Seeking Respite in Landscape: On Following Henry David Thoreau’s Walks
The idea to follow Henry David Thoreau’s walks came while I was standing in the shower at dawn one May morning, listening to the water drill my skull and lap my ears, wondering what I could do to stop the dreams of my past girlfriend. This was years ago, in my early thirties, when I couldn’t find a way out of the doubt, fear, shame, and sadness that had arranged a constellation of grief around me. In this last dream, the one that got me into the shower at sunrise, she was in labor. I dreamt that she had a husband—dark-haired, wearing a red shirt with sleeves rolled to his elbows—who stood bedside, gripping her hand while she breathed. I stood against the wall, touching a white handkerchief that I wanted to offer them. She looked up at her husband. He closed his hands over hers. I wanted to leave the room, but stayed because my legs weren’t working just then. I kept touching the hem of the handkerchief. The baby came. There were three of us in the room, and then there were four.
In the shower, between the scenes of the birth, came to me images of a young, bearded man standing on an empty beach, wind whipping at his coattails, the ocean pounding in front of him. He was smiling. Plainly happy. I saw him crouch to pick up a bone of driftwood. I saw him in a lighthouse, writing in his journal by a flickering candle flame; wading through dune grass—walking stick clocking with each step. It was Henry, pictured from his book Cape Cod, which I’d been reading every night that week.
I stepped from the shower. Out the window, the tide, set higher than usual by some phase of the moon, drowned the marsh grass. The blush of sunrise candied the water pink. Living by a salt marsh on the southern coast of Massachusetts, I noticed the passing of a day divided by the floor of the landscape dropping and rising. High tides feel favorable, as does anything overfull—waterfall, blooming peony, snow-bent tree limb, spilt milkweed seeds. The high tide felt purposeful, then. The ocean leaning inland, urging.
I dressed quickly in my bathing suit and a sweater, made a cup of coffee, emptied my backpack onto the kitchen table and filled it with a loaf of bread, a brick of cheddar cheese, three apples, a bag of carrots, a rain jacket, and my copy of Cape Cod.
I was—I knew then—going to Cape Cod. I would walk the outer beaches, from the elbow to Province-town’s fingertip, as Henry had done. If it took a day, or three, I didn’t mind. I had nothing else to do that week. Days before, I’d driven all the way to a monastery in Vermont to choose ceramics for an exhibit I was curating about art made by monks and nuns, and on the way back stopped by my old high school for the reception of a recent painting show—a show on which I’d worked too hard and included too many paintings, because, probably, of adolescence’s anxious cinders still warm in me, decades later. I didn’t feel like painting anything, anymore, for a long time.
Before I walked out the door that morning, I also put a notebook in my backpack, not because I ever journaled or made sketches, but because Henry had, and I wanted to try someone else’s habits for a few days.
During the hour drive from my home to the Cape, I fantasized that I’d replicate the peace and higher perspective Henry had documented in that seam of land and sea. “The sea-shore is a sort of neutral ground,” he wrote, “a most advantageous point from which to contemplate this world.” I didn’t expect sublime perspective; I hoped only for a respite from my nightmares, for the waves and wind and weather to reshape the masses of my subconscious as they had shifted the dunes of Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown. Isn’t this always the hope, heading out for a long walk? That in your aloneness the landscape will relieve you? That your mind will be renewed, calmed?
I crossed the Bourne Bridge and sped into a roundabout, driving so fast that my coffee mug tum-bled from the cup holder.
When Henry started this walk at age thirty-two in 1849, he wore a broad-brimmed hat designed with a miniature shelf to hold the flowers he found. He dressed in an earthen-toned three-piece suit, and always carried his spyglass for bird-watching. His knapsack was rigged with a compartment for his books—one for pressing flowers—his sewing materials, his fishing line, and a handful of fishing hooks. He walked with an umbrella tilted over his shoulder to keep the sand and wind off his neck, and with a special walking stick doubling as a ruler that he used to measure plants. He took a goose-quill pen with which he wrote in luxurious horizontal flourishes—his y’s look windblown, the crosses of his t’s like distant hills. He packed salt for seasoning, sugar and tea, and a “junk of heavy cake” with plums. He was a sinewy, exercised country saunterer, handsomely dressed and carrying with him all the items for misadventure, like a flowery battleship.Isn’t this always the hope, heading out for a long walk? That in your aloneness the landscape will relieve you? That your mind will be renewed, calmed?
Whereas I, standing on the Nauset dunes and staring out to the open palm of the Atlantic, looked as if I’d just disembarked a red-eye and had a deep misunderstanding of the current season. The cold May morning wind seized my legs, exposed beneath my bathing suit, but I was sweating from the waist up under two shirts, a sweater, a rain jacket, and a winter hat. Henry wore special boots that he slathered with paraffin; my running shoes were held together in the front with duct tape. The sand tore away this tape in the first mile before filleting the soles of the shoes halfway off, so I tied the shoes to my backpack, which meant that in the next couple of days, the dozens of miles of sand would knead blisters between my toes, on the upper-most part of the arch, and, weirdly, on the very tops of my big toes.
But the worst was the sun. I hadn’t packed any sunscreen. And because summer in New England comes like a gunshot after winter, my calves would go from ice white to red by the time I stumbled up to a stranger’s house in Wellfleet many hours later, knocking on the door and hoping for a place to sleep, because, as it turned out, I’d also forgotten a sleeping bag in my rush to escape my own bed.
The beach is “a vast morgue,” Henry wrote, “where famished dogs may range in packs, and crows come daily to glean the pittance which the tide leaves them.” You usually come to the seashore to spend the day with broad wings of sand flanking your sides and the fan of ocean in front—you plant an umbrella and dash into the water a few times. Beaches aren’t known or loved for hiking, because, I soon realized, they offer a monotonous, unchanging landscape. On my left, for miles, a hundred feet of red sand and clay peeking into a salt-killed rim of bayberry, huckleberry, and the odd scrub pine wherein song sparrows trilled the famous first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth.
To my right, the flat sea, profound at first but unremarkable thereafter. And so my eyes fell to the ground, to this “vast morgue,” to see what items the ocean had returned to shore that morning. Beaches do have a tang of fate. The smooth stones, the ringed stones, the tired driftwood, the dead loon—crook-necked and constellated in white dots on black feathers—seem there for a reason. The Legos, cow femur, wooden chair propped upright and facing out to sea, three pennies whose Lincolns had worn to blurry portraits, nickel reduced to the size and thinness of a dime, Red Sox hat, Patriots hat, fish vertebrae, and giant bullet shell whose tip had filigreed to metal lacework.
I walked for over an hour before I saw another person: a bird-watcher, with his telescope set up in the middle of the beach. We talked dead loons, northern gannets, and which shorebirds were migrating. Even with the long pauses of strangers meeting, I was happy for the distraction, as it momentarily halted the conveyor belt of sadness that the dream was still moving through me. I’d rather dream of the bizarre ships sent from my subconscious, the ones floating on waves of anxiety and fear—dreams of two-headed snakes, of my teeth going soft, of my house filled with small, sharp-toothed rodents. I’d rather the puzzles, images to be interpreted, distanced by a measure of analysis and rephrased for the day. What I’d gotten the previous night was different: a real person, put in material textures of everyday life. More like experience. Memory. Not a puzzle floating on anything—just a cold dunk in the sea itself. That’s why I was clinging, now, to the birder, thrashing at him with questions about the migratory routes of loons.
The bird-watcher, clearly wanting to end the conversation, wished me well, folded up his telescope, and left to find some shorebird he was searching for.
I sat in the sand and, to distract myself, took out my journal and wrote synonyms for the wind: cloud-river, weather’s yeast, season trader, colonial fuel. It was a word game I’d assigned freshman college students one day years earlier, when I’d finished teaching the lesson plan but still had fifteen minutes before the end of the period. “Look out the window,” I’d said, “and write the longest list of synonyms you can for anything out there.” Sitting at my desk ten minutes later, listening to the students read their lists aloud, I was unexpectedly moved—entranced, maybe. This renaming of nature, these many words for an oak tree or the clouds or the sky or the Iowa River, sounded like prayers, like worship. I think everyone in the classroom felt it, because we all entered the silence you feel in a church or theater. The spell was broken when a boy started his list with “Worm shit.”
“Dirt?” I said.
Hurricane muscle, summer’s respite, crying scapegoat.
Excerpted from Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau by Ben Shattuck. Published with permission from Tin House. Copyright (c) 2022 by Ben Shattuck.