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Walking by Henry David Thoreau

22 June, 2022 - 7 min read


I. Brief Summary

Henry David Thoreau was a profound American thinker and a philosopher from 1800s. In this short essay, he stresses the importance of nature and wilderness. Those elemental lessons are as critical today as they were several hundred years ago.

II. Big Ideas

  • Thoreau considers the nature of freedom beyond civil or political freedom. True freedom for humans lie within nature and wilderness.
  • Civilization has many champions, but nature has a few.
  • Walking in the wild enables humans to embrace nature because it slows a human down. It's not about hurrying but taking time to explore one's surrounding.
  • Going on a daily walk is going on a daily spiritual voyage, leaving the mind's usual preoccupations behind. The woods have no place for it.
  • An empty mind is when you are ready for a walk.
  • Walking is a noble art and continuation of humankind's past.
  • Thoreau is not talking about walk due to sickness or an evening stroll, but rather going on for long walks. He himself demanded at least four hours of walk a day to preserve his health and spirits. Walking has nothing to do with speed or exercise.
  • What good are our feet for if we don't put them to use. Walking refines human sensibility far better than sitting idle indoors.
  • He stresses on walking beyond villages and highways. A village is a space through which everyone travels, and yet no one lives there actually undergoes a journey. This state of suspension is not true living.
  • He goes off on landscapes that are turned into real estate plots. Dividing the land and assigning ownership is horrific because it ruins the woods. Thoreau fears the day when fences will multiply and men will devise ways to trap people onto highways and away from unknown woods. Civilization will encroach upon all wild forests, and America’s free lands will become unrecognizable, claimed by greedy individuals.
  • Thoreau feels that nature’s magnetism tends to guide walkers along the right direction.
  • The east leads to the past—the history, art, and literature of the Old World—while the west leads to the forest, the future, and the pioneering spirit of the New World. The east is the source of light, while the west is the land of fruit.
  • Thoreau hopes that generations of Americans will understand that the civilized draw strength from the wild.
  • All good things being wild and free, Thoreau rejoices in the wildness even of domestic animals. The taming or domestication turns humans and animals into mindless locomotives or machines. Just as animals are not meant to be tamed, neither are humans. Yet the driving thrust of civilization has been to wean humanity away from its wild origins. Social norms turn children into preoccupied adults and curb all curiosity and adventure of spirit. Education curbs and burdens instead of encouraging inner genius to grow.
  • As Thoreau travels deeper into a landscape, away from the noise of politics and commerce, he enters an inner wildness of spirit. He notices birds he never noticed before, hears unheard music. That is why it is important to be present in the moment. To be in this attentive state itself is an education and an inspiration.
  • Thoreau finishes his essay with an account of a November sunset he witnessed recently. The sunset was so moving as to be a transformational experience. The light Thoreau saw was of a quality he had never seen before and would never see again. Thus, he realized that each sunset is unique and represents a journey in itself.

III. Quotes

  • I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit.
  • A truly good book is something as natural, and as unexpectedly and unaccountably fair and perfect, as a wild flower discovered on the prairies of the West or in the jungles of the East. Genius is a light which makes the darkness visible, like the lightning’s flash, which perchance shatters the temple of knowledge itself, and not a taper lighted at the hearth-stone of the race, which pales before the light of common day.
  • We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.
  • I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say, A penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.
  • Life consists with Wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. One who pressed forward incessantly and never rested from his labors, who grew fast and made infinite demands on life, would always find himself in a new country or wilderness, and surrounded by the raw material of life. He would be climbing over the prostrate stems of primitive forest trees.
  • Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure.
  • Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past.
  • The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours …but it is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.
  • In short, all good things are wild and free.
  • What is most of our boasted so-called knowledge but a conceit that we know something, which robs us of the advantage of our actual ignorance?
  • Let me live where I will, on this side is the city, on that the wilderness, and ever I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness.
  • Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.
  • A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful, while his knowledge, so called, is oftentimes worse than useless beside being ugly. Which is the best man to deal with, he who knows nothing about a subject, and what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, — or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?
  • My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence.
  • Roads are made for horses and men of business. I do not travel in them much, comparatively, because I am not in a hurry to get to any tavern or grocery or livery-stable or depot to which they lead.
  • What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?