The awe and terror of this new garden

Ralph Waldo Emerson had little use for tourism. The great essayist preferred to conduct his transcendental rambles from the comfort of his rocking chair in Concord, Massachusetts, where he spent most of his adult life. It’s true that he crisscrossed the American heartland for decades as a fixture of the lyceum lecture circuit, but that was an economic necessity for a man whose books sold in measly numbers throughout much of his career. Travel on its own terms, for pleasure, was mostly a bust – “a fool’s paradise”, he declared in “Self-Reliance”.

On just a few occasions, though, travel jolted Emerson back to life. In 1832, reeling from the hammer blows of his first wife’s death and his abandonment of the ministry, he sailed to Europe and returned a changed man, who soon noted in his journal: “I please myself with contemplating the felicity of my present situation” . By 1871 he was ripe for another rejuvenating journey. The sixty- seven-year-old author had just delivered a series of lectures at Harvard called “The Natural History of the Intellect”, which had been a notable flop. Stung by this failure, and anxious about his fading memory and command of language, he was soon persuaded to join a healing expedition to the west. The idea, Emerson informed his friend Thomas Carlyle in a letter, was to “carry me off to California, the Yosemite, the Mammoth trees, and the Pacific”.

This trip, which was organized by the railroad baron John Murray Forbes, lasted just six weeks. It was, in other words, a brief chapter in a long, complicated, spiritually (if not geographically) restless existence, which Brian C. Wilson has brought to life in The California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson. As he notes, the travelers profited from a brief shining moment in the history of American infrastructure. Although the recently completed transcontinental railroad had finally made such journeys practical, the flood of tourists to California had not yet begun. Emerson could travel in comfort, surrounded by friends and family, while still enjoying the solitude he so valued.

He could also observe, from the window of his Pullman carriage, the nation he had once described as a “poem in our eyes”, whose “ample geography dazzles the imagination”. The Nevada desert reminded Emerson “of the Bible and Asia”, while his exposure to the redwoods at Yosemite (where he declined to have one of the giant trees named after himself) prompted an awed epigram: “The greatest wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more.”

Yet some of the most telling encounters, Wilson reminds us, were with human beings. In Salt Lake City, Utah, Emerson paid a call on Brigham Young, the president and prophet of the Mormon Church. He was impressed by his host, a stubby man with a damp reddish combover, and later declared him a “sufficient ruler & perhaps civilizer of his kingdom of blockheads”. Still, he failed to recognize the ways in which Young’s enterprise ran parallel to his own: they were both the Yankee founders of religious movements, one predicated on individualism and the other on what Wilson calls a “rigorous, theocratic communitarianism that was designed to last into eternity”.

Emerson’s meeting with the pioneering conservationist John Muir was similarly shot through with ambivalence. The young, hirsute, hero-worshipping naturalist struck him as perhaps too devoted to nature. Muir had literalized Emerson’s poetic tirades against the madding crowd, living in a kind of man-sized birdhouse in Yosemite and sulking when his idol refused to bed down outdoors on a pile of branches. What he lacked was Emerson’s gift for binocular vision – his tendency to turn every thought on its head. That was, after all, what enabled Emerson to view California itself as both a paradise and a potential disaster area, whose ethnic diversity might well drive off Anglo-Saxon paladins like himself.

“There is an awe and terror lying over this new garden”, Emerson wrote, “all empty as yet of any adequate people, yet with this assured future in American hands.” Hoping for a Yankee diaspora that never quite materialized, he seems to have envisioned a balmier New England with oranges and extra sunlight. This was not a shrewd reading of history or demographics. It was hardly a stretch, however, for a man who always viewed the natural landscape as a projection of the self, and Wilson effectively conveys Emerson’s cultural myopia, along with its late-Victorian context.

Emerson’s friend, disciple and occasional antagonist Henry David Thoreau was a less sedentary creature. He had a horror of remaining indoors, which he vanquished by walking, preferably away from humanity. “I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles”, he insisted, “commencing at my own door, without going by any house, without crossing a road except where the mink and fox do.” In Six Walks: In the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, the painter and essayist Ben Shattuck takes the baton from his worthy pre-decessor. Sometimes he literally retraces one of his hero’s extended strolls – along, say, the outer beaches of Cape Cod, which Thoreau traversed several times between 1849 and 1855. Despite his reputation as a no-frills woodsman, Thoreau brought substantial gear on these walks, Including a parasol, sewing materials and a plum cake. Shattuck, who departed with little more than a hunk of cheddar cheese, describes him as a “country saunterer, handsomely dressed and carrying with him all the items for misadventure, like a flowery battleship”.

Shattuck’s Cape Cod expedition was a mixed bag. At the time of his departure he was coping with a bad break-up, stuck in a morass of “doubt, fear, shame, and sadness”. As he studied the detritus on the beach, including a dead loon, a bunch of Legos and an assortment of baseball hats, he also recognized the truth of Thoreau’s epithet for the place – a “vast morgue”. His attempt to communicate with the dead, however, was less successful. When he located the oysterman’s cottage where Thoreau had spent the night nearly two centuries earlier, he “felt no connection, no insight, no sudden power”. His blistered feet had simply carried him one step further into disillusionment.

Such irony is the occupational hazard of a book like this. How seldom does the present – frenetic, footsore, knowledge-glutted – live up to the past! Yet we sometimes connect in surprising ways. Shattuck’s second walk, up the steep slopes of Mount Katahdin in Maine, took place in the middle of a health crisis, while he was battling Lyme disease with a nearly disabling course of antibiotics. His rickety physical condition somehow brought him closer to his predecessor, if only because Thoreau was highly suspicious of his own body, noting in his account of the ascent: “This matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me”.

On at least one occasion, at Walden Pond, Shattuck and his avatar threaten to merge. Entering the replica of Thoreau’s cabin, the exhausted author slumps into a chair – and is immediately mistaken for a historical re-enactor, ready to spout platitudes about growing beans or civil disobedience. Horrified, he beats a quick retreat, wondering whether his misanthropic-seeming exit might actually be in character.

In the end, though, Shattuck recognizes that the best homages are often indirect. Hence his decision, halfway through Six Walks, to deviate from his fealty to Thoreau’s experience. His rambles in the second part of the book are more loosely connected to his predecessor, or not at all. They are sometimes excursions into his own past – or into a more blissful future. We learn that ten years have elapsed between the two halves: Shattuck is no longer the wretched Thoreauvian hermit of his earlier days, but a happy, married man with a child on the way.

He wonders at one point whether his old misery made him more receptive to the poetry of the natural world. “Was being troubled a requirement of seeing meaning?” he asks himself. “If I felt content, was there something that seeped away from the clouds and the dune grass?” Perhaps alienated human beings do bring something special – an intensity of attention and tenderness – to the surrounding landscape. But in the course of his beautiful and delicate book, Shattuck seems to have gained more than he has lost. It was Thoreau who declared that habitual walkers were “prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms”. The image is clever, and also sad, an emblem of Thoreau’s otherworldly isolation. Yet one of the lessons that Ben Shattuck took from his hero was to dwell among the living, and to judge from Six Walkshis heart is beating nicely to this very day.

James Marcus is the author of Amazonia, 2004, and six translations from the Italian. He is working on his next book, Glad to the Brink of Fear: A portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson in sixteen installments

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