Here is this vast, savage, hovering mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man.’ – From ‘Walking’ by Henry David Thoreau
I’ve just finished Frank McCourt’s wonderfully snarky ‘Teacher Man’ In it, he referenced a lecture by American poet. philosopher and tax resister, Henry David Thoreau concerning the idea of just continually walking the earth, experiencing nature, without the need to double back to the start. The thought immediately intrigued me.
The thought that intrigued me was not about retreating back into nature, which forms a large portion of what he was trying to say. Not that I don’t like nature. I just like it with a little air-condition. Make what you wish of that statement. The thought that interested me was the idea of allowing ourselves so much freedom that we would not need to double back to anything. It’s never occurred to me until now that an important tenet of civilization is the need to close the loop. Exploration is encouraged but not unconditionally. Otherwise you’re just a vagabond. It would seem the term ‘explorer’ may be either somewhat elusive or entirely conditional (explore, but you have to return) in this modern age.
My wife’s dog comes to mind. How he is more often than not, intent on zipping out of the gate when it is opened. When he has intention to do so, he is completely single-minded and driven to accomplish his mission. He truly believes in that moment that freedom and doggie heaven awaits him beyond those steel bars. But yet when he does get out, he often never allows himself to get very far, or at least, far from the ‘familiar’. Namely, us. The trick to lure him back in is not to chase after him, because that just encourages him to run farther because the ‘familiar’ is just a few steps behind him as he makes haste. The trick to getting him back is to close the gate and to head back into the house. Counter-intuitive I know, but works like a charm every time. Because as he plays temporary explorer and glances back towards the porch, he sees no one familiar. No one beckoning him to return. It would seem freedom then quickly becomes overrated when weighed against the prospect of having nowhere to call home. Pretty soon he is at the gate, beckoning to be let back in.
I’ve never entertained the thought of just walking out and never doubling back. I’ve loved the thought of it, of not being bound by the expectations of society and my social connections. When I decided against the concept of God years back, I inserted myself unknowingly into a vast plot of free land. I have up to that point labored under the expectations of religion, family and relationships and have mostly reciprocated accordingly to all of them. But suddenly I found myself completely free of all those expectations. Barring disease and social norms, I could’ve booked myself an escort for a good night and it would’ve fit somewhere within my acceptable moral compass at the time. I could’ve gone out and drunk myself into a fool and come home to my bed, without much condemnation from myself, and little from the people around me. But yet I did none of those things. I continued to go about my life like I still had those initial expectations placed upon me. Why?
Perhaps like my wife’s dog, I have grown accustomed so much to the familiar that absolute freedom no longer seems as appealing. I no longer need actual freedom, but just a notion of it, a whiff of it once in a while, and I can be contented. Perhaps I am indeed wedded to the breast of society. But just entertaining the thought of dropping all my routines, lifestyles and expectations, opening the door, heading out and never coming back still causes my heart to do a little skip. I don’t know where that skip comes from. Perhaps it’s the little explorer in all of us. The based nature that civilization has gradually built on and snuffed out. Perhaps it is a thought that appeals to all of us at a very, very fundamental level.
But if personal history has told me anything, it is that if I was indeed offered an opportunity to walk, I would most probably chicken out anyway.