January 1, 2013

A modern woman rambles through a season with Thoreau

Appalachia, Winter/Spring 2013

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 pretence of going á la sainte terre”—to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a sainte-terrer,” a saunterer—a holy lander. —”Walking,” 1851

Two months before the strawberries ripened, I decided that I would saunter through a season, following Thoreau’s characteristically cheeky definition.I would trace the arc of the passing weeks from spring to summer on my home ground, a high, hummocky bench of land in the central highlands of New Hampshire. My house would be the meridian, as Thoreau’s attic rooms were his. I would travel away from and back to it, always by foot, always alone. My only companion would be Thoreau himself—specifically the middle-aged naturalist of his later writing.

I started late in the morning on a warm, clear April day, happy for the chance to get outdoors and cover some ground. In addition to the usual day-trip essentials—extra clothing, water, food, map, and compass—I packed an abridged version of Thoreau’s Journal from 1851, a nature guide, a small notebook and pen, and a digital recorder. Thoreau carried a diary, pencil, and pocket spyglass on his walks; eventually, he added a botanical guide and an old music book for pressing plants, and built a “scaffold” inside the crown of his hat to carry specimens.

I walked quickly through our meadow, skirted a wetland, and toiled uphill to a ridge that afforded me a fine view of 3,155-foot Mount Cardigan. I recorded observations here and there without stopping, noting how fast spring was coming on. Listening to the recording later, I thought my breathing provided an audible bass line to the list of what I had seen as I hiked: trout lily, huff, ostrich and elephant ferns, huff, Cardigan’s bald summit, huff. I had the sudden sense that I had not been sauntering at all. Thoreau had covered many more miles, but while taking his time, sometimes pausing to sit for hours. I, on the other hand, had been rushing. Thoreau may also have had to learn to slow down. His journal entries from his early saunters, I noticed, sometimes amounted to little more than lists, too. From April 26, 1851: “Gathered the May flower and cowslips yesterday—and saw the houstonia violet. Saw a Dandelion in blossom.”

I soon found myself observing when plants first blossomed and leafed, and I followed it up early and late, far and near, several years in succession, running to different sides of the town and into the neighboring towns, often between 20 and 30 miles in a day. —”Walking”

I quarreled with Thoreau. He was a single man, solitary, who did not have to work to put a roof over his head. I had a husband, children, bills to pay. I did not have hours to “saunter” every day, even to the holy land.

In my twenties, during a several-year period when I hiked and climbed all over the continent, I hadn’t  cared much for Thoreau. It seemed to me then that the young men most likely to carry a tattered and heavily underlined copy of Walden were those least comfortable and least competent in the outdoors. His followers bent even more nails than he had. They made me mistrust him.

Kristen Laine, who has lived for several years with her family in rural New Hampshire, last wrote for Appalachia in Summer/Fall 2010 (LXI no. 2), about motherhood and wildness. She and her family now live part of the year in Seattle. The full text of this story may be found in the Winter/Spring 2013 issue of Appalachia.

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Kristen Laine

In 2013, Kristen Laine won an EXCEL gold award for outstanding feature writing for her work in AMC Outdoors.