Henry and Walt
After looking back over both Whitman and Thoreau’s writing, I’ve noticed a difference in how they present nature and their connection to it. While I respect much of what Thoreau wrote, there can be a judgmental feel to his writings. Robinson mentions how Thoreau thought “his neighbors would have to redefine their idea of wealth before they could achieve any real fulfillment.” And while essentially I agree with what he is saying, in Walden he says it like an asshole. I still like him though because he’s kinda scrappy and blunt and I like that, but I also know that's no way to sway opinion, influence others behavior, or inspire curiosity and action. I prefer Whitman because he speaks of nature in an intimate way—like he has known and loved the world, both within and outside himself, for lifetimes.
Thoreau met nature during a two-year experiment in the woods. What a great experiment it was, and we’ve all learned from his experience. Civil Disobedience and Walden have inspired generations of environmentalists and anti-consumerists. It changed his life too. But he also judged people in the process and made many sweeping proclamations about what folks ‘should’ do based on his life crisis in the woods. ‘Shoulding’ on people isn’t classy, and I prefer to use the word ‘could’ instead. Whitman challenges me to see how I ‘could’ connect with myself and the world I live in. Not how I should.
And I thank him for that.
Whitman has a special way of using metaphor to show the humanity in nature; as Killingsworth describes, “the reader is invited to dwell and ramble with the poet.” This delivery is effective because we are humans, and by showing the concepts of humanity in the lives of natural landscapes, our brains can understand it better. For example in the poem A Noiseless Patient Spider, I connect with that spider in a way I didn’t think was possible. I can feel it.
I know what it is to desire human connection and to have that desire flower out of your chest—over, and over, and over again “till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere.” Whitman was able to explore those feelings in his interactions with nature. He inspires me to search out the same experiences and connect not only to the world outside my body, but with the complicated nature inside it as well.
I also identify with Whitman for his more romantic leanings. He was a lover; he loved his body, men’s bodies, women’s bodies, spider’s bodies… all of it. And deep down I’m a lover too. But like Whitman and Thoreau, I’ve got a pragmatic side too. While Whitman encourages me to explore all the things I am enamored by, Thoreau reminds me of my inner naturalist and questioning spirit.