Walking With Henry
“You must walk like a camel,” Thoreau writes, and I feel my lower lip drooping and a hunch coming into my back. This isn’t what he means, of course. He means that I must ruminate while walking. The temperature is in the 30s, the wind has settled, the snow gone from the corn stubble. I admit that I set my thoughts aside for a few minutes on the uphill leg of this walk. But they are back, bringing Thoreau with them.
By his standards, I’m walking all wrong. But then Thoreau is a prig. He is often right, about almost anything. What makes him priggish is the self-rejoicing in his rightness. What saves him is the self-contradiction rampaging through his work. I cannot manage his daily four hours of scrambling through swamps. “If you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs ... then you are ready for a walk,” he writes. Yet I have come out walking anyway.
The river is slapping at the underside of the ice along its edges. A man sits sharpening a chain saw, cutting firewood from the debris piled up on the banks. Not long ago, there was a wind-driven cornice of snow on that bank. Now, I smell the earth, not the upsprung smell of full spring, but a dank scent.
And still Thoreau is with me, like a border collie nipping at my heels. He is terribly hard on any self-satisfaction but his own. We are all, I suppose, one of his townsmen, a little mystified that such a stern, practical woodsman has been overlaid with so much philosophical marquetry. “I believe in the forest,” he writes, “and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows,” and this is a kind of ecumenicism, at least among townsmen who believe, mainly, in night-corn.Thoreau goads me uphill, and he chivies me along the heights, and yet he repents at the turning homeward. For he has just remembered that “a truly good book is something as natural ... as a wild-flower discovered on the prairies of the West.” After this long winter walk, I am going to sate my camel-like thirst, lie back on the couch and read a wild-flower. I wonder what Thoreau has to say about February naps.