A Country of Edges

I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The villagers of nineteenth century Massachusetts were generally not a people who loved the woods. Aside from a woodlot, a stream to power a mill, or ground that might be cleared to farm, there was little profit to be found in the forests and mountains. By and large, the pragmatic New Englanders were not a kind of people to wander aimlessly among the trees, sketching flowers. For this reason, Henry David Thoreau was an oddity.

The people of Concord, as Thoreau noted, clung largely to the town and its commerce. By the time Thoreau arrived on the pond in 1845, a change in attitudes toward nature, especially among writers and artists, was only then beginning to take deeper root. Thomas Cole had just begun his painting of the Catskills, founding what would be known as the Hudson River School, and Emerson’s Nature had been published less than a decade before. Americans simply didn’t think of the woods yet as a retreat, let alone a place for recreation. Thoreau was among those describing what the ordinary citizen of America was slow to realize: the value of nature beyond our commodification of it. Given the attitudes of the time, Thoreau’s revolutionary proposition for Americans, at least in part, was that there was more to nature than land to farm, trees to harvest, or granite to quarry. No wonder people thought him idle.

In the fall of 1867, John Muir would have appeared equally strange when he began his extended hike from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico, documented in his book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. His long sojourn was an utterly transcendental experience, if not a lonely one, transcribed into his journal in lush and detailed phrases alongside his pressed flowers. To see such a traveler—he didn’t even have a horse—in the South in the wake of the Civil War must have seemed incredible. After all, the woods teemed with armed outliers and thieves. To be so bold as to travel alone in what was still largely a wilderness must have bordered, to the common mind, on stupidity.

 

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Sean Patrick Hill is a poet and writer in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a recipient of an Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council and of grants and fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Elizabeth George Foundation. He is the author of three collections of poems, most recently Hibernaculum. His work has appeared in Kentucky Monthly, LEO Weekly, and in many other journals.

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