Thoreau: Mourning Turtle Doves
An amble from Concord on out
By Edward F. Mooney
I propose an amble with Thoreau, keeping him usually in sight (not reined in), and letting him be sometimes conjured, rather than the subject of an exclusively scholarly, investigative report. There will be some polemic, a reverie or two, and thoughts on how we might teach others, our students or neighbors, what our walking companion has taught us. I don’t write solely from a place of expertise, but from one of long acquaintance. This amble should dispel some preconceptions about Thoreau, and free me from the barriers that exclusively disciplinary and scholarly investigations so easily throw up around him. If I am out to de-familiarize him, that’s in part because the Thoreau I have known over the years has slipped into shadow, as a new, less familiar Thoreau has come to light.
Thoreau invites his readers to see that ordinary, episodic, personal mourning—centered on a more or less localized loss—is self-centered, and the proper course (metaphysically, religiously) is to see Nature’s cycles of death, the raining of flesh and blood, as somehow innocent, and not aimed at harming any one creature or corner of life as against others. Then one is free to countenance something wider than local devastation and personal grief or lamentation.
Two months after his brother John and Emerson’s son Waldo died, Thoreau responds by letter to his friend Lucy Brown’s sympathetic inquiry. His words can seem austere and remote, far from heartbreak or lamentation. They weave Waldo’s departure into impersonal grief.
As for Waldo, he died as the mist rises from the brook, which the sun will soon dart his rays through. Do not the flowers die every autumn? He had not even taken root here. I was not startled to hear that he was dead; it seemed the most natural event that could happen. His fine organization demanded it, and nature gently yielded its request. It would have been strange if he had lived. Neither will nature manifest any sorrow at his death, but soon the note of the lark will be heard down in the meadow, and fresh dandelions will spring from the old stocks where he plucked them last summer.
Waldo dies “as the mist rises from the brook, which the sun will soon dart his rays through.” Ten years later, in his essay “Walking,” Thoreau writes that when it comes to knowledge, “we are all children of the mist.” It is as if he casts Waldo as the innocent child dispersed even as the sun burns through the mist. Later he casts himself as a child, peering through mist. Finally, he proposes that you and I are as children who see life-and-death only through mist, as we wonder at first and last things. With respect to knowledge of these so-significant infinities, we are none of us better placed to size up their significance than Waldo. Our lives come and go like a mist, or like the ephemeral song of the lark.
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