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Wilderness Issue in Thoreau's Walking

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“In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” This is one of the famous line in the essay of Henry David Thoreau. Significantly, it is now the battle cry of many environmentalist. However, taking a closer look and a deeper scrutiny of the “Walking”, it can be adduced that there is something more than the issues that are contained and confined on the word “wilderness”. It cannot be denied that in this masterpiece of Thoreau, he is absolutely referring  to the connection that which every single individual has with nature. Up to this date, there is still one question that lingers and wanders in the mind of many people and mostly among writers and philosophers. What does Thoreau meant with wildness and wilderness? Every person has their own definition and analogy of the term wilderness. One can say that it basically connotes getting out of the comfort zone and do things that are not being done before. It is apparently to be wild. But then again, there is always more to it than that. As a matter of fact, the wildness referred to the walking and the various intertwined issues and ideas that are posted and implied in the walking all boils down to the connection of man to nature. Nothing more than less than that.

Thesis Statement

Hence, in this paper, the connection of men to nature is discussed clearly. The issues that surrounds such connection and how man has, in the past and today, established relationship with nature even in the growing population and everyday busy activities of man. With the creation of various environmental conditions such as climate change and even pollution as the result of continuous social civilization, it is but proper to once again look at the connection of man and nature as guided by the “walking”.

Literature Review

The pattern of world civilization is determined largely by geo- graphical factors. To understand the movements of peoples, look to the oceans, rivers, lakes, mountains and deserts. To evaluate their achievements, follow them in their struggles against the earth's natural barriers. Without it wilderness our fabric would have been a flimsy thing, transparent, too easily tattered to meet the tests that came. But we had wild grandeur, and its ruggedness was reflected in what our fathers did. We see its gleam in their mettle. They forged on to submerge the old culture along the Pacific so rapidly that they passed through the wilderness without destroying it all. The easy tendency now is for us to turn around, rearm, and clean out the last few strongholds for the iota their resources can add to our national growth, for the few minutes an utter exploitation can postpone our day of reckoning. The iota is there. (Dassow, 1995). The few areas of unbroken forest, for example, could indeed add to the timber economy, and most of them are being extinguished to do just that. They are but a vestige, however, of our inheritance; the rest has already been converted into the capital necessary for a nation to grow. We are now in the late autumn of the era which could exploit the virgin forests, and if we have learned anything from the Pilgrim fathers, we know it is time to hold out the reserves that will see us through the winter or serve a transcending purpose. Today we realize the hazard of using up the last of any resource and are learning to protect the remnants, especially of wilderness. In meeting the revised needs of man, we are saving some unrevised works of God. As Newton Drury has said well, this nation is not so poor that it must expend its beauty, nor so rich in beauty that it can afford to.

We are becoming poor in wilderness faster than most of us know. It is said that there are only two places left in the lesser United States where one can get more than ten miles from a road. This is shocking if true, and its truth is attested by two officers who studied intracontinental access for the army in World War II. Whether there are two or ten doesn't make much difference. Since man is a part of nature he can be studied scientifically and natural laws can be derived concerning his behavior, just as is the case for any other natural object. There are no logical differences between anthropology and physics, as branches of science. There are, however, differences in the degrees of confirmation of results attained by the physical sciences and the social sciences, and it is important to an understanding of the purposes and utility of the analysis is to have clearly in mind just how anthropology and physics, for example, are alike and how they differ. Science is a search for laws pertaining to the characteristics and behavior of all natural objects. But before we can find laws, we must know the characteristics of objects. All knowledge depends on categorization, that is, the classification of objects according to their similarities to and differences from other objects. We know what a man is by recognizing what general characteristics an object must have (and must not have) in order for it to belong to the class called man (Howarth, 1982). If one knows in a general way what a man is, he has the concept man. Concepts that are descriptive of objects are abstractions taken from our experience of the things of the world; they are an expression of man's ability to represent and consider particular things not only with respect to their uniqueness but also with respect to the characteristics they share with all other individuals of the same type.

However, conceptual knowledge of the characteristics that are definitive of various classes or types of objects does not constitute scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge is knowledge of generalizations, but scientific generalizations must describe not only the common characteristics of objects but also the common behavior of objects. Scientific knowledge is knowledge of scientific laws--laws that describe, in a general way, the common patterns of behavior exhibited by objects of similar kinds. The law of nature speaks of the idea that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. And it will do so at the place which is most difficult to access, with the parts for which you do not have spares, at a time that does not suit you at all (and so on). A couple of years ago Robert Matthews went through the details of the buttered toast problem (Matthews 1997). He concluded that there is an anthropomurphic principle at work; our universe is such that it is bound to generate bad luck. By speaking of an anthropomurphic principle, Matthews implicitly criticizes those who speak of an anthropic principle. This refers to a far more optimistic view of our universe. Our life depends on many features of our world: the availability of a star like the Sun (and hence nuclear fusion), of a planet like the Earth with a solid crust and a protective atmosphere, of the rich variety of a chemistry based on water and organic carbon compounds, and so on. That all these conditions have turned out well says something about the universe we find ourselves in. If one were to attempt to design a slightly different universe, as a thought experiment, with gravity slightly weaker, a somewhat heavier electron, or whatever, it turns out to be quite a different universe.

The universe would be so different that it would be unable to bring forth and sustain our kind of life. There seems to be a significant and meaningful correlation between our existence and the properties of the universe; we are at home in the universe. Some have moved on from such arguments to the conclusion that there must have been a creator who created the universe with these particular properties and constants of nature for the sake of the emergence of life, and especially of human life.


As Isaac Newton puts it, After two centuries of battles fought in the name of warring theologies and church polities, most men were only too glad to welcome this new natural philosophy as a secular alternative to religious quarrels of which they had grown tired. Newton can definitely be compared to Thoreau in terms of the belief that nature plays an important role not just in shaping every individual but rather the whole society. Many wanted to forget theology and get down to business, especially that middle class which in Western Europe had been growing so rapidly in economic strength and was now making ready to take over political power as well, in the great revolutions of the end of the century. What the middle class needed was a new set of ideas to provide the intellectual leverage for dislodging the lingering feudal landlords and breaking the hold of  the older social controls of industry, now grown restrictive. For them, "Newtonian science" furnished a “Nature" fully as effective as the earlier "will of God." It had, in fact, at last demonstrated what the will of God really was; and what it demonstrated was that the Divine Will had decreed a mechanism that worked automatically without further interference. Hence, the relationship between men and wilderness.

No wonder that the social philosophies that endeavored to extend scientific methods to human affairs pointed to a similar autonomous order as the highest wisdom for conducting the life of  man. Thus the Newtonian philosophy of nature and wilderness as that of Thoreau was made into what a later jargon calls "the ideology of the bourgeois revolution (Harding, 1982)."

This was the second time that Western society had turned to a secular and scientific body of ideas to consecrate its highest values and ground them in the nature of things--the first such episode in modern times. In the thirteenth century it had found in Aristotelian thought an admirable instrument for organizing its entire culture in the service of its traditional religious ideals. now Newtonian concepts proved equally available for giving force and direction to aims that, if no less religious, were new and secular. Here was a new harmony of knowledge and aspiration, a new heavenly city buttressed by anew scientific truth. It is valid question whether the Aristotelian science that made central the understanding of life in general and of man's life in particular did not provide a more adequate human wisdom for the human animal than Newtonian mechanics, or indeed whether the Platonic science of the Hellenistic world did not do better than either in furnishing a spiritual wisdom for the spirit of man. But Newton himself, as well as those who went on eagerly to construct a new social wisdom on the basis of his philosophy of nature and even those who attacked him and them because they preferred the older wisdom, would all alike have been amazed at the more recent contention that natural science has nothing to do with "values," that it can and should itself remain "value-free," and that those seeking a direction for human life have nothing to learn from our best knowledge of the nature of things,

Thoreau would certainly have rejoiced that "Newtonian thought" signifies not only a necessary stage in the development of mathematical physics but also gleaming pinnacle in the moral and religious life of Western culture (Bode, 1967). Newton's mechanics is no doubt a fragile reed on which to build a viable science of  man and society. But who, amidst the voluntarisms and irrationalisms  of nineteenth century and after, can claim that we wiser and more sophisticated mortals have achieved more admirable ideals than the benevolence, tolerance, intellectual freedom, cosmopolitanism, and peace to which Newtonian scientific rationalism inspired so many in the eighteenth century? Even a little science--and that by our standards woefully inadequate for the human enterprise to which men so bravely applied it--is a thing of  infinite promise for human values. In our degenerate and more specialized days, those likely to turn to the reading of Newton will no doubt have divergent interests. The historian of science will find Newton a master builder of the foundations of that great edifice whose never-finished topmost stories are still being built into the clouds. He will be concerned with Newton's permanent achievements, with his methods and concepts, with all that Newton himself thought could be "deduced from phenomena" and hence belonged properly to "experimental philosophy" or natural science. The "hypotheses" which fascinated Newton himself, but went beyond those rigorous limits, may attract his attention for a moment, for some of them managed to gain a later accrediting. But he will smile at Newton's religious ideas and be apt to regard him as incomprehensibly schizophrenic. At best, he will grant that since Newton always knew himself when he was engaging in natural philosophy and when in theology, we can concentrate on the former and profitably neglect the latter's importance to the society as well as to every individual. 

This viewpoint, of course, ignores that long line of scientists, so prominent in the English-speaking tradition, who have always found their science and their religion mutually buttressing each other and who, whatever wounds they may have incidentally inflicted on a sound theology, have clearly had their scientific imagination stimulated by their religious concern. Those scientifically-minded readers whose interest in Newton is narrowly confined to his "natural" or "experimental philosophy," as contrasted with what may be called his broader and more speculative philosophy of nature, may rest content. Despite a large literature pointing to the theological antecedents of many of his more speculative concepts, and despite the strong influence on his thinking of the Cambridge circle stemming from Henry More, which included his teacher Isaac Barrow, it is hardly necessary to attribute Newton's more questionable assumptions--like the absolute motion, absolute space, and absolute time which awakened vigorous criticism in his own generation and have since been finally abandoned by physical theory in our own--to the intrusion of external theological ideas into his "experimental philosophy." But even when the Romantic revolt and the storms of the French Revolution brought emotional, moral, and social problems to the center of attention and inspired more personal and non-scientific, if not actually anti-scientific philosophies, Newton's philosophy of nature still dominated men's thinking. It now became what men wanted to get away from or pass beyond. Newton may have been blind to the larger aspects of human experience, but he did describe Nature; and so that Newtonian Nature was supplemented with other more transcendent realms in which a free man might feel more at home. Whatever their further adventuring is in the quest for Reality, the point of departure of the transcendental idealists remained Newton's Nature (Dean, 2004).  All is the same as the wilderness of Thoreau wherein nature has been given much emphasis in relation to the function of the society.

Even the waves of evolutionary thought could not beat down the Newtonian granite shores. And our own revolution in physical theory, which has replaced biology as the source of disturbing intellectual problems, has for most men only served to re-establish Newton as the voice of Science. In 1952 as acute and intelligent a thinker as Joseph Wood Krutch could still think it worth while to argue seriously against the sufficiency of the Newtonian world and the Newtonian method, and of the "science" with which he continues to identify them. Thus for schools, the "mind" becomes a category of limitations (Myerson, 1995). That it is a category of flexibility; that it implies imagination, enlarging perspectives, and broadening vistas of experiences and experience, is not a welcome suggestion to any academic person, or, indeed, to any upholder of our current traditions and primitive folkways. The academic person does not quite know what to do with a free mind. He wants to label it, probably with question-begging labels or epithets, and he expects the worst. The academic person is concerned to make all minds conform to conventional patterns as quickly as possible; and, in the long run, this means that they shall all accept the limitations imposed upon them by the patterns of home or school, of philosophy, religion and science, of business and politics, of morality and "standards", and spend their lives within those limitations, without imagination or hope of escape. Such "minds" presently become identified with their imposed patterns, and become, in turn, staunch upholders, and imposers, of those same patterns. Such minds cannot understand what naturalistic philosophy means by such a word as experience. A recent academic critic complains rather bitterly that "the word means nothing". So the fundamentalist says that science means nothing. This merely proves the point: "mind" which should be a category of flexibility and growth, in a world that shows end.


With all the foregoing, it cannot be denied that the wilderness issues written by Thoreau in his essays speaks predominantly about the attachment of humans and society to nature. However, it can be seen as well that it is not just about it. The truth of the matter is that wilderness connotes how humans are shaped by nature and how slowly they departed away from it. One of the reasons for this is the apparent globalization and modernization of the society. With the expansion of economics and trade, the universe and the wilderness has slowly drifted away to the background. Nature and wilderness has now become the prey of the society. They use nature and the wilderness for food, shelter and clothing. But the connection to it has slowly faded away and completely vanished. However, the environmentalists and the few who have still in their hearts such deep connection between the society and nature has protested to such apparent ignorance. Just a Newton and Thoreau puts it clearly, nature and the wilderness is where humans will eventually return into.

Hence, it can be seen that humans must learn to explore once again the nature and to continually establish such relationship. Nature and the wilderness is not just there to give shelter, food and clothing. More than that, it is there to guide every existing human. It is there to ensure that at the end of the day, every individual will be able to get such peace of mind and the serenity and comfort that they are actually looking for after a day's work. As a matter of fact, there are still lots of people who would want to experience a good walk in the wilderness to relieve stress and to ensure that such connection and power that binds humans and people will forever be kept.

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