The Silence of the Lands

Now Comes Good Sailing: Writers Reflect on Henry David Thoreau edited by Andrew Blauner. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 368 pages. $25.
The cover of Now Comes Good Sailing: Writers Reflect on Henry David Thoreau

After reading Walden, I like to rip it up. Not the book itself, but the sentences and passages that Thoreau so painstakingly put together. When I do, I make it a party, or at least a group affair. On various occasions I have convinced a small group of people to choose sentences at random (some short, some Thoreauvianly long) and then to read those sentences aloud, simultaneously, at various different tempos and modulating volumes, while standing in a circle. The result is an aural montage: some words and phrases lost in the river-rush of words, some bobbing to the surface, like Ishmael at the end of Moby-Dick.

I borrowed this idea—or stole it, I suppose you’d say, my mangled version of it—from John Cage, the artist, composer, and Thoreau devotee. In addition to being one of the most influential artists of the post–World War II avant-garde, Cage was an avowed Thoreauvian who saw the pencil maker from Concord as an experimental artist. “Thoreau wanted only one thing—to see and hear the world around him,” Cage once said, adding, “he hoped to find a way of writing which would allow others not to see and hear how he had done it, but to see what he had seen and to hear what he had heard.” In 1967, Cage bought a copy of Thoreau’s two-million-word Journal, the two-volume Dover Books version. He became possessed. “I am amazed that in reading Thoreau I discover just about every idea I’ve ever had worth its salt,” he told an interviewer. Cage treated Thoreau’s Journal as akin to a Zen practice made legible. “You’re going to tell me,” Cage said once to an interviewer,

that Thoreau had a definite style. He has his own way of writing. But in a rather significant way, as his journal continues, his words become simplified or shorter. The longest words, I would be tempted to say, contain something of Thoreau in them. But not in the shortest words. They are words from common language, everyday words. So as the words become shorter, Thoreau’s own experiences become more and more transparent. They are no longer his experiences. It is experience. And his work improves to the extent that he disappears.He no longer speaks, he no longer writes; he lets things speak and write as they are; I have tried to do nothing else in music. Subjectivity no longer comes into it.

What is perhaps Cage’s most famous work, 4′33″, consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, and, like a shack on the edge of a transcendental pond (or the idea of one), 4′33″ is a framework, one that reminds me of the way Walden’s structure positions us to hear not just the sound of the wind at the pond but the sound of the wind vibrating the telegraph lines that ran across the edge of Walden’s mostly felled woods, the sound of man-moved sand shifting down the railroad embankment as ice thawed in spring. The world is animate in Walden, Thoreau word-painting what was invisible to the eyes but tangible to the body. I am reminded of Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, heightening the conversation between the visitor and the Great Basin’s sky, and of Charles Burchfield, whose paintings, made in and around Buffalo in the 1940s, don’t depict fields but the feeling of fields, their invisible vibrations. So Thoreau perceived space at the pond, listening to the wind in the telegraph poles, his ear pressed to the pole’s dead wood for sonic transformation—“its very substance transmuted,” he said.

Cage’s work could be criticized as too clever, or even silly, but it was radical and revolutionary in the way it showed us the value of experiment. Walden, likewise, is so full of possible experiment. It is the experiment that is possible, which is what makes thinking about the art of Walden productive. See the extravagant become reasonable, or even essential. See the impossible as possible. I have heard the criticism of this way of thinking about Thoreau: that in focusing on Walden’s form, we miss its author’s vital connection to the physical world, the connection that is never not glorified, not to mention fetishized, even by his critics. It is, goes the argument, a sacrilegious separation of church from ecological state. But Thoreau’s particular construction highlights connections, not to what is obviously physical about the world, via sight and sound, but to what’s not so obvious but, with practice, perceptible too.

Practice is the key, like the key that activates the sound of a piano. Practice is nearly but not quite the end. It is like a path through a field, more pronounced with each crossing, more useful through its exaggeration. Practice is also fun, and the most missed fact of Thoreau is that he constructs his cabin on a foundation of joy—joy like that of a little kid rising too early for the adults, or at least the adults who are annoyed. “As I have said,” writes Thoreau early on, “I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.”

Sadly, joyful practice is not considered an especially political act, and the moral hand-wringing over the hourly punch clock of Thoreau’s life often manages to strip the politics from what he is saying. His politics were more radical than we extol him for; forget taxes, Thoreau passionately backed the bloody violence of John Brown. At the center of Thoreau’s practice was a kind of radical communion, with the world and with each other. Does anyone connect with anyone? I’d like to think so, and hope to. After all, connection is the everyday beginning of the world, a front-row seat to creation, its latest phase. It requires listening, not just with the ears, and not just to each other, but to everything.

This point was made in 1976 by John Cage, who was not considered a political artist in any overt sense, though the point was made in a piece that was overtly political, called “Lecture on the Weather.” It was a mash-up of the writing of Thoreau, performed on the US Bicentennial, with a chorus of Canadians who had emigrated from the United States to resist service in Vietnam. It begins with a statement by Cage. He details the destruction of wilderness, the deterioration of cities through disinvestment by government and banks. He concludes that we lack connection between people. “More than anything else,” Cage wrote, “we need communion with everyone. Struggles for power have nothing to do with communion. Communion extends beyond borders: it is with one’s enemies also. Thoreau said: ‘The best communion men have is in silence.’”

Robert Sullivan is a contributing editor at A Public Space and the author, most recently, of My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78. Excerpted from Now Comes Good Sailing: Writers Reflect on Henry David Thoreau edited by Andrew Blauner. Copyright © 2021 by Andrew Blauner. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press