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Arnold Berleant

 

THOREAU'S AESTHETICS OF NATURE

I

            As an icon for a wide range of protest movements, Thoreau’s presence and influence are ubiquitous.  He has been taken up by sometimes mutually incompatible advocates, from anarchists, civil rights leaders, and political theorists to novelists, poets, and essayists.  His work is well known both in the United States and abroad, and not only in the Western world but in the East, as well.  So much as been written about Thoreau that it is improbable that much can be said that is new, but it is nonetheless worth refreshing our understanding of his deep well of ideas by dipping into it from time to time.

            There is much to be heard in the range and  timbre of Thoreau’s voice, which is unique in American literature.  His writing combines philosophical rumination, moral and social criticism, wide learning that includes distant and past cultures, and scientific curiosity with acute descriptions of nature and a perception of detail and nuance that is unique.  Associated with environmental concerns, Thoreau’s ideas have often been used in support of the values found in the natural world, such as respect for and appreciation of natural processes and of nature not imposed on by human purposes, and his mode of life has long stood as a model of an open responsiveness to the details of our experience of the natural world.

            No other writer is so bold, or perhaps so foolhardy, to attempt so much, yet partly as a result of his range of interests, Thoreau’s accomplishments and influence have been incomparable.   He may be said to represent the brashness, irreverence, and broad competence, as well as the inveterate moralism of the American character.  He was the first philosopher that I, as a schoolboy, ever read, and his spirit has continued its influence on my own work.  

                        Because his writings encompass such a broad range of topics and disciplines, it is difficult to deal briefly with Thoreau’s work in a way that goes beyond laudatory generalities.  At the same time, it would not do justice to the full force of its scope to focus a microscopic eye on a single aspect alone.  Aside from general reverence, it might best serve his intent by emulating his example of working on a small scale and, seizing on a theme, following where it leads.  Looking again at Thoreau’s writings after a lapse of many decades, I am struck by the detail and precision in his descriptions of natural phenomena.  Yet the fact that they display the care and acuteness of scientific observation may have overshadowed the author’s aesthetic sensibility.  It is striking how thoroughly the perceptual detail of Thoreau’s observations is imbued with a sensitive appreciation of natural beauties.  Moreover, the aesthetic in his account consists not only in the visual appreciation of visual beauty but is multi-sensory and engaged.  In fact, his practice can tell us much about the aesthetic appreciation of nature.  Let me follow this strand and see where it can take us.

            A well-known passage early in Walden identifies the germinal impulse that is expressed in multiple ways throughout the book: 

It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.[1]

            This comment, interesting enough in itself, anticipated by a century and a half the inspiration of the rapidly growing movement in environmental aesthetics known as the aesthetics of everyday life.  The influence of environmental experience on aesthetics is perhaps the strongest motive behind the present effort to expand aesthetic appreciation and understanding beyond their customary scope of the fine arts.  Writers on aesthetics are now likely to include in their consideration first the practical arts, and then the various environments as part of which humans carry on their many activities.  The range of appreciation has grown from the natural environment to the urban, from the appreciation of nature to the aesthetics of human artifacts, from the enjoyment of works of art to an aesthetic sensibility in relation to objects and activities of domestic life.  Thoreau thus takes us beyond the ultimate and overwhelming in nature and art to the beauty in the prosaics of the world.[2]  Sometimes, moreover, Thoreau wrote as if the beauty in nature exceeds that in art.  “Art can never match the luxury and superfluity of Nature.”  Indeed, ” Nature is a greater and more perfect art….”

            In their minute detail, Thoreau’s descriptions of nature prefigure the phenomenological method.  His account of the scenery of Walden Pond included the color of  the water, which he describes at length, for nearly 800 words, as it changes from a yellowish tone to green, and takes on various shades of blue when seen from different distances and under a changing sky.[3]  Nor is the water taken in isolation, for Thoreau sees the pond in its larger setting, albeit without grandeur, as he describes the shore, the trees that border it, and the hills beyond.  This contextual, perceptual appreciation of nature is typical of his descriptions.  HIs eye is not that of the clinician who evaluates things dispassionately or of the anatomist who dissects objects into ever-smaller units.  It is rather the vision of the rhapsodist who carries forward the sweep of his story, or the landscape painter who conveys the entire scene by what he places on his canvas.

            It is easy to overlook what I think is a crucial feature of Thoreau, the naturalist, in  reading his detailed descriptions as visual observations.  One might imagine him looking with scientific detachment at ”the cranberries, small waxen gems, pendants of the meadow grass, pearly and red”[4] or examining the bubbles trapped in the ice of the pond.  But Thoreau is not a scientist of the eye.  His engagement with the natural world is, on the contrary, full-bodied.  It involves learning, to be sure, but not reading alone is never enough for, speaking as he were a phenomenologist, “we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor….”[5]  There were times of cleaning his house, when he set even his books, pens, and ink out-of-doors “amid the pines and hickories,” as if to balance their abstractions and scholarly associations with cones and nuts.  And of course there were his work hours hoeing beans.  These are not dull chores relegated to mindlessness but, Buddha-like, were activities worthy of attention and thought, part of his life and therefore valuable.  “How much of beauty—of color, as well as form—on which our eyes daily rest goes unperceived by us.”[6]

            Thoreau’s world is also filled with sounds, and he devotes an entire chapter in Walden to them:  the whistle of the locomotive passing within earshot and the varied sights and sounds of the train at different times and seasons.  It is as if this were another natural phenomenon that demanded a description of its cars and cargoes.  His space includes animal and bird sounds, rumbling carts and bells, the sound of raindrops, even the soft rustle of the forest growing around him.  And if, sitting in his boat, the stillness became too great, he would rap against its side planks and raise up echoes from the surrounding hills and vales.[7]

II

            Part of the perennial appeal of Thoreau’s mentality, if I may identify his manner of ruminative behavior, lies in the ethical insights he found both in simple observations and in scientific inquiries.  One might be inclined to dismiss his criticism of the prudential behavior of farmers and townspeople as the inverse arrogance of  backwoods moralism were it not that his judgments were so penetrating and sound in their measure.  Calculating the various depths of the pond is a characteristic instance.  It leads him to a similar rule for judging the dimensions of a man’s character.[8]  Higher laws include building the temple of one’s body.[9]  Thoreau lived, too, with the traces of the past on the land and with the lore of its former inhabitants, its history ever-present.  All this was part of his world, a living present constantly replenished with fresh perceptions, literary and historical associations, and personal memories.  Is Thoreau being inconsistent here, turning nature into a metaphor for morality?  This might seem so, except that the vividness and force of his perceptions of the natural world clearly stand on their own and not as mere crutches for a figurative moralism. 

            An essential characteristic of Thoreau’s aesthetic is that it is not an aesthetic of contemplation but of life lived actively.  He grasped the beauty in everything, from the tops of the evergreens and the mountain ash to the tree-cranberries in his stew and the wild ground he walked on.[10]  His was an active aesthetic, an integral part of the processes of living, which we can call an aesthetics of engagement.  This reflects both the temper of the man and the temper of the country.[11]  And the beauty Thoreau discovers is in relation to an individual person actively engaged where we find “as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate,—not a grain more.  The actual objects which one person will see from a particular hilltop are just as different from those which another will see as the persons are different.”[12]  Thoreau’s writings bring the reader both.  At the same time, they are not antiquarian but carry us to the very present, for they stand at the leading edge of what is now called “eco-aesthetics.”

            Thoreau’s life, often associated with his stay at Walden Pond, is mistakenly thought of as reclusive and sedentary, but this is misleading.  His time there was filled with the many activities of daily life:  going to the pond for water, fishing for pickerel, walking about, and occasionally visiting with friends and neighbors.  Walking was his transportation of choice, and beyond his two years at Walden Pond, working and rambling about there, Thoreau was an inveterate pedestrian.[13]   He frequently walked around Concord, surveying the land about and studying intensively the natural history of the place, putting into practice his adulation of the ordinary and embracing the world from his doorstep.  As the bard of the local, Thoreau is unmatched.  Yet he was also fascinated by accounts of travels and wrote some of this own.  These included not only his early expedition down local rivers (A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers), but a more extended trip to Quebec (A Yankee in Canada), four trips to Cape Cod  (Cape Cod), and three excursions in Maine (The Maine Woods).  At other times he visited cities from New York and Philadelphia to Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, and more.

            It is gratifying to think of supremely distinctive American figure as continuing to beckon us to move in new directions.  As with some of the outstanding lights in world civilization, such as Aristotle, Spinoza, and Marx, Thoreau is a continuing model and inspiration.

III

            An idiosyncratic, philosophically-minded thinker, Thoreau founded no school of thought.  Like Spinoza, another thinker of disconcerting originality, Thoreau left no direct descendents but like him, has exercised a persistent influence.  Whether Thoreau was an influence or whether these later developments merely parallel his thinking I cannot say.  The persistence of the ideas may confirm their validity, and it would illuminating to follow their course, for the ripples from Walden Pond reach well beyond its shoreline.  Without claiming direct influence, their undulations carry us to Dewey’s aesthetics, to existential phenomenology, and especially to the emerging interest in everyday aesthetics.[14]

“All nature is classic and akin to art.  The sumach and pine and hickory which surround my  home remind me of the most graceful sculpture.  Sometimes their tops, or a single limb or leaf seems to have grown to a distinct expression as if it were a symbol for me to interpret.  Poetry, painting, and sculpture claim at once and associate with themselves those perfect specimens of the art of nature,---leaves, vines, acorns, pine cones, etc.  The critic must at last stand as mute though contented before a true poem as before an acorn or a vine leaf.  The perfect work of art is received again into the bosom of nature whence its material proceeded, and that criticism which can only detect its unnaturalness has no longer any office to fulfill.  The choicest maxims that have come down to us are more beautiful or integrally wise than they are wise to our understandings.  This wisdom which we are inclined to pluck from their stalk is the point only of a single association.  Every natural form --- palm leaves and acorns, oak leaves and sumach and dodder – are untranslatable aphorisms.”[15]   Such intrinsic sensibility is the heart of the aesthetic, and Thoreau was one of its most able practitioners.

 

 

 



[1]  Henry David Thoreau, Walden, II. “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” ¶ 15.  Since Thoreau’s works appear in many different editions, depending on the degree of specificity, references will be to the title, chapter or part, and paragraph number.  References to his journal will be to the date.

 

[2]   See Katya Mandoki, Everyday Aesthetics:  Prosaics, the Play of Culture and Social Identities (Aldershott:  Ashgate, 2007).

 

[3]  See “The Ponds,” 5.  Because there are many editions of Walden, I am not identifying the source of my materials by the specific page in a printed edition but by the chapter title (since the chapters are not numbered), with a more specific reference to the annotated on-line edition of Thoreau’s work (http://thoreau.eserver.org/) in which the paragraphs are numbered.

 

[4] Walden, XIII, “House-Warming.”

 

[5]  Ibid., IV, ‘Sounds.”

 

[6]  Journal, August 1, 1860.

 

[7]  Ibid., ”The Ponds,” IX, ¶ 2.

 

[8]  Ibid., XVI, “The Pond in Winter.”

 

[9]  Ibid., XI, “Higher Laws.”

 

[10] The Maine Woods, Ktaadn, Part 1; Chesuncook, Parts 2 and 5.

 

[11] Among many sources, see Arnold Berleant, Art and Engagement (Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1991), Aesthetics and Environment, Variations on a Theme (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005) and Living in the Landscape:  Toward an Aesthetics of Environment (Lawrence:  University Press of Kansas,1997). 

[12]  Journal, November 4,1858.

 

[13]   “I have told many that I walk every day about half the daylight, but I think they do not believe it."

Journal, January 7, 1857. Also see Thoreau’s essay, “Walking,”

 

[14]   In addition to Mandoki’s Everyday Aesthetics:  Prosaics, the Play of Culture and Social Identities cited in endnote 2, see Yuriko Saito, Everyday Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Thomas Leddy, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life (Peterborough,OntBroadview Press, 2012); “Artification,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Special Volume 4 (2012).

 

[15]   Journal, vol. I (undated).  Quoted in Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience, ed. Owen Thomas  (New York:  W.W. Norton, 1966), pp. 251-252.

Ibid., Note 11.