Me for the Woods

A woodcut by Ethelbert White for a Penguin paperback edition of Walden.

This July, as the festivities in honor of Thoreau’s two-hundredth birthday commence, pilgrims will make their way to what’s called the “birthing room” on the second floor of the Thoreau Farm on Virginia Road at the outskirts of Concord. This is where a new species of American thinker was born. With its low ceiling, this quiet, well-ordered bedroom, painted in a soft sage, is a place that invites silent meditation. Thoreau would have appreciated the tranquility. But he also would have directed us to the attic above.

The narrow wooden steps lead to an unfinished garret. The roof is pinned together with eighteenth-century pegs, shingled with modern nails that protrude through the roof. In the eaves are a dozen boxes, mementos from a century of worship at the altar of Thoreau. Postcards, publishing notices, news clippings, proceedings, and countless letters from Thoreau’s anonymous readers. A woman from Cincinnati in 1947 writes a thank-you note to Thoreau’s spirit: Walden saved her life. A man from Ottawa sends his regards: Cape Cod was a place of refuge in the aftermath of his wife’s death. A seventh grader sends his capstone project: a geologically accurate map of the Thoreau’s sauntering routes around Concord.

Many people might think that attic was full of junk; they’d pitch everything in the trash and move on. But Thoreau would have us look again. So, the last time I was there, I did. Next to the map, wedged in all of this junk, were twenty-two mimeographed pages. On the top of the yellow packet were the words: 

COMMEMORATION OF THE HUNDREDTH
ANNIVERSARY OF THE DEATH OF
HENRY DAVID THOREAU

It was the morning of May 11, 1962. A group had assembled at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. to remember Thoreau. One of the honored guests was an eighty-eight-year-old Robert Frost: exactly twice as old as Thoreau had been when he died. Frost would die nine months later, but not before he delivered his final tribute. It was, at one point, published in the Concord Saunterer, the journal of the Thoreau Society, but since that point, more than fifty years ago, it has been largely forgotten. Many of the rarest things in life are, according to Thoreau, never adequately documented. At some point, someone had transcribed the event, perhaps in the hopes that the afternoon would not be completely lost. Frost begins:

One of the greatest books we have had in America—and it will always be—is Walden …

Whenever I am weary of considerations—there is a line of my poetry somewhere like that—when I am weary of my considerations and I can not stand it any longer, I always say:

“Me for the woods!”

Somebody said I talk woods too much. The word “wood” means mad, you know, too. That is it. I want to go wild in the woods. I have been telling this story a long time. The first poem in my first book is the wish for wilderness where I can get really lost. I never got lost. Daniel Boone said he was never lost—he had been bewildered; but I have not even been bewildered. I want to be where I can be bewildered—lost—not be able to find my way home. That is wilderness.

[Applause] 

I, too, wanted to applaud, but I also wanted to take Frost’s advice: to get lost, to go elsewhere.

So I tried to track down a fellow philosopher who had “left philosophy.” This term is a strange one. It means abandoning an academic discipline that often amounts to cloistering yourself in a library cubby, burying yourself in impenetrable texts, and eschewing human companionship and your natural environs. This is, among other reasons, why Thoreau and Emerson often did not want to be labeled “philosophers.” “Leaving philosophy” is not an entirely bad idea—it means returning to the world.

“This is Alejandro Strong, please leave a message”—I did. “Let’s go for a canoe.”

Alejandro is a paddler. At the end of his dissertation he spent more time in the woods in Northern Maine than in the library. He barely finished. This is the guy Frost wanted to be. Alejandro has been—and largely remains—bewildered. Last year he started Apeiron Expeditions, a touring company that specializes in reading Thoreau in the woods. In true Thoreauvian style, Alejandro didn’t advertise—at all—so it basically amounts to him traveling up and down the Penobscot with the few friends who were willing to read Walden, and row and live deliberately for a week. Mostly he just mans the paddles by himself.

But now I wanted to join him, to see what would happen if we went to the woods together. Could we capture something of Frost’s and Thoreau’s wildness without killing it? “In wildness,” Thoreau contended, “is the preservation of the world”—but he isn’t directing his readers to board a sparkling white ship on a pleasure voyage into the distant wilderness. “Hope and the future for me,” Thoreau writes, “are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.” He believed that hope and the future would mean pitifully little if one were unwilling to risk the safety of the present. Getting swamped: losing control, losing yourself, and maybe recovering. That is what we would look for in Maine.

A woodcut by Ethelbert White for a Penguin paperback edition of Walden.

When Thoreau first went to Maine, in 1846, traveling up the Penobscot River to the outer reaches of the state, it was, at least in part, in an attempt to “rough it,” to see what he and a few close friends could handle in the face of nature, red in tooth and claw. He wanted to see what real hunting—moose hunting—was like. He discovered, rather unexpectedly, that it was revolting. He wanted to climb real mountains, like Mount Katahdin, which stands at 5,270 feet. But when he finally conquered the small monster, again it was more than he had bargained for. From the top, he wrote:

What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?

Many thinkers have gone to the woods in search of existential answers, but Thoreau seems to suggest nature usually, maybe always, thwarts these attempts. What we find in the woods are questions: Who are we? Where are we? I’m often reminded of the scene from Goethe’s Faust in which Faust summons the Earth Spirit—in the hope of mastering its existence—and then cowers before it. Or Job being laid low by God’s majesty. Sometimes self-exploration and self-assertion can tip precipitously into something else, into the willingness to surrender control. This is bewilderment.

Surrendering is harder than you might think. Most of modern life depends on keeping a tight grip on the reigns: going to work, making rent, getting married, staying married, having kids, raising kids. Thoreau didn’t abide by any of these conventions particularly effectively (although the Emerson children adored him). His genius lay elsewhere, in the woods, in letting go. Being “possessed:” the word comes from the Latin possidere, “to have and to hold.” Thoreau entreats his readers to give themselves over and to allow themselves to be held. This is the opposite of “roughing it.” In the 1840s, it was not unusual to find Thoreau in the woods outside of Concord literally hugging trees, or on his belly in the grass imitating a snake, or knee deep in a pool petting the fish. To onlookers this behavior looked insane—in Frost’s words, “mad, you know.” And maybe it was. Maybe Thoreau really lost his mind. But what did he find in the process?

I’d written my book American Philosophy: A Love Story in the nowhere of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and I’d gotten just a hint of what it meant to get lost. Hiking with Nietzsche, a book on becoming who you are, was also written “away,” this time in the Alps. This second book, quite explicitly, is about the woods in Frost’s sense of the word, about the possibilities of being possessed and being human. Thoreau reminds us that despite our civilized daily routines that “the savage in man is never quite eradicated.” The real trick is to find a way to preserve it, or better, set it free.

So I called Alex back. This time he picked up. I beat around the bush for a minute, but then went straight in:

“Can we go to the woods?”

“Yeah, sure. We can go in August. Bring the American Philosophy book. We can read that. And Walden. It’ll probably just be us, but that’s cool with me. Want to ask Doug?”

Yes, yes I did. Doug Anderson taught Alejandro and me American philosophy. He has lived “in the woods” for twenty years—maybe much longer (who really knows)—a crazy, old, hippie musician-sage. He is “in philosophy” but just barely. Us for the woods! We would invite others to come and see what happens. We’d be gone for a week. Five days of paddling. Six nights of talking about books and ideas and life, which for thinkers like Thoreau meant talking about philosophy, the activity of thought and receptivity to feeling that one can never consciously leave.

You’re invited. I hope you come, but you have to be willing to get lost for a little while.

Alejandro Strong will lead Kaag, Anderson, and a group of readers and paddlers on a seven-day immersion trip on the West Branch of the Penobscot River in Maine in the second week of August. Bring your copies of Walden, American Philosophy: A Love Story, and your thoughts.

John Kaag is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He is the author of Idealism, Pragmatism, and Feminism and Thinking Through the Imagination. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and many other publications. He lives outside Boston with his wife and daughter.

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