Continuing “Walking” with Henry David Thoreau

Listening to “Walking” while I walked (see previous post) only whetted my appetite to dig deeper into this amazing essay. The more I read, the more the text opened up like a flower early in the morning, each truth displaying itself in the light of a new understanding. I feel akin to Thoreau and I attribute it to my recent exploration into the contemplative life. I daresay that Thoreau thinks much like religious contemplatives and monks that I’ve read about, but without the overt mention of religion. Still, to me anyway, the suggestion is very much there. What makes Thoreau so amazing is that he lays out the map of where you should go but allows you to choose how you will get there. It makes his thinking universal, applicable to anyone who wants it, in any time and place.

Learning to understand Thoreau:

Ken Kifer wrote that “Thoreau based his philosophy on ageless truths from the past and looked into the future.” In describing Walden, he wrote that “its logic is based on a different understanding of life, quite contrary to what most people would call common sense.” I felt like he was describing my life. I have always walked to the beat of a different drummer.

So I already knew that “Walking” was far more than a description and appreciation of nature. There is no doubt that Thoreau had a deep connection with the out-of-doors and contributed greatly to the study of the natural world with his observations and insights. I think specifically of a section near the end of “Walking” where he describes climbing a pine tree only to discover “on the ends of the topmost branches only, a few minute and delicate red cone-like blossoms, the fertile flower of the white pine looking heavenward.” He was so taken with this discovery that he actually cut off the top of the tree and took it into town to show anyone who would look at it!

Many people love Thoreau because he was a naturalist and he certainly lifted the experience to a higher plain. But Nature (note the capital N which he always used) was far more than what was seen. I believe he used it as an allegory to challenge people to think beyond their narrow, conventional lives of commerce and work. He felt it essential to move beyond conventional and shallow thought, and to dig much deeper into the meaning of life. No doubt his thinking was influenced by the dehumanizing influence of the new industrial age. It’s amazing that he could see it even then, with industrialization in its infancy. I can only imagine how he would see our world today..

Learning to understand Thoreau:

Thoreau valued walking greatly, making it a rather spiritual experience. He called it sauntering (“which word is beautifully derived ‘from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre” — to the holy land . . .) and declared that he couldn’t preserve his health and spirits unless he spent at least 4 hours per day sauntering through Nature, free from worldly entanglements. Someone who is able to spend that much time alone and walking obviously understood the value of silence. I have a feeling Thoreau was an expert at quieting himself, ridding himself of those useless thoughts that race through the mind, and allowing higher thought to rise to the surface. This is something I am learning how to do with contemplative prayer. It’s like entering the innermost chamber of yourself and meeting someone you love there. I’ve only succeeded once or twice to get there but once you’ve been there, you hunger to go back and stay. Thoreau knew how to enter that chamber and silence is the way. It wasn’t always easy for him (“I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit”) but he knew the way.

Digging deeper

Thoreau uses much of the essay to challenge us to dig deeper, broadening our horizon, and opening our hearts and minds to other realities. I feel like his writing is practically shouting at me because I see so much narrow-mindedness, such a lack of creativity in the way people think, and a general blindness to what makes life truly worth living. Although I feel I have a gift for insight, I also sense a barrier inside of me preventing me from digging deeper myself, and then learning how to express it in words. I think that with Thoreau’s help (and further time inside my chamber with my Beloved) I can break down this barrier, stone by stone.

There is so much more to say about “Walking”; I will continue in future posts.



Some people have studied for an
in order to fully understand Thoreau.
His words about nature are beautiful.


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3 Replies to “Continuing “Walking” with Henry David Thoreau”

  1. This sounds like such a peaceful read. I must make time for him soon. So many other books keep leaping to the front of the line! I want to read Emerson, too. And American Bloomsbury…

    1. Tell me about it! The good news is that it’s an essay so it’s fairly short. I thought it summed up nicely what his core beliefs were and why they are relevant today.

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