I can’t stick to my own reading list, so when I saw The Best of Edward Abbey (1984) sitting on a friend’s desk, I swiped it after scanning the table of contents, most interested in reading “Down the River with Henry Thoreau” from Abbey’s Down the River (1982). A golden find, I thought, since both Abbey and Thoreau are writers I admire.
The moral of the essay is this: if you haven’t ever read Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854)–or if you haven’t picked it up recently–read it ASAP, but read it like Abbey does: on a river trip, or in the park, or anywhere outside the confines of your everyday life.
Abbey chooses to pack a “worn and greasy paperback copy” of Walden with him on a trip down the Green River in southeast Utah. He hasn’t read Thoreau in thirty years even though, he says, “Thoreau’s mind has been haunting mine for most of my life.”
In this essay, we get Abbey’s best exploration of his natural surroundings, and in the process we get to see him grappling with the ghost of Thoreau, whom Abbey counts as the sixth member of his river-running crew. When Abbey considers the results of a recent election, Thoreau is there. When Abbey thinks about border control and immigration, Thoreau is there. And when Abbey contemplates the nutritional value of his breakfast, Thoreau is there, disapproving. “To hell with him,” says Abbey when he thinks of a raw vegetable eating Thoreau frowning on his breakfast of bacon and eggs…and the usual breakfast beer.
On the river, Abbey gets increasingly annoyed at Thoreau who gazes at him “through the flames of the campfire. From beyond the veil.” And Abbey reacts by bad-mouthing “Henry,” calling him a “poet-spinster” and telling him to “go make love to a pine tree (all Nature being your bride).” But as much as he tries to escape Thoreau’s haunting, Abbey can’t shake his ghost.
Instead of dismissing Thoreau, as he would have us believe he’d like to do, Abbey manages to explain why Thoreau “becomes more significant with each passing decade.” Over two decades ago, Abbey gave us this reason why: “The deeper our United States sinks into industrialism, urbanism, militarism–with the rest of the world doing its best to emulate America–the more poignant, strong, and appealing becomes Thoreau’s demand for the right of every man, every woman, every child, every dog, every tree, every snail darter, every lousewort, every living thing, to live its own life in its own way at its own pace in its own square mile of home. Or in its own stretch of the river.”
Are you still reading this? Grab a greasy copy of Walden and get outside!