The Book of Walden | An Excerpt from Midlife with Thoreau by Diane P. Freedman
This is a book about writing as righting. At midlife Diane turns to the books of Thoreau, not to mention his landscapes. Practicing the nature cure and the narrative cure, she writes, in poems, essays, and journals, about family, feminism, and literary history, loss, divorce, dating, accidents, animals, waterways, local landscapes, and teaching environmental literature in ruburban New Hampshire. She sojourns with books and domestic beasts, tramps brambles and trails, and basks in language, love, and lake-front sun. Thoreau loved a “broad margin” in his life and Whitman, another influence, “a certain free margin.” Out of these, Carl Bode maintained—and Freedman shows—poetry could grow. Taking direction also from new environmental writers such as Ian Marshall, John Elder, Janisse Ray, Sandra Steingraber, and Amy Seidl and from other hybrid or narrative and autobiographical critics, this is a book of intense observation, advocacy, lyricism, sweetness, and sadness.
Enjoy an excerpt from the book below:
I don’t think I actually read Walden until I was a college graduate and a teacher at a boarding school for young dancers and artists. I basically failed in trying to excite my eleventh graders with Walden alongside Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. These books were long, complicated in vocabulary and reference, and not in focus for that group (though had I tried it with my seventh graders at the time, who knows? They were the brightest kids I have ever taught, I think, in my thirty-five years of teaching all kinds of students. Why they were so wise, one might speculate. They were attuned to symbols. They still lived in the world of digression and imagination.)
I read Walden as I lay on a tan corduroy couch in a small Massachusetts town near Concord, reading and chuckling and exclaiming aloud to my long-ago young spouse, sure that my punster dad would love him, too, and surprised we had not together read and discussed this genius.
Later, I read more of Thoreau’s writing out on the west coast, while in graduate school. The seminar instructor was, however, from the eastern U.S., and I was perhaps his one student that term able to conjure easily the apples, trees, and landscape described in “Wild Apples” – as I read it again under old Gravenstein apple trees in my new Seattle backyard.
Again, the puns and general crankiness of the narrative made me think of my father, himself ever resistant to modern life, fondest of a walk in the woods, hunting the wild edibles or enjoying an arboretum, plantation, or planting field of trees.
I read it again now, twenty-five years later, by a New Hampshire lake, also under trees, sometimes sticky pines. I read it by candlelight in the living room at home after a tropical storm took out the power. Reading Thoreau brings me back east, to New England, binds me to my father, informs my teaching, endorses my own daily walks in nature and forays into nature writing or at least the kind I tend to write: place-based, familial, teacherly, elegiac.
—An excerpt from “The Book of Walden,” Midlife with Thoreau