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June 27, 2011 7:58 PM   Subscribe

Walking Home From Walden is a 5 part series by Wen Stephenson describing how a middle-aged resident of Wayland, MA got advice from Henry David Thoreau about responding to global warming while living in suburbia, by taking a 12 mile hike.
posted by paulsc (5 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks, Paul, I enjoyed that piece a lot. Stephenson is a good writer, and he does a truly admirable job of containing the personal with the universal here.

I was worried at one point he was going to take the middlebrow dodge of championing individual action as an antidote to climate change, but he was smarter than that - whilst not obviating the emotions that compel us to take individual action. Reconciling these competing impulses is no mean feat.

I miss the wild places. I grew up in the country and the long afternoons of haphazardly pushing through the scrub until - almost magically - the leaves part, and you find -what? A small paddock filled with towering scotch thistles, eldritch and magnificent; an undulating slope of flowering mistweed; a small trickle of a stream, sweet and fast running; some ancient bones from a cow that never made it home, or the steaming mound of a scrub turkey's nest.

Those moments - all of them - have shaped me indelibly, and me alone. They were all intensely private moments; the chrysoprase hills and rainforests of my childhood were a gift to me; absent any other input, they were as wondrous and unexpected as any fairyland.

I now live well and truly in the city - without even a yard! - and so will my children (at least, the first one). The world they inherit from me both literally and figuratively makes the one I possessed as a child seem like Narnia - and about as accessible. It's a discomfiting feeling. My own involuntary abetting in this state of affairs only compounds matters.

What I want to say here, what I believe needs to be said, is that there's a spiritual crisis at the heart of the climate crisis—one we've hardly begun to come to grips with, or even acknowledge. By spiritual I mean human—our deepest, most profound, and ultimately inexpressible sense of ourselves.

I agree, particularly in how he avoided some kind of nostalgic elegy in elucidating this. And I applaud anyone's attempts to grapple with such a horrifying, complex challenge. I've always felt that another writer - outside of Thoreau - captured this: believe it or not, Philip K. Dick. I feel like all his books revolve around the question that, in an insane world, acting sane is just as crazy as acting insane, so what is the rational response to an insane world?, or what is the human response?

I dunno what that response is, without being facile, but I admire anyone trying to find out.
posted by smoke at 9:53 PM on June 27, 2011 [9 favorites]

I too, smoke, have lived in American cities, where blades of grass were accidents, and trees were fixtures in a civic plan, not natural beings rooting in a place of their own choice. Once I lived in Waltham, MA, not far from Walden, but now I live in Florida, and pick my times carefully to walk a dog who still wants walking, even in summer. I'm now a bit too much a prisoner of climate and air conditioning, and I felt, in all my pores, Stephenson's experience when he said
"... It was the walk home that I hadn't counted on. If the walk to Walden was liberation, the walk home was work. Footsore from all the pavement, the breeze no longer so fresh and cool as the sun climbed, by the time I stepped back onto my driveway, sweat-soaked and thirsty, it was almost midday, and the weekend had resumed its relentless slide into the week. My transcendental trip dissolved back into the realities, and unrealities, of daily life. ..."
I walk as much as possible in my neighborhood, I ride the bus, and drive so little that this year, for the first half of the year, I'll have bought less than 1 barrel of oil's gasoline.

But it is summer, in this sub-tropical place, and the sun beats the dog and me back inside, into the artificial cool that we can't seemingly do without, everyday, by noon. We have tried to adopt the Spanish model of civilized life, by going for swims, or going fishing, or taking siesta in the heat of the day, and then waking to late, late suppers and working until midnight, but there is only so far that goes, even for someone whose work is partly managing faraway machines, over network connections, and partly talking to people by telephone a lot.

But we continue, too, to look for answers, the dog and I, for our piece of the puzzle. For I have grandchildren, and the hope of great grandchildren, and I've convinced the dog that he might, too, although we don't really know. So I clip the dog's coat short in summer, and he doesn't seem to mind looking a bit funny, for the cool that results. We rest under slow turning ceiling fans, with the central thermostat set to 78° F, or sometimes 80°, and for my part, I put a damp towel around my neck, for the evaporative effect. On the hottest, sunniest days here in the Sunshine State, we spray a bit of water on the roof of the house, and we wait out the burning sun, and hope for rain, although we fear, especially the dog, the thunder and lightning and wind that usually come with any rain, this time of year.

I don't know what the big answer is, either, and I despair, as does Al Gore, that we'll find leadership or real answers anytime soon, at the nation/state level. So, maybe Stephenson is on to something, and we have to start in our own neighborhoods, our own houses, our own backyards.

At least I can see some results in my gasoline bill, my car maintenance, and my electric bill.
posted by paulsc at 5:34 AM on June 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Every New Englander might easily raise all his own breadstuffs in this land of rye and Indian corn, and not depend on distant and fluctuating markets for them. Yet so far are we from simplicity and independence that, in Concord, fresh and sweet meal is rarely sold in the shops, and hominy and corn in a still coarser form are hardly used by any.

So far are we from the simplicity and independence enjoyed by every New Englander in that day that, on the Internet, Walden is cited in support of organizing rallies to demand that the government should do something to fix all our problems.
posted by sfenders at 6:59 AM on June 28, 2011

I live in a northern rust belt city, on the edge of town. We are a family of four, and we own one car. We live on the bus line, which all of us use on a regular basis. And we walk. I mean, I walk religiously.

At first, it was just the eight blocks through neighborhood streets to the closest shopping center. (Grocery, post office, liquor stores, bagel shop, public library.) Then I found the best trails through the woods behind the old cemetery to the second-closest shopping center. (A cheaper grocery store, liquor store, and family-owned hardware store.) To get there, you walk down an ancient road that for eons before us was an Indian trail, and off through some second cut woods to the back of some houses, and then through that neighborhood. Then last year, we found a way to cut through some neighborhood trails, a farm converted to a nature park, and other overgrown back streets to get to the biggest local shopping center. (Big grocery store, bank, liquor store, drugstore, UPS store, dentist, optometrist and other stuff we don't use.) This trip takes three hours, but it's a gorgeous, invigorating walk.

Meanwhile, I came to know every woodsy trail within six miles of my house. Every neighborhood street. The cemetery lanes. What came with that was the names of the creeks, and how they meandered through my neighborhood, the names of the trees and plants (some of which were edible), the creatures that lived there, and the way those trails changed from season to season. I take pictures, harvest plants, and pay attention. I learned my neighborhood. I learned every patch of woods, and where neighborhoods were aborted, or used to exist.

I used to walk with an iPod listening to podcasts during the times I wasn't actually in the woods. I stopped doing that this year, primarily because I felt like a jerk when people would greet me or my dog and I'd have to pull the earbuds out to hear them. I find that my walks are now more like meditations than they've ever been.

I notice that there are people in the woods with me, but few of them are there without a vehicle they have bought that needs to be used. Bicycles, snowmobiles, four-wheelers--these are the modes of "enjoying nature" that most people use. In the winter, there are some skiers and snowshoers. Sometimes I see people walking their dogs. I nearly never see unaccompanied children or teenagers. (Like maybe three times in eight years of at least 4 walks per week.) It seems to me that it would be awful hard to pay attention to what's actually *in* the woods when you're zipping through on your bike trying to make sure you don't take a header into a tree. Don't even get me started on what it's like to be a quiet thing when a four-wheeler or snowmobile goes through.

In a neighborhood of perhaps 5000 people, I have seen only college students and a couple old ladies walking to the grocery store. None of them walk more than a block or two. And it makes me a little bit crazy to know that's true. I know that living in the suburbs, it sucks to navigate sidewalks next to roads where people drive too fast, and there's too much traffic, and sometimes there are no sidewalks at all. I know I would hate to walk if I lived in a lot of places. But my neighborhood is kind of idyllic. It's walkable. But no one does it.

I know, it takes time to do things like walk. Taking a whole afternoon for a grocery trip is not something most people want to do. After all, there's that Dexter marathon to watch. But let me tell you, there's a lot to be learned about yourself and where you live when you walk. You know the infrastructure of your sidewalks, and you see how the woodsy trails get torn up by motorized vehicles. You see the place where an exhausted vole scratches his way through the hard frozen crust a snowmobile left behind. You hear the frogs in the Spring, and you see what your neighbors are planting in their gardens. You see how different mushrooms spring up at different times of the year, and how the forget-me-nots give way to daisies and lupines which then give way to tansy and valerian. You find out a former elderly mayor lives nearby and takes his constitutional with his pipe clamped firmly in his teeth, and you see where the teenagers go at night to drink beer, and burn your stolen lawn furniture over a fire.

While I appreciate the virtues of bicycles (and ride one myself), you miss a lot when you're going faster than foot-pace. If you can't meditate, for one reason or another, walking is the next best thing.

This guy's insights are good, and I'm glad he's discovered walking and the thoughts it can bring. The connection to the earth under our feet is one we really need to find again.
posted by RedEmma at 9:24 AM on June 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's walkable. But no one does it.

I've observed the same on a more extreme scale. I once lived in the suburbs outside a huge city. Millions of people, constant car traffic on the roads. The one little patch of near-wilderness in the area I used to walk through a couple times a week just to enjoy the sight of the stream winding through the poor little patch of woods in the middle of the vast suburban wasteland, left there as if by some small oversight, since corrected. For the year I was there, I never saw a single other person doing the same in any season. Once or twice in the winter I saw some other human (plus dog) footprints in the snow, but that was all.

That tiny refuge wasn't enough for me though, I never could stand to live in the city. I have always appreciated the benefit of walking in the woods. Except for a few years here and there of living in the city, I have not given it up. I've done weeks-long canoe trips besides, and sailboat cruises to the furthest corners of the great lakes. Where I live now, the forest is only a few steps away. All I can hear right now are the birds singing. So I've not entirely lost touch with the world.

It gives me no particular insight into global warming. Invasive species I have seen, but the ones that cause trouble around here thus far don't have much to do with climate change. In distant parts of the world the oceans are acidifying, great forests dying, glaciers melting, deserts advancing, there's flooding in Pakistan and droughts in Texas. None of it gives me the impression that my own forest here is threatened at all. Perhaps in a hundred years the trees more suited to warmer climates will dominate more of it, but this would not be so catastrophic. I don't know if there's something particular that threatens the area around Walden Pond, but if so the article gives no hint what it might be to justify calling it "condemned".

It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man's shoulders.

It seems clear enough to me what course of action Thoreau would demand of those who see the burning of fossil fuels as morally comparable to slavery. Stop doing it. Walden provides an approximate indication of the kind of radical simplification of one's life that would be required to do so. "Driving a hybrid" has nothing to do with it. It would be like demonstrating your opposition to slavery by reducing the number of slaves you keep by a third. This conclusion seems inescapable given the premises, and I am astounded that the writer managed to avoid it.
posted by sfenders at 3:08 AM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

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