Monday, July 19, 2010

Walking towards Walden

Walking towards Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place
© 1995 John Hanson Mitchell
301 pages

Just before he set out on his journey to the netherworld, the great pilgrim Dante Alighieri had to pass through a lion-haunted forest where the straight way was lost. Here in twentieth-century America, there is a gloomy forest of hemlocks just below the summit of Prospect Hill in Westford, Massachusetts. As we descend this fertile slope, the great pilgrim Barkley Mason begins quoting from the Inferno. He touches his breast and, with a grand sweep, spreads his right arm toward the dark wood below us. "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai nella selva oscura --'" he declaims.
Kata is used to Barkley's posturing; she interrupts to ask me something about a mutual friend, and in this manner, we three enter the dark forest and enter our journey. (p.11)

While browsing the travel section of my library, I spied Walking Towards Walden, one man's deeply textured account of his pilgrimage trip to Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau once lived and wrote.  Mitchell, accompanied by two close friends, determines to sojourn to Walden through the wilderness: shunning roads and trails, the talkative trio intend to see a glimpse of Massachusets' 17th century wilderness. As this trio of intellectuals and romantics cut their way through brambles, wade across swamps, and wander the courses of streams looking for a crossing, Mitchell muses.

A Walk to Walden tells many stories. From the outset, A Walk is steeped in mythology, both classical and native American: Mitchell likens their quest to find Walden to Campell's "hero's journey", imaginatively interpreting the perils along the way as the hero's challenges a la Don Quixote. As they walk, Mitchell explores inner worlds, pondering the role of nature in mythology and poetry. The trio's pilgrimage to Walden is also historical, for their path intersects with that marched by the Massachusetts militiamen on their way to face British regulars at Lexington and Concord. As the journey develops, Mitchell tells their story, the story of explorers like Ponce de Leon who traveled through the "New World" looking for the fountain of youth,  and the story of the men and women who were displaced and ruined when Europeans began to colonize the Concord area.  At the same time, he also remembers other trips he has taken with his friends -- to the Florida Everglades and Hollywood, with touching and humorous anecdotes.

As the narrative matures, Mitchell compares their journey less to a pilgrimage and more to a quest to find a sense of place, a sense of belonging. He uses a Hopi word, tuwanasaapi, to describe a place where the soul of an individual is "centered":  where they are truly home. James Howard Kunstler decried the lack of "place" in the United States, criticizing the boundless expanses of subdivided homes and commercial strips. Mitchell and his friends are likewise bothered by this lack of community and place in modern America:  traveling to Walden allows them to connect to Thoreau's own decision to live deliberately, to find

From the very moment I started reading the book, I wanted to see Concord. Mitchell's affection for the town and the sense of place and community he derives from it are obvious. The day's journey there from Prospect Hill is lush, rich with detail and stories, abounding in tales of interesting people. Mitchell links all of his various trails of thought together, which would have been distracting were the stories themselves not so thoughtful and enjoyable.  Most curiously, the trio never seem to reach Walden Pond proper: the book ends with their eating a period meal at the Colonial Inn, the only hint that they might have gone to the pond and Thoreau's cabin being "So we saunter to the Holy Land...". (Mitchell periodically paid homage to Thoreau by referencing his "sauntering" walks around Concord.) Walking is one of the most enjoyable books I've yet read, and I heartily recommend it -- especially to those partial to Thoreau.

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