Thoreau’s Choice

I live about a 3-minute walk to the Hudson Valley Rail Trail. Where I access it is about midpoint of the 2.5 mile length, so I have a choice to go left or right, east or west. I am often reminded of Thoreau’s statement, “Eastward I go only by force, but westward I go free.” As fate would have it, the choice for me is the same as it was for him. Eastward leads into town, westward leads out into a wilder landscape.

The east-bound stretch eventually runs along the backyards of townsfolk and currently ends in a small, rundown, industrial section of town. Along the way you pass a series of exercise stations put up by the Rotary Club where you can do push ups, chin ups, sit ups, and leg ups of one type or another on 12 different contraptions invented for these purposes. It’s like an outdoor health club or gym for office workers who might walk the rail trail during lunch.

How different if I head west!

The west-bound stretch passes through mini-canyons of beautiful rock outcrops where 19th-century train crews blasted through rocky hills. It crosses a stone bridge over the ever-changing Black Creek that Walt Whitman wrote about when he visited his friend John Burroughs, the nature writer who lived in the area. And it runs along a causeway built over a seemingly endless swamp that discouraged many pioneers in the early 19th century from going any further west. (Some of them stayed in the area, and so today here in upstate New York we have an Illinois Mountain and a crossroads called Ohioville. Those folks may have stayed in New York, but their imaginations were out in the Mid-west.)

My choice to go left or right is the same as the one Thoreau wrote about in his essay “Walking.” “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.” And his reason? “It is hard for me to believe that I shall find . . .sufficient Wildness and Freedom behind the eastern horizon.”

Recently I’ve been watching a spate of programs with Western themes. PBS’s American Experience ran two fascinating programs about Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill Cody. We rented the DVD of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. (It seemed like it took eons for Casey Affleck to get up the nerve to shoot Brad Pitt in the back. I could have done it quicker.) And not long ago I saw the excellent but disturbing Oscar-winning movie No Country for Old Men. Each in its own way is teasing us with Thoreau’s offer: go west to find freedom and wildness. But the American West has always been a complex and complicated mixture of civilization and primitivism. And lawlessness.

Historians estimate that, apart from a couple long treks such as the one to Oregon, most pioneer families only traveled about 20 miles west at one time and carried with them all their civilized tools and necessaries. And once they resettled, they attempted to recreate the way of life they had left behind. Nevertheless, compared to living standards in eastern cities, their lifestyles were indeed primitive. Jesse James, whom most Americans knew during his lifetime from the dime novels that portrayed him as a sort of heroic Robin Hood, was really a psychopathic killer, train robber, and pro-slavery sympathizer whose famous gang continued to fight the Civil War in Missouri years after Appomatox. And Bill Cody, after years fighting Indians, hired them as actors as part of his Wild West Show which he took to London, Paris, Rome, and Berlin. The Indians played themselves. Even Sitting Bull was part of the cast. And the characters in No Country for Old Men are all modern, 21st-century people who ironically are the same historic frontier types–or stereotypes–walking this dangerous western land, including a psychopathic killer. Freedom and wildness and lawlessness. A very complicated history.

Thoreau himself never went west. But his famous two years at Walden Pond gave him ample time to think about this need for freedom and wildness, and to evaluate their impact on the American character. Americans have been fortunate to have had real open and wild spaces to move into physically and to stimulate their imaginations even if they never headed west. Perhaps all human beings have this need. I suspect at least some of those Europeans attending Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show imagined themselves on horses chasing Indians. Or imagined themselves as Indians fleeing the American cowboys.

I’ve read accounts by indigenous shamans who claim even they have to get out into the great solitude beyond the village every now and then. They, of course, may not have words in their language for “nature” or “wilderness” because most tribal people have no concept of these as we do. Nature and wilderness are just the seamless landscape they live in. But they have the same need to be “out there.” The famous Lakota medicine man Pete Catches said, “I want to withdraw farther and farther away from everything, to live like the ancient ones. . . Someday I’ll move my cabin still farther into the hills, maybe do without a cabin altogether, become part of the woods.” The Huichol shaman Matsuwa put it this way. “Yet to learn to see, to learn to hear, you must do this–go into the wilderness alone. . . Such things are learned only in solitude.”

I think the same love of freedom and wildness is what keeps old Celtic tales popular, especially the ones about people who could run with the deer, or “on the legs of deer,” or race against horses. The two women who raised Finn MacCool in the forest could race with deer. Cailte’s mother could race horses. Most famous of all is Macha who raced and beat the king’s horses minutes before giving birth to twins. Tales of the Fenians who lived outside the restrictions and mores of society embody that wildness. They lived in the forests outside the law, but were not what we would mean by “outlaws.” Still, there was a kind of Jesse James quality to some of them. Interestingly in 1858 the term “Fenian” was adopted by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret society that advocated violent means to drive English authority out of Ireland. An American branch of the Fenian Brotherhood, made up of Irish immigrants, even invaded Canada in 1866 after the Civil War to attack the British here in North America and also pay back our friendly neighbor to the North for allowing the Confederacy to launch some attacks against the Union from north of our border. So even after the peace, you could continue fighting the Civil War in Missouri or Canada depending on which side you favored.

Wildness and freedom–where do we find them?

Some humans in every culture have the desire to “become part of the woods” and “live like the ancient ones.” Heroes we can read about or dream about who lived wild, rugged, unfettered lives continue to inspire us and tap into some deep need to leave the overly civilized lifestyle (however we may define that) and to experience, if only for a while, a way of life that is freer, more liberating, more primitive in the sense of primal. It’s like those pioneers who gave local areas mid-western names. They needed to think of themselves as living in Ohio and Illinois.

Yes, I find myself hardly ever walking the rail trail into town. I’m always lured west through the less civilized landscape, through rocky outcrops, over creeks and swamps, around the great slope of Illinois Mountain. Heading west, even on the rail trail, there is a greater sense of freedom and wildness. I can plan my raids into Canada. Or imagine that I run with deer and horses. Or pretend I am in Ohio. Or that I am part of the woods. Or that I am learning things that only solitude can teach.