Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Thorough Thoreau

I would be willing to bet that Thoreau did not have children when taking his walks, especially six year olds who do not suffer pebbles in their shoes gladly.  The fall colors are here, quite suddenly it seems, and so we take to the woods.  But Transcendentalism is hard.  Kids are much more utilitarian about nature, specifically the fun it should provide.  The whole idea of a walk can be kind of lost on children.  "So, we're basically going to be right back where we started when this is over?" asked Iris, ever the pragmatist, ever needing to know the lay of the land.  Yes, we'll be back - we'll be taking an enormous loop around the exhausted rock quarry that was given to our university and is now a Nature Park - but we'll be transformed, or at the very least invigorated, by the walking and the communing. That's the idea for grown-ups. I think, a little stunned, of the scale and scope of some of these walks - my dad's phenomenal 92-year leave-taking and return to North Carolina; the three-hour walk I'm charting in the forest of Broceliande in Brittany for my Winter Term students this January, trying to make sure I'm not lost in this Arthurian forest with 26 college kids; the pilgrimage loop of medieval travelers: to the local shrine, to Santiago de Compostela, to Jerusalem.  Thoreau gets medieval right there on the first page of Walking, with the (poetic license?) etymology of a word that's lost its gravitas (which makes me question if it ever had it to begin with):

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks,  - who had a genius, so to speak for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived from "idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going à la Terre Sainte," to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, "There goes a Sainte-Terrer," a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander.

So it's the medieval children (and I think of sauntering as a child-like way to walk) who provide the language for the walking Thoreau wants to theorize.  Well, he was a teacher, when he wasn't a handyman or living at Walden far from the madding crowd - but I still bet he didn't take kids on walks.  I think that Iris is asking her question only now because she's old enough to see the horizon and know we won't cross it, know that this is a matter of hours away and then a return home.  I think that when they're smaller, walks for the kids were these huge adventures and they were always a little surprised to return home.  Like Mandeville's traveler who circles the globe and can't understand the language of the people of his homeland because it's inconceivable that he's made it all the way around the world.  Eleanor became fascinated by the idea of a "one-way ticket around the world" - I don't know if it's a conundrum or an oxymoron, but I love thinking of it, too.

Sometimes you know you're setting out only to come home at the end, and sometimes you know you're setting out not to, and sometimes you just don't know. There are itineraries and there are trajectories. I think of Mandeville's traveler, and Thoreau, and my beloved friend David in France, and Mac in India, and Iris's restlessness to see something new, and Oliver's yearning for all the familiars of France. I think of the medieval word "wander" and the modern one, "wanderlust;" of medieval walkers, of (help from Tim Morton here) the possibility of an aesthetic response to a walk in the Middle Ages. And I realize that the scale and scope of a walk are indefinitely negotiable.

I often think of blogging as being one of a company of people walking through the woods: you follow your own path, but you're frequently calling out to the others, rushing over to see what they found, crossing paths. There are medieval bloggers going off the beaten path in wondrous ways these days: Eileen Joy's resignation from the university (this incredible piece will make the ground shift beneath your feet), whose beautiful writing and powerful wit are the stuff of what could surely be the first academic road movie ever. Asa Mittman and Shyama Rajendran starting the blog fumblr (check it out!), in which contributors can share the walk of the road (best) not taken. I love the trust in these departures, in these walks: in each other, in what awaits, in that what we might share will bring us further knowledge and wonder.  And (to close by finally addressing the image above though, truly, fire will soon claim its own post), the fires we gather around along the way for warmth and stories and respite.


  1. Many thanks for the shout-out! Have you seen, by the way, Jeffrey Cohen's wonderful piece that deals with Mandeville's failure to make it *quite* all the way around the world?

    Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Pilgrimages, Travel Writing and the Medieval Exotic,” Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature in English, ed. Elaine Treharne and Greg Walker (Oxford 2010).

    I can send you a PDF if you like.

  2. Asa! I just discovered your wonderful message - I love that article and have assigned it in "Monsters and Marvels" - and ah yes, the circle is not quite complete, actually. Makes for more disorientation and an ever-receding hearth.