I have started taking walks in the forest. I’m certain Thoreau, the man who has turned me into a perambulator, would disapprove of my route, marked out as it is by distinct, worn trails. I freely confess that I’m not the trailblazer he was, nor do I have his endurance. Every teacher—I’m an adjunct at Mass Bay Community College—who assigns Thoreau must confront the very humbling fact that he is not Thoreau. Nonetheless, I have tried, for the past few weeks, to emulate him, or rather his walks, as best I can.
In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau advises his readers to climb trees, something I did only infrequently growing up. I selected the tree I would climb with a degree of care that my mentor would have disdained and even laughed at. When I had ascended barely ten feet, I rewarded myself by uttering something inane. I think I said, “Well this is life,” even though I was conscious of nothing but the sap on my hands and my rapidly beating heart. Of course, I fully expected that I would feel the absolute truth of every aphorism of Thoreau’s the higher I mounted. I managed to climb another five feet or so before remembering that I did not have health insurance. Within a minute, I found myself on terra firma again, resolved not to climb a tree until I should be able to afford falling from one.
I go on my walks alone, as all of the great walkers advise you to. Of course, few solitary walkers nowadays enter the forest unencumbered. We do not leave the world behind; rather, we take it with us in our pocket. I have, I’m embarrassed to admit, placed and received calls in the middle of the forest. Perhaps I’m not as much in awe of the forest as I think I am, or as Thoreau tells me I should be. If I was, I certainly would extend her some common courtesies, such as keeping my cell phone on “silent,” or rather leaving it behind altogether.
My attenuated walks down wide paths cannot begin to replicate his spontaneous, day long jaunts. He traveled oh so light; my cargo, while not heavy, always threatens to interrupt. (It was easy enough for Thoreau to disburden himself; good luck to your modern man!) He thought everything the true walker left behind was insignificant; I’m not certain that the woods teach us more than the city.
I often take in a view on my walk which features Boston, and so find myself in a position to compare town and country. It’s only when I look towards the city that I recall that I have obligations, which, while sometimes onerous, at least ensure I do not seclude myself from others. If I avert my eyes and take in only what nature has provided, I cannot believe that anything is, or ever will be required of me, except to stare on until the end of time in stupid silence. It’s at such moments that my cell phone inevitably rings, and my own trifling concerns—and those of others—make me articulate again. Clearly, my little project was doomed to fail.