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A Traveller

July 2, 1851.  A traveller!  I love his title.  A traveller is to be reverenced as such.  His profession is the best symbol of our life.  Going from  _____  toward  _____  ; it is the history of every one of us.

It takes but little distance to make the hills and even the meadows look blue to-day.  That principle which gives the air an azure color is more abundant.

To-day the milkweed is blossoming.  Some of the raspberries are ripe, the most innocent and simple of fruits, the purest and most ethereal.  Cherries are ripe.  Strawberries in the gardens have passed their prime.

I am savoring Henry David Thoreau’s The Journal 1837-1861, as recently edited by Damion Searls for NRYB.  (Savoring is code for reading slowly during the interstices between other books, hoping the book will never come to an end – and, at 667 pages, it seems like it may never end.)  Thoreau is a writer to linger over.  His wide-ranging curiosity and persistent, clear powers of observation come as a real tonic to a 21st century reader.  Thoreau represents one of the paths America set out on more than two centuries ago – scientific minded, rational, passionate, ethical.  A person who brought very few preconceptions to the table.  Thoreau’s quiet direction is still part of the American ensemble, but it’s a voice easily and sadly drowned out.

W.G. Sebald, who, in so many ways, seemed like a man of the 19th century, and Henry David Thoreau both grapple with questions of scale.  Within the scope of the infinite universe and an earthly history far longer than any one person’s existence, what is the proper scale of a single individual in a single lifetime.  And for both, I think, this topic was essentially a struggle toward a proper ethics.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I was just moments ago raving about this book yet again myself: it really does offer seemingly unending riches.

    Your concluding thought about a search for a proper ethics reminded me of a line I just read in the entry for March 31, 1852, when Thoreau was thirty-four: “Methinks I would share every creature’s suffering for the sake of its experience and joy.”

    March 31, 2010
  2. I’ve been wondering about just this – the German response to Thoreau, and how that fits in with the sort of nature-writing that so affected Sebald – the landscapes of Stifter and Storm, for example.

    April 1, 2010
  3. What a surprise! Sebald and Thoreau DO come together, in a strange and wonderful way, around suffering and catastrophe. And the matter of scale is indeed crucial: Thoreau is unnerved on Ktaadn-in-fog because all sense of scale is lost, and hence any sense or possibility of his usual ethical perceptions escapes through his ribs. He flees.

    July 7, 2012

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