, including the pleasures of looking out on the same half acre of marshland that he has viewed since childhood.
With its lovely illustrations and thoughtful insights about nature, love, and friendship, “Six Walks” celebrates taking time to see what really matters.
Heller McAlpin, a frequent contributor to the Monitor, also reviews books for The Wall Street Journal and NPR.