Thoreau, the Woods & a Cure for Modern Life.

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For nearly half a century I have been walking in the woods.

Since I was five years old, long before the days of computer games and “stranger danger,” I wandered fields and forests all alone. When I came home covered head to toe in mud I simply stripped down at the door and no questions were asked about my solo journeys into the wilds of my neighborhood. For the decade that spanned my teens I walked by Towner’s Pond not far from Thoreau’s Walden. When other kids my age were contemplating the opposite (or same) sex I confess that I was contemplating trees and turtles and more deeply, passionately, losing my small “self” in nature, seeking for my greater “Self” in union with the whole of life, although I would not have said so at the time. In fact, to tell the truth, it’s likely that I would not have said anything at all.

Many people walk, some for exercise, some for pleasure. Some walk, hike and climb mountains to achieve something, ticking “Fourteeners” off the list one by one, like explorers planting conquering flags in the New World. But I’ve  never climbed a single one, never set foot on mountains named for those who killed the Indians, while those same mountains ancient names and personalities are known to almost none.

Thoreau understood walking in its purest form. No world traveler himself, Thoreau claimed “I have traveled quite extensively, in Concord.” But it was not so much “where” he was walking but “how” that made the difference. In the final essay of his life, Walking, Thoreau reveals the secret of his life of wandering…

I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is – I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? I suspect myself, and cannot help a shudder when I find myself so implicated even in what are called good works.              

If Thoreau’s simple, mid-nineteenth century life, lit by kerosene lamps, traveled on foot, communicated in face to face conversation or meticulously hand-written notes, left his mind reeling then woe to us of the 21st century! Our lightning speed communication, internet, Facebook, twitter, wifi, TV and radio provides us with more information than we can process.  Surely the wild animal in each of our hearts is ready to run from this madness, at any moment, to take refuge in the wild. The cure for modern life, more than ever, is nature, where we can breathe freely and for a quiet hour rest our minds in simple wonder.  I begin most days with a walk at daybreak, more often than not grinning like an idiot at something as simple as a familiar birds note and often (on a good day) end by staring at the sky like a child who has lost themselves at play.

Those of us who live in Colorado are lucky to have access to open spaces like Rocky Mountain National Park and the two or three times a year that I get up there are great, but where do we experience nature every day? Where do children interact with the wild if they can’t connect with it in their neighborhood? I feel fortunate that my work frequently leads me outdoors and although I live in the city I can walk from my home and quickly reach the river and woods.

My local forest has deer and mink, foxes and many birds. Last year a mountain lion and a bear were spotted nearby. On the occasions when I see a bald eagle flying along the river I ask myself “is that eagle in the wilderness?” From the eagles perspective fish in this river are no different than fish from the remotest mountain stream and the eagle is no more “civilized” by this environment than any other. Then I wonder about myself, when I walk in this urban forest am I wild, as I was as a child when a small wood lot was like Christopher Robin’s hundred acre wood?

Perhaps wildness is a state of mind that leaves enough room to recognize other beings as free and unfettered, a state where plants, animals and weather, appear as messages from a world shrouded in mystery whose patterns can only be perceived through the senses and intuited by the heart .

“In Wildness is the preservation of the World. Every tree sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind. . . .”

~ Thoreau



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About Jim Tolstrup

Jim Tolstrup is the Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, Colorado: “Restoring nature where we live, work and play.” Become a Fan of HPEC on Facebook, or visit our website for more information


15 Responses to “Thoreau, the Woods & a Cure for Modern Life.”

  1. Eric says:

    I feel much the same way about walking & wandering…except that I usually do so in an urban environment. I see no reason to separate the human-made environment from the non-human – it's all interconnected and it's all "nature".

    • Eric says:

      Eric: you "see no reason to separate the human-made environment from the non-human…" ~exactly, it has nothing to do with reason. you're missing it. you missed it. there is a monumental difference between how we attune to the natural world and the man-made world, and it's physiological….

  2. Julia says:

    Yes! My one complaint about yoga is that it's generally done inside and is stationary. Now if there was a way to do yoga while moving through a natural landscape it would be perfect. Happy Walking!

  3. Sandra Adams says:

    Maybe wildness is simply the experience of being where your body is…wherever you find yourself. Love this, Jim – perhaps your best yet. And I suppose this shouldn't surprise either of us, but the chapter I am writing now says much the same (in a somewhat different way).

  4. The lesser known story is that Thoreau's inspiration for all this was to a large extent the Bhagavad Gita, as told in some detail in American Veda:

    From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation How Indian Spirituality Changed the West. by Phil Goldberg.

    The Bhagavad Gita was one of the very few books Thoreau took with him to the woods for repeated reading and contemplation.

    Bob W.
    Associate Publisher

  5. elephantjournal says:

    Today I am a little beat, tired, burned out. You have your own troubles, confusions, moods, sufferings. For all of us, there is one simple cure. An enlightenment simpler than even prayer or meditation: going for a walk, and looking at the sky, the birds, the trees, the water, the clouds.
    Please support quality articles on elephant. No sexy image or headline? This article will depend on our slow…ing enough to read it, and if so inspired, please share. And then you'll see more like this on elephant.

    Meditaciones Guiadas Tenerife It will get better, we all have those days, just hang in there ! _/\_
    4 hours ago · LikeUnlike
    Lennie Carbone I used to offer to take oaths on Walden; ALL should read AT LEAST the Intro. & Conclusion.
    4 hours ago · LikeUnlike
    Dee Galluccio As I come off a week that left me battered and bruised in a way I hadn't experienced for quite some time, all I want is to go to a cabin in the woods and breathe in fern and moss and listen to birds and cook on a wood burning stove and read by the fire. Great post. So true.
    3 hours ago · LikeUnlike · 5
    Benoit Bergeret The woods, the womb. Where all worries go backstage and the reality of life strikes in its wonderful, generous, evident simplicity.
    3 hours ago · LikeUnlike
    Beth Withey Thoreau and a walk in nature is often the best medicine and meditation.
    3 hours ago · LikeUnlike · 1
    Sage Arias I would like to comment, but the words have been spoken for me.
    2 hours ago · LikeUnlike
    Nicole Wagner Thoreau and "woods" grabbed my attention!!
    2 hours ago · LikeUnlike
    Claudia Redolfi que hermoso!
    See Translation
    2 hours ago · LikeUnlike
    Wendy Kathryn Tucker More please.
    28 minutes ago · LikeUnlike
    # ‎102 likes, wow! Hope the author sees this support!
    And 31 shares! This might be a record.

  6. Jill Barth says:

    I posted this to the Elephant Green Facebook page. Thanks for sharing!

    Jill Barth, Green Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Green on Facebook

  7. Deborah says:

    Thanks Jim! Heading out to Washington Oaks State Park(FL) today, because of this article! Treading the paths of peace and looking for Owl Nests! Woo Hoo!

  8. chad says:

    I've often had Thoreau's problem while out walking, especially in nature. I want to be totally engaged with my surroundings and experience while walking, but my brain is rattling through my mundane concerns and is also doing stream of consciousness chatter. I'm hoping to try mantram recitation while walking and seeing, to stay in the moment and with my surroundings.

  9. […] we now have more to work with, not less. The Universe is abundant. And if you don’t believe me, go for a walk in the woods and start counting all the wonders you […]

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