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On a wet and blustery day in late May 2017, about 200 years from the day that Henry Thoreau was born, I made my way to the house and the room where he entered this world. The Thoreau Farm sits a mile or so outside the town of Concord, Massachusetts, and writers in search of Thoreau can request permission to spend the day in it. I had requested this permission a week prior, duly noting that I was working on a centennial essay for the Guardian. I felt it necessary to provide this detail. As a brown immigrant woman wading into American history and writing about an American icon, I felt the need to legitimize myself. The quizzical looks I expected from others were one portion of why I made sure to do this; another was my own feelings of awkwardness over accessing the history of a white man who lived before slavery was abolished.
The room where Thoreau was born is on the first floor of the old farmhouse, a creaky but refurbished building whose current tenants include a nonprofit that teaches community gardening to Boston teenagers, and the Thoreau Farm Trust itself. Thoreau’s birth room is also redone, appointed with handsome chairs to sit in and a long table toward the center. The groaning floors and the view from the windows remain the same. Around the perimeter of the room are pictures of Thoreau and his parents, a box of pencils from the family’s pencil business—the one Thoreau so hated and fled.
I had brought no pencils with me that day, so I unpacked my laptop, an act rendered awkward and loud by the sensitive floor, and set up my workstation, more to reflect my seriousness to any passersby than because I expected to get much work done. From behind the laptop screen, I looked to the swaying branches of the trees outside and wondered, “Was Thoreau’s solitude the same as mine?”
Where I come from, which is Karachi, Pakistan, the common meaning attached to any wish to be alone is concern. Those who wish to be alone are imagined as feeling excluded, and in Pakistan, where families are tightly knit together, this requires correction, pity, and efforts at inclusion. So any stated demand for solitude is likely to be meant as a desire for more invitations and more interactions. It is a place where words or even groupings of words do not always mean what they mean but are often indicators for something else … which must be worked out with patience and care. As for everything else, so for solitude: Context provides clues.
There is another, higher meaning of solitude, as what is sought by mystics. I inhaled a whiff of this other sense of solitude when I was still a small child. At the time (and as she does now) my maternal grandmother lived in a house that was carved into the side of a hill, one of very few hills in our flat, dusty desert city. Sometimes, when my brother, our cousins, and I were playing around in the orchard adjoining the house, we would see men climbing down the hillside. These were not any ordinary kind of men. They wore long simple black robes, their hair was matted with dust, and their hands clasped sticks they used for walking. Around their necks they wore beads, some like the rosaries we used to pray, others larger with big, rounded, and brightly colored beads. Some of them, if they saw us, would smile. This terrified us and we would run until we reached the house. Most times, they walked on, vacant and untouched by what was around them.
Our mothers told us that the men came from a shrine at the top of the hill. When we were naughty and one or another of our mothers began to lose her temper, we would be threatened with being sent off to the shrine. Or worse still, one of our mothers warned =she was so fed up with our bad behavior that she would go to the shrine and never come back. Both prospects were frightening to us and we behaved, did our homework, made our beds, or did whatever else was being demanded of us. No one ever went up the hill to the shrine, although one naughty cousin did manage to be dragged a few feet up the hill in that general direction. Solitude, then, could also be a threat, a punishment.
The shrine is still there, and it took becoming an adult for me to realize it was not a prison for bad children and that the peace the men sought up there, alone on a dry craggy hillside of thornbushes, was of the higher sort that can be the blessing of extricating oneself from the din of the city. It was much later that I began to wonder whether there was longing in the threats our mother and aunts made regarding their own departure to the shrine. It would make sense; their lives were dictated by strict norms and rules of behavior and comportment, not to mention the heavy responsibilities of house and home. Abandoning them for the pursuit of solitude, of inner peace or spiritual freedom, could be alluring in overwhelmed moments. Solitude thus could also be the essential ingredient of fantasy.
At the farmhouse, my thoughts drifted from Thoreau to the woman who had given birth to him. I had come to find some small forgotten bit of this thinker who had inspired so many Americans, in some overlooked detail of the room, the walls, or even the view beyond. I wondered whether there was some clue here about why he turned inward and away, to inhabit a world less touched by humans. Yet in those minutes ticking by in the room, it was his mother who seemed more real. Cynthia Thoreau’s inchoate presence lingered in the near hush, punctuated by the swaying trees and the fleeting drizzle outside.
It made sense. The farmhouse where Thoreau was born belonged to his mother’s mother, Mary Jones Dunbar (Mary Jones Minot, following her second marriage). Standing between Lexington Road and the Concord River, its white clapboard of today was then just weathered, gray, unpainted boards. In the back of the home the roof came so very far down that it almost touched the ground. Around it were fields and peat bogs and not very many people. It seems isolated even today, despite being so close to Concord.
Cynthia Thoreau grew up in the home, raised in a matriarchal household ruled over by her mother and by her grandmother. Mrs. Minot’s husband and Cynthia’s father was Cpt. Jonas Minot, who died when Cynthia was little. According to a story Thoreau’s grandmother told, the late Cpt. Minot slept each night with a glass of milk by his bedside in case he woke up in the middle of the night. One morning, when she awoke, she found that the glass of milk had not been drunk and her husband was dead. The widow Minot went on to live in the home without him.
She raised her daughter to be talkative, well-informed, and unafraid of breaking rules, and Cynthia Thoreau proved to be an apt pupil, much to the chagrin of the residents of staid Concord. Some of her rebellions were of minor sort; she angered Emerson’s aunt, Miss Mary Emerson, by wearing too many ribbons on her bonnet during a visit. Or they were great and big, like supporting the abolitionist cause.
Perhaps because she was raised in solitude, Cynthia Thoreau taught her children to love nature; she was the one to first take the young Henry and his brother to Walden Pond, on the banks of which he would take up residence as a young adult. But perhaps because solitude was such a fixture in her life, in a way that it was not for her son, she tired of it. In one story she told, the silence around the farmhouse at night was sometimes so terrifying that she felt relieved and less alone when she heard a neighbor’s whistle. At other times, she would open the front door and sit on the steps outside and the loudest sound would be the clock ticking behind her. Solitude can also be suffocating.
My own relationship with solitude is expectedly complicated. When you grow up in a society that values togetherness with unrelenting ardor, you learn how easily you can be alone around other people. After my paternal grandfather passed away, my grandmother retreated into this kind of peopled solitude. She did not go away, to a shrine or cabin; there were none of the latter in Karachi. She just stayed in the room in our home, the same one she had shared with her husband, yet somehow her interest in the world waned. She was less invested in the goings and comings and doings of the household, which took place just steps from her own room. Instead, she was vacant, even as if inhabiting an elsewhere to which only she had access. She was not sad or depressed, but she was contemplative, awaking at dawn and praying in the direction of Mecca as the sun rose above the horizon and our quiet household still slept. It was as if she had given up the effort it takes to have a persona, a version of self that is projected to the world. Instead, she was simply and only a person. Perhaps this was what Thoreau searched for as well, to live as a person.
In late 2013, while I was writing my first book, I pursued a Thoreauvian immersion in nature and literal aloneness. I wanted to prove to myself that it was possible for me to be alone in nature, even nature thoroughly alien to me. I never thought at the time that I arranged my trip of the portion of my book that I would be writing. So I went to a cabin on the banks of a lake in the wilds of Alberta, in Canada. It was October and the foliage around the lake blazed even in the muted autumn light. I sat on its banks with a notebook, I rocked in a chair amid dew-dampened leaves, and I tried to befriend my own unedited self. Despite the silence, I felt immersed in the riotous cacophony of old qualms and worn questions and concerns whose clamor and clang rang loud. It was not others but my own self that refused to cede to solitude. The enemies of solitude can reside within ourselves.
It was in this process that the congruence of what I was writing and what I was feeling became apparent. Through no prior arrangement or intention, I was writing about Karachi, my clamorous din-filled city, and about the days when my young aunt’s husband abandoned her for a second wife. I was not abandoned, and I had chosen the circumstances and moments of my quest for solitude, but the terror of a solitariness not chosen rose large and looming before me in a way I do not believe it would have otherwise. Solitude without solace, shorn of Thoreauvian simplicity, of emotional absolution, is also real and too often it is the lot of women.
The lot of women, in Thoreau’s time, was to be left out. As is well known, Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond was inspired by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose ideas about transcendentalism Thoreau read while at Harvard. If Emerson preached a retreat from the material world into the metaphysical, Thoreau set about trying to live this ideal. Walden in this sense was an experiment. It was a test of the Emersonian idea that the self was procured and perfected in nature, and natural education hastened its development. The city thus was a corrupt influence, corroding and obstructing man’s inherent tie to nature.
But transcendentalism seduced and excluded at the same time. One instance of this was an event called the Philosopher’s Camp, which took place deep in the Adirondacks in 1858. There, near a town that is now called Saranac Lake, Emerson arranged for a group of naturalists, artists, poets, philosophers—mostly of the transcendentalist bent—to spend days immersed in nature, discussion, and fellowship. This Philosopher’s Camp, however, was not, in Emerson’s view, a place that was fit for women. Even as he invited Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s father, to attend, he refused to invite any women.
In 2016, I traveled to the Adirondacks in search of the Philosopher’s Camp. If the transcendentalists had not deigned to invite women to participate in their discussions, then I could vengefully stomp over their territory and announce the arrival of women as naturalists, women as philosophers, women as poets. The camp is difficult to find. One of the few clues is William James Stillman’s 1858 painting A Philosopher’s Camp in the Adirondacks, which he began while at the camp. The work depicts men in their shirtsleeves mostly standing around a tree or outside a tent while one or two examine some natural specimen. Another clue is in the writings of the participants themselves: Emerson’s answer to “How went the hours” at the camp goes, “All Day we swept the lake, followed every cove, North from Camp Maple, North to Osprey Bay.”
Those who know the area around Follensby Pond, on the banks of which the camp was set up, will tell you (as they did me) that Emerson was wrong; it is actually north to Osprey Bay. Even with the correction of the clueless-in-nature Emerson’s directions, I never could find the exact location of the camp itself, despite searching for the towering ancient “white pines” that Stillman the painter mentioned in his memories of the camp.
It was in an obscure bit of Louisa May Alcott’s writings that I found a verse that encapsulated how I actually would have felt about the self-absorbed men who made up the Philosopher’s Camp. Written in 1879, and titled “Philosophers,” the poem is clear about Alcott’s view of the abstract and idealistic musings of the solemn men who gathered for discussion at Alcott’s Orchard House as the women labored in the kitchen to the back of the home:
Philosophers sit in their sylvan hall
And talk of the duties of man,
Of chaos and cosmos, Hegel and Kant,
With the Oversoul well in the van.
All on their hobbies they amble away,
And a terrible dust they make;
Disciples devout both gaze and adore,
As daily they listen and bake.
I spent all day at Thoreau’s Farm and toward late afternoon I set out for Walden Pond. As I tried to follow the GPS directions, I was caught in a small traffic jam. When I got there, the sun was setting. It took me even longer to find the location of the replica of Thoreau’s cabin and the small plaque erected by the historical society. I peered in the windows of the fake cabin. The shadows around me began to get longer and darker and the parking lot began to empty out. I tried to make it out to the shoreline, but as I did I began to notice that the place was becoming evermore quiet, evermore desolate. The blue light before the sunset hung over the water. My fear was too loud to allow any contemplation. What had been a haven for Thoreau felt at that hour a place that was too unsafe for me.
The entangled relationship between solitude and safety does not lend itself to the poetics of finding solace in nature. It is, I would say, one of the foremost reasons that solitude of the sort that heals and nourishes and grants reprieve is unavailable to women even in the richest and most developed countries of the world. The places that are secluded and silent and redolent with natural beauty are also the places that provide opportunities to the male predators who lurk in the shadows of just such convergence.
I live with my family on a lake that is not much different from Walden Pond. My home is on the inhabited shore, where other houses are separated by no more than 10 steps and the attractions of the city are not so far away. Across the water is a thin but dense strip of woods skirted on the opposite side by a creek that forms a liquid boundary to the woods. Sitting on the inhabited shore of the lake, I think often of receding to the other side of the woods, of spending my days there, where I can truly be alone. I could sit at the banks of the creek or watch for deer that live there. In the first days and months after I moved to the lake, I did just that. I spent many days on the other side and in the woods. Then one day, while I was walking through the woods, the shining glint of metal caught my eye. There, between a rock and the creek, lay a shining, gleaming machete.
The woods were never the same for me again. The rustles of small animals burrowing through leaves, the thumps of walnuts falling from trees all seemed sinister, despite myself. Conversations with neighbors, inquiries as to whether someone had left a machete in the woods, yielded only surprised and alarmed looks.
Years have passed since I found the machete, but its origins, the reasons why it was hidden between rocks in a woodland preserve, remain a mystery.
Now Comes Good Sailing: Writers Reflect on Henry David Thoreau
Edited by Andrew Blauner. Princeton University Press.
Thoreau himself found his solitude endangered. On July 4, 1854, he addressed a crowd of abolitionists who were gathered in the town of Framingham, Massachusetts. In the speech Thoreau complained of how the slavery question—rendered more urgent by the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act—was spoiling his walks. He told the crowd that the serenity he used to find on his walks on “one of our ponds” had been spoiled by “remembrance of my country.” “My thoughts,” Thoreau confessed, “are murder to the State and involuntarily go plotting against her.”
The words are not from Walden, but they represent some of the truest ones spoken concerning the fragility of solitude and perhaps even the ethics of it. Thoreau does not answer them, and 200 years later they lie still interposed between humans and nature. The search for solitude at its solipsistic worst requires turning away from injustice, from political resistance, from the needs of others. There can be moral failure in such turning away. Solitude, then, even for Thoreau, was fragile, riven through with moral complication.
Excerpted from Now Comes Good Sailing: Writers Reflect on Henry David Thoreau, edited by Andrew Blauner. Copyright © 2021 by Andrew Blauner. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.