Despite espousing vegetarianism, he famously promoted the benefits of hunting in his youth inWalden.Though he was a proud naturalist and thinker, he avowed that those who partake directly in nature have a superior perspective on the natural world:
Fishermen, hunters, woodchoppers, and others, spending their lives in the fields and woods, in a peculiar sense a part of nature themselves, are often in a more favorable mood for observing her, in the intervals of their pursuits, than philosophers or poets even, who approach her with expectation.
These men can approach the natural world in such a manner because they depend directly upon it for their livelihood. As Thoreau astutely notes, they are, “in a peculiar way,” apart of nature. Later in the book he again highlights such wild men, comparing their connection with nature to that of the naturalist and arguing that, while the latter merely observes, the fisherman interacts.While the observer may study, these men commune:
His life passes deeper in Nature than the studies of the naturalist penetrate; himself a subject for the naturalist. The latter raises the moss and bark gently with his knife in search of insects; the former lays open logs to their core with an axe, and moss and bark fly far and wide. He gets his living from barking trees. Such a man has some right to fish, and I love to see the Nature carried out in him.
“To take aim at a deer, every muscle as taut as the bowstring your arm holds drawn, isn’t merely to experience the natural world: it is to take one’s place in it…”
Thoreau stands in awe of the raw nature exhibited in these men. Indeed, such fishermen stand in opposition to the civilization he spends so many pages critiquing. They are not careful observers; they rend the earth in the quest for their quarry. They are truly wild, fully a part of nature.
Apparently, this wild instinct is not limited to “fishermen, hunters, and woodchoppers.” It can bubble forth from the most civilized members of society. Even Thoreau, who seems to have moved so far down the path of transcendentalism, cannot escape this essential part of humanity. Early in Walden, he experiences the nature within himself when he is nearly overcome by the desire to kill a lowly woodchuck.
I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw;not that I was hungry, except for that wildness which he represented. Once or twice, however, whileI lived at the pond, I found myself ranging the woods, like a half-starved hound, with strange abandonment, seeking some kind of venison which I might devour, and no morsel could have been too savage for me.
In response to this experience,Thoreau frames human nature as a dialectic between wildness and spirituality.He continues:
The wildest scenes had become unaccountably familiar. I found myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I revere both.
Why does he exalt that which he describes in such disparaging words?Because Thoreau sees such instincts not only as an inherent aspect of mankind but also as essential to communion with the natural world he so acclaims. Thus, this assertion of the nature in man is critical to the lens with which he views existence. Perhaps such thoughts inspired Thoreau’s famous dictum, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
As I watch the buck’s tail flag away through trees, my nerves slowly unclench. Though I will bring nothing but a dirty arrow back to the truck, I am not unsatisfied. What has passed between the tall oaks runs deeper than a full freezer. As Thoreau affirms, the naturalist, armed only with a field guide, cannot have such an experience. To take aim at a deer, every muscle as taut as the bowstring your arm holds drawn, isn’t merely to experience the natural world: it is to take one’s place in it, to exercise the wildness and vitality common to all life. I knew my quivering arm would miss, but I shot regardless, not out of spite or whim but to fulfill some deeper rite. That day, like any spent in the woods, was an assertion of my own undeniable place in the pulsing biota of the planet, a celebration, that is, of life itself.
Ford Van Fossan hails from the Eastern Shore of Maryland and is currently studying the finer points of Yankee turkey hunting and conservation biology at Middlebury College inVermont.