Thoreau's Ideas of Transcendentalism Expressed in His Works

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Transcendentalism is the movement that emphasizes transcendence from the ordinary limits of thoughts and experiences and acknowledges the new outlook in self-reliance. The movement originated in America in the 19th century after the independence of America from the British gave people a different perspective to move away from the Unitarian to the individualistic view. It emerged with the idea to transcend from those European cultures and philosophies to the Americanness of culture and philosophy with political independence.

The prominent intellectuals of the movement were George Putnam, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Henry Hedge, who protested the state of intellectualism and doctrine of the Unitarian church at Harvard University. Inspired by the fascinating ideology of Emerson, Henry David Thoreau became the American writer of transcendentalism and the pioneer of modern environmentalism. According to Liu (2017), Thoreau “Being an ardent lover of nature, he devoted his entire life to studying the relationship between man and nature and bequeathed a legacy of works in this field” (para 1).

Amongst the notable works such as Walden and Other Writings, The Maine Woods/Walden/Cape Cod, and Nature and Walking, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, published in 1854 accounts the two-year solitary living at Walden Pond from 1845 to 1847 which ensures Thoreau’s true transcendentalist notion of nature as stated, “the small pond as the symbol of the whole ecosystem where he can freely commune with the universal soul and strive to establish a harmonious relationship with nature” (Liu, 2017, para 2). Thoreau’s idea of transcendence from the societal life into independent life near the Walden Pond reshapes the perception of nature and provides the essence of the natural world in a broader sense. In the process of experimenting self-reliance/realization near Walden Pond, Thoreau transcendentally believes that nature serves as a mirror to human being’s mental and physical nature through the metaphorical representation of the pond, animals, and ice, which presents nature as friendly and receptive to human if both coexist in harmony.

The pond’s infinite depth and the purity of water reflect the need to experience life in a deeper sense to become pure in life. Thoreau, in order to experience a solitary life, builds a cabin near Walden Pond developing intimacy with the pond. The pond is beautifully situated in the midst of pine and oak woods without inlet or outlet. This pond is believed to be very deep by the people as stated, “Some think it is bottomless” (Thoreau, 1854). Thoreau, being intrigued by the question of how deep Walden Pond is, devised a new method of plumbing the depth; found it no more than a hundred feet deep. Wondered why people rumor that the pond is bottomless, Thoreau takes the transcendentalist shift from the depth of the pond into the spiritual explanation of the human self. The pond metaphorically suggests the human eye that should be deep enough to see oneself.

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As a human one need to believe in infinity and experience life in a deeper sense because without reflecting oneself deeply one cannot discover and attribute the qualities one possesses. The pond is seen calm and beautiful due to its depth as Thoreau (1854) stated, “Walden is blue at one time and green at another, even from the same point of view.” This statement suggests that if one can redefine in a deeper sense, the life one leads will appear colorful. As the depth of the pond increases, so does the purity of water. Thoreau observed that the water in the pond was so clean and pure as compared to the other water as, “But this water is of such crystalline purity that the body of the bather appears of an alabaster whiteness, still more unnatural, which as the limbs are magnified and distorted withal” (Thoreau, 1854). Thoreau in this statement transcends from the mere bath of the body in the pure pond into the spirituality of Christian baptism by holy water. Thoreau points that like the purity of the water whitening the human body, the purity in one's heart will allow becoming mentally, spiritually, and physically fit to live in the society and in the world. Thoreau finally converges that the pond is the earth’s eye which leads to reflect the self depth stated, “It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature” (Thoreau, 1854). Therefore, Thoreau sees the pond not only as a natural water body but the metaphorical representation of humans that need to shift the thoughts and perceptions deeper and clearer.

Thoreau’s close watching of animal behaviors transcends from entomologist to philosopher projecting the human urge of selfishness and destruction. The time Thoreau started to live near Walden Pond, animals were the immediate neighbors and developed intimacy inevitably. Thoreau’s elaborate narrative to the behavior patterns of woodchucks, partridges, loons, mice, and ants among others is not to discuss anything about the animals but to reflect the human behaviors and mindset. In the chapter ‘Winter Animals’, Thoreau describes what the Jays do with the kernel as stated, “Then, sitting on a pitch pine bough, they attempt to swallow in their haste a kernel which is too big for their throats and chokes them” (Thoreau, 1854). This statement metaphorically states the human behavior of theft and material lust in society.

The human tendency of acquiring a lot that is not to one's control invites the difficulty and problem which end up without solution at times. The lust for material and luxury makes humans strive for unachievable and unattainable things resulting in unavoidable circumstances. The human hypocrisy dwells everywhere and every time to portray as all doing and knowing to impress the onlookers. Certain people do what is expected while many pretend but the credit is always enjoyed by those mass as Thoreau stated, “Though at first shy, went to work as if they were taking what was their own.” As the squirrels enjoy others' hard work, so do the human claiming the result as their own. Thoreau’s narrative on the battle between red and black ants, “I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another” (Thoreau, 1854) depicts the ferocity and carnage of a human battle. The human urge to destroy other has always dwelt innately in the mind. The only thinking human has is to struggle, wrestle and fight until you win or lose as Thoreau (1854) stated, “Neither manifested the least disposition to retreat. It was evident that their battle-cry was ‘Conquer or die’.”

On the other hand, the behavior of partridge walking along with its young shows the maternal care and protection of the young. This narrative proclaims that human beings need to have such love and affection within the family and the society as a whole instead of hatred and war every time. These metaphorical behaviors of the animals in nature helps Thoreau to develop intimacy with animals and nature which in turn helps to transcend from a materialistic and chaotic society to the self-reliant and harmonious life near Walden pond.

The exploitation of the frozen ice from Walden Pond connotes the human quest of materialism but nature triumphs over human action which rejuvenates at the end. In the chapter ‘The Pond in winter’, Thoreau metaphorically describes the beautiful ice that is being extracted by the Irishmen who came from Cambridge. The Yankee observers at first seemed to survey the cultivable land but slowly approached the virgin ice only to be pricked, cut, and stacked as stated, “Being sledded to the shore, were rapidly hauled off on to an ice platform, and raised by grappling irons and block and tackle, worked by horses, on to a stack, as surely as so many barrels of flour, and they're placed evenly side by side, and row upon row” (Thoreau, 1854) which were to be transported to use in city homes and fancy hotels in Cambridge. This act of Irishmen denotes the unquenchable thirst of humans in the exploitation of nature which ultimately destroys the pristine nature.

The human nature of greed always seeks others' destruction to overcome and satisfy their wants which are not necessary if one looks deep into the real being of humans. However, human greed is never satiated and fed enough well because whatever humans exploit and extract from nature, it does not reach fully into human holdings. As natural law, those resources get divided and scattered into various stakeholders and forms by the time it reached the actual exploiter. The line in “The Pond in winter’ states, “They calculated that not twenty-five percent of this would reach its destination and that two or three percent would be wasted in the cars” (Thoreau, 18540). For instance, the thousand tons of ice extracted and transported daily from Walden Pond ultimately reach the Walden Pond itself in the form of water which helps to regenerate the ice in the pond. This rejuvenation of ice in the pond shows the human’s failure in the exploitation of nature. It conveys the message to humanity that the over materialistic notion has no value because it remains as it is at the end. Similarly, the crystalline appearance of ice is the symbol of its purity and gentleness that the human should possess. As the ice rejuvenates and triumphs in the end, the human with self-conscious and simplicity will have a successful and satisfying life. Thus, Thoreau with the metaphor of ice imprints the need to shift from the materialistic notion of humans to self-sufficient living.

Thoreau, using those metaphorical narratives is transcending from the denotative meaning of nature and its elements into connotative meaning that can be applied to the human beings for the improvement. The basic purpose of Thoreau’s move towards Walden Pond was to transcend from a materialistic society into a self-reliant world. With this basic, Thoreau could also see the nature and its elements in the transcendentalist view which exemplify the human behaviors that are portrayed physically, mentally, and spiritually. With the use of symbols such as a pond, animals, and ice, Thoreau determined the transcendentalist attitude towards nature which helped him to complete the two-year experimentation of self-reliance and realization. Thoreau concludes through transcendentalism that nature is not just the part of the earth that is for the extraction of resources but it plays a paramount role in accompanying human and providing humanistic values which will benefit human beings to lead a successful, harmonious, and blissful life. Thus, in order to coexist nature and humans in harmony save nature, and in turn nature will save humankind.

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