When you go to Walden Pond these days, you inevitably find yourself walking the trails with hundreds of pilgrims from around the world: Brazil, France, Korea, China, Turkey . . . Thoreau has long been one of our country’s secular saints, and not just for one reason. He was way ahead of his time, and publicly outspoken, on issues like abolition (his mother and sister were conductors on the Underground Railroad), education for children, women’s rights, Indian rights, what we today call “ecology” and environmental protection. He was one of the first to translate Buddhist and Hindu texts for American readers, and was an early experimenter in a range of spiritual exercises: voluntary simplicity, self-relinquishment, contemplative solitude, and what is called “extrospection” (seeing through others’ eyes, including other species and what are often assumed to be inanimate objects like rocks and trees). He was also a startlingly accomplished naturalist, one of Alexander von Humboldt’s most astute students, and one of the first readers to understand the earthquake-impact of Darwin. William Blake once wrote, “When the doors of perception are open, we will see things as they are, infinite.” Every afternoon, Thoreau walked out, with his doors wide open, a receptive and non-judgmental “seer,” and the next morning he wrote it all down in his Journal, the astonishingly gorgeous life-long record of his being in the world (of which we’ll read two edited versions).
In the seminar, we will immerse ourselves in Thoreau, but will also recruit a small band of philosophers and artists to help with our explorations (Constable, Ruskin, Heidegger, Merleau Ponty, Van Gogh, Frederic Edwin Church, James Turrell, John Cage, Annie Dillard, William James, Aldous Huxley, and – of course – Thoreau’s lifelong companion, Ralph Waldo Emerson).