New Year’s Eve, The Queen & I celebrated the end of one year & the beginning of another with a hike. We let Rags off the leash, watched his ears flop down the bike path. Fireworks began as we crossed Plum Creek then headed back into the woods, Rags bouncing along a game trail ahead of us into the still drifts of snow & strange light: the trail, in shadows, opened to a clearing amid the trees into which the snowy sky reflected low incandescence. Trees—thick black lines illumined by fallen snow—gleamed against the deep stormy dark back-sky of the east, contested by the odd radiance seeping in from town to the west. Fireworks quickened behind us, the gloom before us etched eerily by white—a Beckett-scape—thrilling ominous piebald night.
We turned toward home, Rags, terrorized by cracks & blastings unseen, scampering far ahead. Arm in arm we crossed Plum for the last time of the year, listening to 2012 carried away down the small stream, the “dark stream that seaward creeps.” We paused & listened awhile to the slipping away, on our right, & the coming to be, on our left, then walked on & kissed as bells rang beyond.
In “Down the River with Henry Thoreau,” Edward Abbey writes of taking his copy of Walden along “in an ammo can” on a Green River float trip in November 1980. Throughout the essay, as his party drifts through Labyrinth Canyon, Stillwater Canyon, and beyond, Abbey’s thoughts play between “one of the sweetest, brightest, grandest, and loneliest regions” in the United States and his rereading of Thoreau. Typically iconoclastic, even when dealing with another iconoclast, Abbey discusses Henry’s sex life, imagines a marriage between Thoreau and Emily Dickinson, and quotes or comments on some of what he deems to be the pertinent ideas of Concord’s famous “village crank.” The upshot: “The deeper our United States sinks into industrialism, urbanism, militarism,” the more urgent our need to read, reread, rethink the questions posed by Thoreau about our “economy,” our ways of living. Thoreau, Abbey finds, near the end of Labyrinth Canyon, “becomes more significant with each passing decade.”
This came back to me recently as I was writing a lecture on Walden. The book is difficult for many readers to understand, given Thoreau’s interest in complexity, his facility with paradox, and, frankly, our limited skills of interpretation — in fact, a worry about “reading” occupies a good portion of Walden. We too frequently “read,” Thoreau laments, in order to serve a “paltry convenience,” too busy to think through intricate issues and tangled problems, hastily concluding this or that about a work’s meaning or worth then “desperately” (a keyword in Walden) rushing on to the next thing. And such thoughts were occurring to me just as Black Friday had moved to Black Thursday — “holiday” sales were ramping up, must-have or must-give items were proliferating wildly. I imagined a rustic-clad vagabond commandeering the store microphone: “Attention shoppers: a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone!”
A brief pause — utter silence — and the barcode scanners again begin bleating.
How can we carefully attend to a book that promotes personal economy and “deliberation” (another Walden keyword, a proposed antidote to desperation) when, all around us, every form of media, from the cell phone to the movie screen, from the newspaper to the blogsite spreads the word that Things Must Be Bought, supporting a vast system of getting and spending? If that weren’t troubling enough, Thoreau also suggests that desperation in the marketplace maintains worldwide systems of injustice, inequality, and waste, exacerbating tensions and precipitating war. Walden proposes that if we want to have a better world, we will need to think better; to think better, we will need to slow down, reflect, and consider the consequences of our ways of living: What are the costs — to ourselves, to others, to the planet — of the pursuit of luxuries and superfluities? What do we really need to live a good and just and full life?
Tis, as they say, the season. “Goodwill toward men”? Goodwill is more than a store where goods go that are no longer needed. “Peace on Earth”? Peace is more than a wish, more than a state. Peace is created by our smallest actions, what we do and how we do it, wherever we are.
Crossing the Mississippi in twilight, eastward rolling on the interstate toward home after dwelling among the Rocky Mountains for a spell — those grand vistas of the West are far behind us. Back in our level, low lands, we become re-accustomed to the absence of the long, wide view. Prospects lose their luster.
Exceptions, however, can occur, moments of vision not infrequently fed by rivers. Jeremy Denk, “classical music’s Tina Fey” (Timeout New York), writes of such a moment when recalling his struggle to produce a recording of Charles Ives’s “Concord” Sonata. Some of the difficulties were philosophical: it’s seldom easy to wrestle with Emerson’s “disordered epiphanies.” Some were technical: how to deploy a crude wooden board while hammering out “Hawthorne.” These complications lead Denk to recall an earlier trouble with Ives’s Piano Trio. Driving across the Connecticut River one afternoon, Denk’s violinist at the time glanced out the window and said, “You should play it like that.” Bang! A musical epiphany caused by river-crossing:
From the bridge the river seemed impossibly wide, and instead of a single current there seemed to be a million intersecting currents — urgent and lazy rivers within the river, magical pockets of no motion at all. The late-afternoon light colored the the water pink and orange and gold. It was the most beautiful, patient, meandering multiplicity. ¶ Instantly, I knew how to play the passage. (The New Yorker 2/6/12)
I had no such sudden clarity as we crossed the Mississippi this July. But rather than have us rely on the flash of insight, Ives and the subjects of his sonata encourage us to roll on, ever “onward,” though not necessarily in a straight-line toward a particular end. Denk writes of the “Concord” composer that his rivers “aren’t constrained by human desires and stories; they sing the beauty of their own randomness and drift.” Emersonian “onwardness,” as I understand it, is not moving beyond or above nature but into it, or into a heightened awareness of our being with/in it.
The Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman asserts that “The main benefit of optimism is resilience in the face of setbacks.” Perhaps what we call optimism is less the belief in a light at the end of the tunnel than acceptance of chance and variation in nature, going on in spite of a lack of clear direction, crossing the river back and forth, time and again.
The Emerson phrase that most frequently comes to my mind (& you would worry about me if you knew just how frequently Emerson phrases come to my mind) is found near the end of the essay “Circles.” As usual, Emerson is encouraging his readers to try for newer & better thinking, & the essay whirls with ideas, interrogations, proclamations toward that goal. “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” (You can read & readily search RWE’s complete works here, an excellent site developed by my alma mater: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/.) I understand Emerson to highlight our tendency toward adopting or accepting ideas & ways of thinking, which can lead to personal stagnation & political states of complacency, injustice, the powerlessness of many at the hands of a few. Hope then lies in being willing to ask questions & to be questioned, in intellectual & spiritual “onwardness,” in allowing yourself & your worldview to be challenged & to respond—honestly, thoughtfully, energetically—to the challenge.
In the present instance, the phrase visited me as I think & write about the Los Angeles River. An unsettling & usually waterless body of water, the L.A. River captivates me. I have stood on a concrete section of its bed, gazing on desolation in perfect quiet, seemingly nowhere while somewhere—everywhere—beyond its cement embankments Los Angeles flies by on teeming freeways. On the bone-dry bed on a hot May afternoon, it is difficult to imagine that during a January rain storm, “the amount of water flowing through Los Angeles’ channels can increase to 10 billion gallons, reaching speeds of 35mph and depths of 25 feet” (Los Angeles Daily News, 1/20/10). When only the precisely engineered center of the concrete channel carries “water,” water that is mostly “treated sewage, authorized industrial discharges, & street runoff” (Blake Gumprecht,The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, & Possible Rebirth), one wonders if the L.A. River is a river. Officially, the body of water has been considered by some more properly a “flood control channel.” Recently, much work has gone into having it declared “navigable waters,” a river worthy of protection. What makes a river a river? Who decides what is a river & what is not? When is a river not a river? At the very least, the Los Angeles River provides an opportunity for being unsettled, for rethinking the meaning of “river.”
This fall, I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to read from or otherwise talk about the book with a variety of audiences. Below is a link to a presentation I made at Oberlin College, thanks to Ray English & the Friends of the Library, in which I describe the making of the book & especially some of the adventures in field research. (I have since slightly revised the facial hair configuration.)
“of unity and the connectivity of the river …
references to ‘the world’s great flood’ …
the rocks of ‘the basement of time,’ and ‘the words’ underlying everything”
— Chapter 2, By the River
In considering how steamboats changed the way that Americans viewed their rivers, I keep running into strange things. Throughout the writings of the 18th- & 19th-century, readers can find frequent reference to the size and majesty of the boats, celebrations of American ingenuity and its apparent mastery over nature, worries over some of the degenerate behavior on board, & always notes about how strange things are becoming — the noise and grandeur of the boat as seen from the shore, its unaccustomed speed & tiered structure giving passengers unaccustomed views of the river & shore. Although the literary history of the steamboat becomes increasingly strange as imaginative & insightful writers such as Melville & Twain arrive on the scene, the oddity surfaces from the start. Here’s a fragment from a letter to “his Excellency General Washington,” written by James Rumsey & dated the 10th of March, 1785. Rumsey was one of the early experimenters in the field, & he reprinted his letter to Washington in A Short Treatise on the Application of Steam, Whereby Is Clearly Shewn, from Actual Experiments, That Steam May Be Applied to Propel Boats or Vessels of Any Burthen Against Rapid Currents with Great Velocity. Great Velocity.
The power is immense — and I have quite convinced myself that boats of passage may be made to go against the current of the Mississippi or Ohio rivers, or in the Gulf Stream (from the Leeward to the Windward-Islands) from sixty to one hundred miles per day. I know this will appear strange and improbable to many persons, yet I am very certain it may be performed, besides, it is simple (when understood) and is also strictly philosophical.