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In the Shit With Thoreau: A Walden for the Anthropocene

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Henry David Thoreau's phrase, "In wildness is the preservation of the world," launched a thousand calendars, mugs, T-shirts, and bumper stickers. For a long time, it seemed the perfect slogan for American environmentalism. The movement sprang up to preserve the Adirondacks and Sierra Nevada, grew through public fights in the 1950s over Grand Canyon development, and then defined itself for decades by defending "wild" species like whale and bald eagles, and "wild" places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Today the world looks very different. The defining environmental challenge is climate change. Among other things, climate change means there is no "wild" place, nowhere that human beings have not changed. From the upper atmosphere to the deep sea, the planet's metabolism, its basic chemistry, is now something we have help to make. Species extinction, toxicity crises, and skyrocketing global resource use make the same point more vivid: we have run out of wild. A better slogan for today might come from the modernist poet Wallace Stevens: "The imperfect is our only paradise."

These are just some of the reasons that I agree with a growing number, scientists and others, who say that we live in a new era in Earth's history: the Anthropocene, the age when humanity becomes a force in the planet's development. As a scientific concept, the Anthropocene is ambiguous and disputed. As a political and ethical concept, it is sharper: it means we have take responsibility for a world we partly create. Simple "preservation of the world," as Thoreau named it, is not an option anymore, just as nothing today is truly wild.

It's not really surprising, then, that Thoreau himself has lost a lot of sheen. The environmentalism that was defined by wildness/wilderness has drawn criticism for being elite, mainly white, male-centered, nostalgic from the start, and indifferent to most of the adult and workaday world - an ideology of perpetual youth, driving an agenda of high-end vacations.

I've been wondering, though, whether we can't have a Thoreau for the Anthropocene, a Thoreau who is less interested in wilderness than in how to live with, relate to, and value a world we have irrevocably changed, a world where nothing is really separate from us. I like this idea because the Anthropocene needs its own cultural history, its environmental texts. Whatever its limitations, Thoreau's writing contains some of the richest American reflection on humane living in a living world. It is a lot of baby to toss out with the pre-Anthropocene bathwater.

It turns out, too, that an Anthropocene Thoreau is more than wishful thinking. Actually, the wilderness Thoreau is something of a truncated distortion, what Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau's friend and landlord, might have called "the dwarf of himself." It was John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club and a giant publicist of giant, wild landscapes, who switched Thoreau's "wildness" to literal wilderness. Thoreau used "wildness" to refer to a quality he found in Shakespeare's language, Greek myth, and the swamps outside Concord, just to name a few; Muir adapted the slogan so that it would later fit ANWR. By the time the Wilderness Society made Thoreau part of its stump speech for the 1964 Wilderness Act, he was hopelessly tied to trackless, depopulated places - the kinds of places he hardly saw or wrote about during a lifetime in New England.

With this in mind, I recently re-read Walden, trying to see it through Anthropocene eyes, as a book that has to live in a world that is violently and thoroughly changed. Turns out that wilderness isn't in it. Walden takes place, quite self-consciously, in a landscape transformed by long and intensive habitation. Thoreau tells us that the woods around the pond have been cleared, that boats have sunk to its bottom, that it is regularly harvested for ice. His Concord is full of the artifacts of old and new settlement, down to the soil itself, seeded with stone tools and potsherds that tinkle against his hoe as he works his bean-field.

What was most striking, though, was finding that Thoreau's most Transcendentalist (or Romantic) moments, the ones proclaiming that the human mind and the natural world are braided in continuous harmony, are inspired by the very opposite of wilderness. These pronouncements, which made Thoreau such an apt saint for later environmentalists, come in Walden as responses to places where the world is ruptured, broken, split open by human powers. Thoreau's Romanticism, in a way, was always Anthropocene.

Consider a passage in the chapter titled "Spring," culmination of Walden's seasonal progression through a year in the woods. Contemplating the patterns formed by loose, thawing soil on a slope, Thoreau declares, "this one hillside illustrated the principle of all the operations of Nature." In its swirling, flowing patterns, joining and parting, Thoreau found proof that "The very globe continually transcends and translates itself," moving from one form to another in ever-shifting expressions of an all-pervading impulse of self-organization. The same principle, it seemed to him, accounted for rivers, leaves, grubs becoming butterflies, blood vessels, lightning, and the human hand.

It was an invitation to imagine one's own body in the same terms: "What is man but a mass of thawing clay?" he asked, and went on to imagine hands as leaves and the human face - signal expression of the unique and self-subsistent individual - as a slipping slope of clay and earth. The whole scene is a kind of ecological mysticism. It dissolves the nineteenth-century man, the bearer of legal and natural rights, the citizen-participant in the social contract, and merges him into an ecological whole whose essence is change, self-subversion that opens the way to other forms.

This passage also has a reconciling, even healing power in the arc of the book. A few chapters earlier, in "Higher Laws," Thoreau had explored self-disgust, denouncing the "reptile and sensual" in humans, the "slimy, beastly life" of eating and drinking, and seemed to endorse the ethical regulation of every bodily function. On his slope, though, he surrendered the impulse to segregate and regulate unclean bodily life. Instead he identified all the lovely and inspiring forms with literal muck and all that muck connotes. He wrote, "True, it is somewhat excrementitious in its character, and there is no end to the heaps of livers, lights, and bowels, as if the globe were turned the wrong side outward; but this suggests at least that nature has some bowels, and there again is the mother of humanity."

It is a defining quality of disgust to imagine the slimy parts of bodily life in wrong places, outside its natural tubes and sacs, exposed in ways that cast doubt on the solidity of the body itself: mucus on the face, excrement on the hands, bowels violently made visible. In his portrait of harmonious nature, Thoreau does not shy away from this, but assimilates all of life to it. He celebrates that we are all in the shit.

In the ecological mysticism of these passages, there is no essential difference between the earth's bowels and its "living poetry like the leaves of a tree." This vital, filthy, gorgeous unity persuades him that that the earth is alive at every point, and only beginning its passage into future forms. This, in turn, persuades him that the same is true of human lives and institutions - "plastic like clay in the hands of the potter."

Now consider where all this takes place. It is on the cut of a railroad bank, a quarter-mile gash in the earth.

Earlier in the book, the railroad is "devilish" and has "profaned" Walden, and Thoreau does not withdraw that thought. But the earth's wholeness is disclosed in a place that has been ruptured and profaned. The bowels that show the harmony and aliveness of all matter have been spilled out, cut like the violence that reveals literal bowels. The choice of setting brings to mind, however anachronistically, W.B. Yeats's declaration that "Nothing can be sole or whole/That has not been rent."

Another of Walden's key passages of mystical harmony comes in "The Bean-Field." Thoreau described symmetries that cut across the quadrants of matter, stitching the world into one pattern: "The hawk is aerial brother to the wave which he sails over and surveys, those his perfect air-inflated wings answering to the elemental unfledged pinions of the sea." In his beanfield, Thoreau reflected that the passions of his political moment, the Mexican War and the patriotic drilling of militias on the Concord common, seemed foolish, dangerous if taken seriously, but easily ignored.

Again, consider the setting. In this chapter, Thoreau becomes a farmer for a season. This is easy to misread, today, as part of the pastoral conceit of Walden. But for Thoreau, farming was not an admirable form of self-reliance; it was, like buying and selling, the model of a conventional life, in which energies and years get frittered away for no worthy purpose. Farmers were the serfs of their fields, self-enslaved to their own labors. It was as if Thoreau had set up to sell knick-knacks on the Concord green.

He emphasized the scar his farming put on the world, the violence of it. His work was a form of warfare, a martial campaign against weeds, a colonizing project for his beans. All of this was ironic and metaphoric, as Thoreau so often was. Some of his target was the military clearing of the Southwest for Anglo settlement. Nonetheless, he once again achieved insight into the unity of things by breaking land. Heightened perception came in a place ruptured by human technology and effort, for purposes Thoreau regularly disdained or denounced - as with farming, so with the railroad.

Walden Pond itself, the namesake and center of the book, might be another ruptured place, torn by human profanation. Myth had it, Thoreau reported, that Walden was formed when Native Americans, holding a pow-wow on a high hill, "used so much profanity" that, in punishment, the earth broke and hill became a vast hole, as deep as it had been high. Although Thoreau expressed doubt about this story, protesting that Native Americans did not use profanity, by telling it he suggested that Walden Pond was another profaned rupture. In the same chapter, he emphasized that, quite apart from the status of the myth, the pond is entirely profaned in ordinary ways: "the wood-cutters, and the railroad, and I myself have profaned Walden." Thoreau's including himself in this list is especially telling: by the very act of making the pond the object of his meditation, Thoreau has profaned it - though he is only one in a long line of people to do so.

The book's key passages do not just acknowledge the damage and breaking of the landscape: they seem to begin from them, to depend essentially on them. It may be that even to think of nature, let alone act on it, is to make it a joint product of human and natural activity, so that even to come to the pond is to profane it, but profanation is simply the condition of the world. It is redeemed, if at all, by our understanding that condition more clearly.

Reading Walden through Anthropocene eyes, insight and appreciation of nature seem to emerge from, even require, rupture and profanation. Maybe these are unavoidable parts of an appreciative relation to the world. Maybe the imperfect has always been our only paradise.

Is this the right, the true Thoreau? The question may be needless and artificial. If we Anthropocene readers do not just discard the once-canonized past, then we are going to regard it with Anthropocene eyes. We will be alert to how pervasively and perennially the world is changed by human effort - the Anthropocene condition - and of deeply we are involved in creating whatever meaning we find in it - the Anthropocene insight. It is unavoidable that these promises will now hone our interest and guide our attention. It is remarkable how much is waiting there to answer them.

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