I had the exquisite pleasure a few weeks ago of attending an academic conference near Boston on ecocriticism: a way of reading that uncovers the inconvenient truth that literature may have contributed to destructive attitudes toward the environment, and proposes that literature may yet direct readers toward constructive ways of being in the world. Christian ecocriticism does this with the aim of reconnecting the physical, natural dimension of the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 with its aesthetic, social dimension, reminding readers that the great commission in Eden was first the literal tending to the actual garden-creation, and then its figurative outworking in human culture.
As an echo of the voices in the wider environmental movement, ecocriticism adopts all sorts of shades and colours by adapting to the environmentalist ecology it inhabits. As a Christian whose faith is shaped by the Reformed confessions, I recognize that the cultural mandate to Adam and Eve in the garden places me in a covenantal relationship with the good creation into which God has sent me. To me, a Christ-centred theology of creation is not inherently at odds with a critical approach that looks at how literature embodies a stance toward the physical world. Not every piece of green criticism is a Green Peace of criticism. Readings texts in this way—understanding how language and literature portray the natural world—seems a worthwhile undertaking, especially for someone who spends much of his professional life in the literature of the early-modern period, when scientific discoveries seemed to call many givens into doubt. And I couldn’t imagine a more conducive environment for developing an appreciation for Christian ecocriticism than a regional Christianity and Literature conference.
Since the conference was near Boston, I was able also to visit Walden Pond in all its glory on a bright October afternoon. Walden Pond is a place of pilgrimage for nature lovers, not for breathtaking beauty or unspoiled biodiversity (because it’s not especially breathtaking nor unspoiled), but for what it signifies. This particular body of water and surrounding woods are not very different from countless similar bodies of water in the northeastern States, Ontario, Quebec, and the maritime provinces.
No, this spot had its significance conferred upon it by Henry David Thoreau, who used Walden Pond for an experiment in simple living. In 1845-47, Thoreau lived in a one-room hut that he made from timbers he himself had cut and from planking he removed from a shanty bought from a migrant Irish family. For the two years that he lived in the woods at the edge of Walden Pond, Thoreau was a close observer of the natural world that he inhabited, making detailed field notes in his journal and reflecting on the significance of what he experienced. At a crucial juncture in America’s development as a nation, on the edge of the modern era with the Civil War intensifying in each successive year, Thoreau chose this place to retreat into nature. The natural setting of Walden Pond is therefore a special place—it signifies an important cultural moment in American history and in the history of the environmental movement.
In re-reading Thoreau’s Walden on my return from Boston, I was struck that the two-year sojourn in the woods was not a natural experiment, but a social one. For all of Thoreau’s reputation as a naturalist—and his journals meticulously record the phenomena he observed over many years of travelling off the beaten path—he is principally a sociologist, an economist, and a philosopher. During his time at Walden Pond, Thoreau remained in regular contact with family and friends in nearby Concord: he was within a half hour’s walk from his parents’ home, and his hut at Walden was on land owned by the Emerson family. The Fitchburg Railroad runs immediately to the west of Walden: Thoreau writes that the men on the freight trains “bow to me as to an old acquaintance, they pass me so often.”
Thoreau was no Saint Jerome or Simon Stylites, a Romantic recluse or a hermit’s hermit. In fact, Thoreau almost always sees nature through analogies with society. When Thoreau observes something in nature, he instinctively reaches for metaphors from human society to understand the natural phenomenon, and his observations of nature invariably lead him to conclusions about life in community. It’s one thing to say that Thoreau cannot help but see the natural world through the eyes of his kind, a social being, and to draw metaphors from social life to describe nature. In re-reading Walden, I found that his analogical thinking more often goes in the opposite direction: natural life for Thoreau served to furnish metaphors and analogies for his ideal for human beings in society. When Thoreau observes “the law, one and invariable,” in the variety of animate and inanimate creatures, he has found the image he needs to describe the economic principle of human society.
The opening chapter of Walden, “Economy,” famously celebrates simplicity as the economic ideal for human well-being. Not unlike Abraham Maslow after him, Thoreau identifies the bare necessities of human life as food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. With these needs met, a man can flourish in the world more fully than the man with superfluities. At the same time, simplicity for Thoreau is the ideal in the realm of beauty that corresponds with frugality in the realm of economics. He is nothing if not thoroughly simple in his prose style and in the homespun and rough-hewn images of his meditations on life in nature.
Independently from Thoreau, the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) would later develop a similar line of thought, drawing out the moral implications of both frugality and simplicity. He writes that the principle of simplicity in Classicism “requires the artist to abstain from ostentation, burlesque, and precocity in the style,” manifesting “in a careful selection of the means of expression” the kernel meaning of the economic realm—frugality. This sounds like Thoreau, who concludes Walden with summary statements of his central theme about homo economicus: “In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.”
But why are frugality in the economic and simplicity in the aesthetic realms the ideal, and why might both be considered morally virtuous? What if we were to propose extravagance and complexity instead as the meaning nuclei of the economic and aesthetic aspects? Then we would find ourselves in the baroque splendor of a Paradise Lost, John Milton’s richly allusive and densely woven epic. “Frugal” and “simple” are certainly not the words that come to mind when one encounters the world in and the world of Paradise Lost. Not only do Adam and Eve have to contend with the luxurious abundance of nature all around them, but the reader has to contend with the riot of artistic sense perceptions as he or she reads Paradise Lost. When the archangel Raphael, dubbed the “sociable spirit” by Milton’s narrator, comes into Eden, Adam tells Eve not to spare anything in their liberal entertainment for the angelic visitor:
But go with speed
And what thy stores contain bring forth and pour
Abundance fit to honor and receive
Our Heav’nly stranger. Well we may afford
Our givers their own gifts and large bestow
From large bestowed where nature multiplies
Her fertile growth and by disburd’ning grows
More fruitful, which instructs us not to spare. (5.313-320)
To which Eve responds with austerity, restraint, and moderation in her management of the Edenic household:
“Adam, earth’s hallowed mold
Of God inspired, small store will serve where store
All seasons ripe for use hangs on the stalk,
Save what by frugal storing firmness gains
To nourish and superfluous moist consumes.”
So saying with dispatchful looks in haste
She turns, on hospitable thoughts intent
What choice to choose for delicacy best,
What order so contrived as not to mix
Tastes not well joined, inelegant, but bring
Taste after taste upheld with kindliest change. (5.321-325, 331-336)
Eve in this part of Paradise Lost exemplifies the Thoreauvian economic ideal in being both “frugal” and “simple” in her domestic duties. Unlike Adam, who wonders “How Nature wise and frugal could commit / Such disproportions with superfluous hand” (8.26-27), Eve seems to recognize that creation best reflects the economy of God’s grace when its fruitfulness is garnered proportionately. Economics and aesthetics, frugality and simplicity, in the garden before the fall.
What a curious thing to think of Karl Marx beavering away in the Reading Room of the British Museum while Henry David Thoreau is studiously reading the leaves of grass at Walden. The one, cooped up in a dingy flat in mid-Victorian London, the other, roaming freely through the fields and streams of New England. The one, reducing human history to material determinants, the other, reading in natural history the potential for human transcendence. Both coming to the conclusion that the economic aspect is the foundation of social intercourse, with accretion of capital and dependence on credit as their common enemies. Both Marx and Thoreau lament the separation of human beings from the physical means of producing the necessities of their subsistence. And, yet, there seems to be little of Dickens about Thoreau, and no hint of Whitman about Marx (except, perhaps, the beard). For Thoreau, unlike Marx, nature was always mythical and mystical, always telling the story of a reality beyond the physical. For Thoreau, the law that governs nature in its “eco/nomic” aspect is the eternal melody in the economy of God’s universe, which is nothing short of the sublime.
As the sun was setting on that October evening in Concord, we walked through Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where the graves of Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson, and Alcott were covered with fallen leaves like confetti. We followed this with a dinner of roasted butternut squash and dried cranberry risotto, a pint of Samuel Adams Octoberfest, live music, and good company. Thoreau’s conclusion sums it up quite nicely: “So by God’s cheap economy made rich / To go upon my winter’s task again.”