What Would Thoreau Do?

Yesterday, July 12th, was Henry David Thoreau’s 195th birthday, or 195th anniversary of his birth, or however that is best put when the person in question is no longer alive. In any case, Thoreau is best remembered for two things. The first is his experiment in living simply and in greater communion with nature in a cabin on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts. The cabin was situated on Walden Pond and Thoreau’s reflections on his “experiment” were later published as Walden.

Thoreau is also remembered for making a better pencil. It seems that Thoreau is actually not generally remembered for this, but it is nonetheless true. His family owned a pencil factory at which Thoreau worked on and off throughout his life. Thanks to his study of German pencil making techniques, Thoreau helped design the best American pencil of its day. Apparently, in the early 19th century, there remained significant technical challenges to the making of a durable pencil, mostly having to do with the sturdiness of the graphite shaft and fitting it into a casing. Among Thoreau’s many accomplishments was the development of a process of manufacturing the pencil that solved these engineering problems.

I thought of Thoreau yesterday not only because it was the anniversary of his birth, but also because I had come across an article titled, “Tweets From the Trail: Technology Can Enhance Your Wilderness Experiences” (h/t to Nathan Jurgenson). The author, novelist Walter Kirn of Montana, had the temerity to suggest that maybe there is something to be gained by brining your technology out into nature with you, rather than venturing into nature in order to escape technology. As you might imagine, many of Kirn’s Montana nature-enthusiast friends were less than pleased.

Now, we should note that these distinctions we make — nature/technology, for example — are a bit complicated. To illustrate here is the opening of a recent, relevant post by Nick Carr:

A couple of cavemen are walking through the woods. One sighs happily and says to the other, “I’m telling you, there’s nothing like being out in nature.” The other pauses and says, “What’s nature?”

It’s 1972. A pair of lovers go camping in a wilderness area in a national park. They’re sitting by a campfire, taking in the evening breezes. “Honey,” says the woman, “I have to confess I really love being offline.” The guy looks at her and says, “What’s offline?”

You see the point. Our idea of “nature” owes something to the advance of technology just as our idea of “offline” necessitates the emergence of online. But back to Kirn’s article. He discovered that his writing flourished when he set up a work station on an old wooden telephone wire spool under the big, blue Montana sky with badgers and gophers scampering all about. Subsequently he made a habit of screening movies on his iPad in “natural” settings such as the seaside or the shores of a river. Finally, he confesses to the manner in which being out in the wilderness inspires fits of creativity that he feels compelled to tweet and post. And here is his eloquent conclusion:

“To sever our experience of wilderness from our use of technology now seems to me an unnatural act, shortsighted and unimaginative. No one appreciates a ringing cell phone while they float on a muddy river through western badlands or stand in the saddle between two massive mountain ranges, but short of such rude interruptions of heavenly moments, technology has a mysterious way, at times, of providing the perfect contrast, the happy counterpoint to scenes and experiences and settings that are easy to take for granted or grow numb to. Along with harmony, contrast is one of the two great rules of art. It wakes the senses, jars the tired mind, breaks up routines that threaten to grow mechanical. If you don’t believe me, try it. Travel to that secluded spot you keep returning to, the one where you go to leave the world behind, and turn on some music, play a movie, capture a passing thought and send it onward, out of the forest, out into society, and then wait, while the wind blows and the treetops sway and the clouds pile up a mile above your head, for someone, some faraway stranger, to reply. Even when we’re alone, we’re not alone, this proves, and in the deepest heart of every wilderness lurks a miracle, often, the human mind.”

I can’t help but wonder, what would Thoreau think? I can’t pretend to know Thoreau well enough to answer that question. I suspect that present day technophile’s would suggest that Thoreau ought to approve, after all he took his pencil to Walden and that was a technology. Well, yes, but he didn’t string a telegraph wire to the cabin.

I wouldn’t discount the dynamic Kirn describes, particularly since it is measured (let’s do without the ringing cell phone) and it still recognizes the contrast. The juxtaposition of unlike things can be creatively stimulating, and if that is what you are after, then Kirn’s formula may indeed yield something for you.

But what if your aims are different? What if you’re seeking only to listen and not to speak? What if your goal is not to be inspired toward yet another act of self-expression? We may carry technology with us into nature, in fact, we may carry it within us. But this does not mean that we ought always to answer to its prerogatives. Nor does it mean that we should always assume the posture toward reality that technology enables and the frame of mind that it encourages. And, of course, different technologies enable and encourage differently. It is the difference between the pencil and the telegraph and the smartphone.

I am not against human civilization (which is a silly thing to have to say), and the human mind, as Kirn puts it, is a “miracle” indeed. But the miracle of the human mind lies not only in its ability to create and to build and to express itself and impose its own symbolic order on the world. The miracle lies also in its ability to listen and to receive and to contemplate and to be itself re-ordered; to be taken in by the world as well as to take the world in. Perceiving the value of such a stance draws us into an awareness of the various ethical or philosophical frames that inform our evaluations. I cannot sort all of those out, but I can acknowledge that for a wide array of people the point would not be to speak, but to be spoken to. Or perhaps, even to find that we are not addressed at all.

An even greater array of people would likely agree that our posture toward this world ought to be more than merely instrumental. Human civilization must advance, but it does so best when it abandons Promethean aspirations and acknowledges its finitude along with its power.

I suppose all of this is a way of saying that beauty resides not only in what we make and say, but also in what we find and encounter. But shouldn’t this found beauty be shared? Maybe. But perhaps not before it has done its work on us. Perhaps not before we have allowed it to speak to us and to transform us. The space in which beauty can do its work is precious, and it would seem that the logic of our technologies would have us collapse that space in the service of sharing, commodification, self-expression, capturing, publicizing, and the like.

I don’t want to speak for Thoreau, but I would venture to guess that he might have us preserve that precious space where beauty has its way.

8 thoughts on “What Would Thoreau Do?

  1. There is quite a bit of literature on the wilderness myth. Here’s a quote from William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”:

    “The more one knows of its peculiar history, the more one realizes that wilderness is not quite what it seems. Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history. It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature can for at least a little while longer be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization. Instead, it’s a product of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made. Wilderness hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural. As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires. For this reason, we mistake ourselves when we suppose that wilderness can be the solution to our culture’s problematic relationships with the nonhuman world, for wilderness is itself no small part of the problem.”

      1. My family and I usually spend a week in August camping in some state campground in Vermont. The kids take their iPods, but since there is no place to charge them except the common rest room, they are usually powered down by the second day. The cell phones are all out of range except for brief periods when we venture to civilization to eat at a restaurant or something. We generally ask the Park Ranger to recharge our phones overnight, so the very act of recharging them requires that they be surrendered.

        In myself I notice a brief period of withdrawal, fretting that I had not email this person or had not posted whatever online. But in about the same time it takes for an iPod to run out of power I find that the massively engaging experience of natural surroundings seamlessly supplants my usual desire for online activity. I find myself enjoying the absence of the need.

        Other technologies seem to mesh better with the outdoor experience – pen and paper, the camera, the compass, the camp stove. A few days of stepping back from technology seems to the mind as restarting seems to a computer. All the invisible needless files seem to be deleted.

        As for Thoreau, he took a shovel and hoe, too, besides his pencil, and spent rather more time with the former than the latter during his sojourn at Walden, I’ll bet.

      2. Tom, Thanks for this anecdote. I especially appreciated the point about “enjoying the absence of the need.” I think that much of the unease we experience regarding the always on life is the nondescript yet pressing sense of urgency, of needing to do something. Breaking down that nagging sense is certainly one of the upsides of time away. I had a similar experience a on couple of recent trips. I was never completely disconnected, but I was offline most of the day and after a couple days I could sense a difference. This also reminds me of what one psychologist dubbed “three day syndrome” — it takes about three days of being offline, getting past the withdrawal stage, to begin noticing cognitive and psychological difference. (http://bit.ly/NpS7hX)

        Good point too about appropriate technology. No one ever leaves all technology behind, but some technologies may be better suited to certain environments and goals than others. Finding the right fit between tools and place and aims is an important part of learning to live well with technology.

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