Walden Pond and (Way) Beyond

Walden Pond: one of the focal points of this journey for me. That fateful morning we sadly left Maine behind, which had been our home for the past four weeks. We crossed into New Hampshire and, after that long reprieve, we were truly back on the road.

The return of billboards as we entered Massachusetts was rather unwelcome but not unexpected. At least the beauty of the New England arboreal bounty continued across the borders. The traffic grew worse as the denseness of civilization crept back in; a stifling change after the openness of Maine. Eventually we found our way to the state reserve containing Walden pond.

The place was in disarray because they were building a new visitor center. It was a little troubling seeing all the trees cut down and the ground scarred from equipment preparing the area for the new visitor center. The irony of development in that place was not lost on us (or others it seems, based on the graffiti I read in the bathroom). Nevertheless we had arrived.

As we skirted the construction fence we passed the recreation of Thoreau’s cabin without warning or ceremony. It was quite remarkable to see a glimpse of what he might have lived in, especially knowing he built it himself for the most part, even cutting trees and hewing them to make much of the timber. But the finishing touches from windows to the wood stove to the siding are almost more impressive.

So even by Thoreau’s reckoning the felling trees is necessary in the lives of people. But to what extent? Answering that is the crux of the matter; it is central to how humans will move into the future.

We walked around the pond mesmerized by it’s charm and beauty. It was far larger than I expected (Thoreau mentions the size as over 60 acres, but it was hard for me to picture that in my head). As we walked around the pond the sunlight shifted, the clouds wheeled, the trees rained their autumn leaves on us. Little fishes fed at the edges of the pond. We saw two people fishing and I idly wondered if they could actually catch anything. There were several swimmers doing laps across the pond, not something I expected to see on  a cool autumn day. Most people seemed, if not awed, at least respectful of the location except for two pairs of women I took to calling the yak ladies. They were walking around the shore in opposite directions with such timing as to eventually converged on us making us the filling in a yak sandwich. But they passed in due course and the quietude of the pond returned.

We walked the long way around the pond to the site of his home. I was shocked that anyone could be so privileged to live in such a place. He was lucky be shown it as a child and later, as an adult (over 170 years ago), to settle around it for two years. How even more strange it is that long before Thoreau’s time Walden had been settled by colonials, then abandoned, then reclaimed by nature only to be known by a few in his youth when he was first introduced to it.

The home site was in a perfect location. Serene and sheltered, but with a view of the water just a short walk away. Many people bring and pile stones at his home site. Many build cairns. I couldn’t contribute to that effort for reasons I can’t quite articulate other than to say: many people do it and it seemed to me that enough of that sort of thing was going on without me needing to contribute to it. After some time of quiet reflection we headed on back to the park entrance through the paths in the woods.

We took so many pictures. We drank it in. What a relief. What a joy. What a short experience. We were there less than two hours; we probably walked only about three miles. And then it was done. We said goodbye and left.

I’ve spent a long time on the road thinking about life and what it means to earn a living. Thoreau had his unusual ideas about the matter and so do I. The Massachusetts of today seems to be packed to the gills with people living in swollen, opulent homes surrounded by fastidiously manicured landscaping with only just enough undeveloped space between them to stop things looking like they do in, say, Two Rivers in Eagle, Idaho. Perhaps the former is slightly more desirable than the latter. But the Massachusetts of today is so far removed from the ethic and aesthetic of Thoreau – one of the state’s’ most famous sons – that their kinship seems almost nowhere to be found. Coming to Walden was like a pilgrimage; but that focal point of the journey was walled in among the ramparts of the adversary. As if the only way for one to access a revered, old-fashioned bookshop1 was by penetrating a 100-mile radius of continuous big-box stores.

Massachusetts, like most developed places, is a lot more crowded nowadays than it was in the 1840s. The outworkings of the pursuit of technology and civilization are much more apparent today than they could have been at that time. I doubt Thoreau felt a deep or lasting sense of actual conflict with technology and civilization. But many people definitely do feel it today. In a sense that’s sad, as conflict should not be a focus within life. But our ethics, like our moral intuitions, grew up in very humble circumstances. Later, these senses were nurtured only in slightly larger clans and villages. As a species we simply have no inherent wisdom regarding how more than seven billion of us living in a globalized civilization should be able to pursue the good life while still ensuring that the environment that sustains us isn’t destabilized.

Such wisdom is the new frontier. Not geography. Not technology. Wisdom; that is the unexplored country. We need a comprehensive ethic and morality that seeks to maximize the well being of “all” beings2 . Such a wisdom needs a name, but none exists in the English language. Those with Christian roots know a word that comes close: ecumenicalism. But that is a term pointing only to collective harmony in Christian spheres. We need a similar concept that applies to all human life and our environment as a whole, including non-human animals.

There is much conjecture about human exploration and, in time, colonization of other parts of the solar system. That may sound all well and good, but I certainly hope we fail to colonize other parts of the solar system until we have mastered a stable, harmonious life on this planet. To escape Earth because our activities have rendered it uninhabitable is to simply kick the can of responsibility down the road and increase the spread of an immature and irresponsible species. Before Mars can be terraformed we must put our house in order on Earth. I want to have no part of a species that fails to understand this. I’d rather see the human race wiped out than see it spread unceasingly without holding an ethic based on sustainable living with a universal3 scope of ecology.

It’s likely our shortsightedness could lead to our own demise and perhaps the demise of large portion of the biosphere on Earth. But never think for a second that humans have the capability to harm the Earth or life itself. If we fail to strike a sustainable ecological balance, nature will go on; it will wipe us out first, and then carry on without us. New, complex lifeforms will emerge and, in time, all vestiges of human influence upon the biosphere will be erased.

On that long time scale we humans are the main species to pay the price for our own ignorance and shortsightedness. Of course it’s unfortunate that many other species may meet their ends as well, just because of us. This has already been happening throughout recorded history. But, fittingly, humans will pay the ultimate price. Only human intelligence, ingenuity and art will be lost to the cosmos for all time. We will simply remove ourselves as the dominant species on the planet and make room for another one to take over. I often wonder if those successors will become geologists and archaeologists in time to excavate the fossils of our civilization and our species from the strata of a far-distant future Earth; in places where the environmental disasters of our own causing entombed us in the only immortality we could ever hope for. I’m actually writing a science fiction short story based on this idea.

In the mean time Dani and I continue our little journey across this little country on this little planet. We have yet to find a place on this planet we can call home, but we pursue the idea of home still. We wish to be good stewards and good fellow citizens of this planet called Earth. We are hunters of peace. We chase the elusive mayfly of love.

Footnotes:

1 – My favorites so far are Trip Taylor and Rainbow Books in Boise and Peace of Mind and Gardner’s in Tulsa.

2 – I’m partial to Sam Harris’ viewpoint that our sphere of concern should be increasingly focused in proportion to a being’s capacity to suffer. There is no shorthand for such a stance. Intelligence is not a bad metric, but it doesn’t go far enough. Even relatively stupid animals, for instance cows or chickens, have the ability to suffer greatly (in comparison to, say, earthworms or house flies) and so we must expand our sphere of concern to them as well. To what degree? This is not least among the frontiers of wisdom I mentioned previously.

3 – That is “universal” in the sense of whatever portion of the cosmos humans have the capability to influence. Obviously a workable ethic cannot pragmatically be concerned with the environments found in places we could never have an influence. Currently the limits of our influence seem to be the solar system, even though the limits of that are somewhat undefined; our electromagnetic transmissions and space probes can penetrate interstellar space. Are these regions now to be brought into our sphere of ethical concern? I think so, though the amount of influence we wield there is so small it should be prioritized accordingly. We wield a tremendous influence upon the environment of the Earth itself, so a comprehensive consideration of that needs to be a chief concern.

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