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A Sentence About a Sentence I Love, by Jamie Iredell

“In Wildness is the preservation of the world.”
—Henry David Thoreau, in “Walking”


It’s not in the complexities of this structure—nor in any kind of virtuosic linguistics—that I love this sentence, but because of Thoreau’s development (over his truncated career) of his idea of “wildness,” an idea that may not be new, but is, perhaps, the quintessential forerunner to modern ecological awareness, an idea exploring the expansive canyons that Thoreau cleaved between his own ideas and those of his then-contemporary Transcendentalists (Emerson, for instance), and idea that is—for most readers—completely uncharted territory; and, when I’ve taught Antebellum American Literature, it seems that most of my students (and, I’m assuming, many other readers out there) view Thoreau as the practical side of Emersonian Transcendentalism: Emerson expressed the ideas, and Thoreau walked the walk; and while that might have been true about the Thoreau of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and of Walden, even in Walden the roots of Thoreau’s original thinking germinated from their seed and began making their way through the soil of his prose; for example, in the “Higher Laws” chapter of Walden, Thoreau’s famous depiction of catching a glimpse of a woodchuck crossing his path one night, when he’s suddenly “tempted to seize and devour him raw,” but he explains that it’s not because he was hungry that he wanted to eat the woodchuck, but because he was hungry for the “wildness which he represented,” a wildness defined as Thoreau’s occasional drive from a spiritual height toward the seeming opposite of the lowness of an animal: both sides of Thoreau’s humanity that he says he embraces; yet, by the time of his essay “Walking” (first delivered as a lecture in 1851, and published posthumously), “wildness” takes on a different meaning, where he says, “I wish to speak a word for nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness,” and that he’s going to make an extreme statement, that what he’s been preparing to say is “In Wildness is the preservation of the world,” that every civilization is descended from a once-wild people, that “Give me a Wildness no civilization can endure,” because, for Emerson, seeing the bare common upon which he steps and becomes a transparent eyeball; he sees the reeds bend to him and he to them and he becomes part and parcel of the universe, achieving a spiritual link to the physical world, but Thoreau takes his view of humanity’s relationship to nature farther, as it’s in our civilization’s dichotomy of desires, when it comes to the wild, that we have always been at odds, and Thoreau shows us that encountering the wild refreshes us, even though it has long been a human trait to exasperate the resources of any given habitat, and so Thoreau, unlike Emerson, became an advocate of wild places, of unadulterated nature; and, finally, we find ourselves here today, still dealing with what to do with the wild when we face a world in which the single most important global issue humanity faces is the havoc we’ve reaped across the planet, and the consequences thereof—we would do well, methinks, to read more of Thoreau.

10 thoughts on “A Sentence About a Sentence I Love, by Jamie Iredell

  1. A mammoth sentence that has a wildness all its own!

    In an age of hyperconnection and so-called digital natives, a call to immerse yourself in nature, to a return to “wildness” may seem antiquated and romantic. But I think that we’re learning that connection does not equal intimacy, that the immediacy of “social media” (among other tools of the post-industrial age) does not necessarily assuage feelings of fragmentation, loneliness, and stress, and anomie and angst, that it may, in it’s excessive and obsessive use, perhaps, exacerbate them.

    1. Rather than antiquated, I’ve found Thoreau’s “wildness” to be a really useful way of thinking about the hyperconnected present (something Sue Thomas explores wonderfully in her writing and research). Like wilderness, the webbed world is something to commune with and be dwarfed by at once, something larger than myself the size of which can’t ever be comprehended and suspends me perpetually between terror and wonder, lost and located, solitary and collective, where the unexpected is always about to burst out (or pop up) onto the path for purposes of its own. And where overblown attempts at understanding by analogy — like this one — always pale sadly in the shadow of the real thing.

      1. Hi Steve,

        It’s hard to get a sense of what you’re asserting here. Since you begin by talking about “wildness,” a term Jamie goes to some length to define above, and then you start talking about “wilderness.” And while an analogy can certainly be drawn between our responses to wilderness and our responses to digital interconnectivity (I haven’t read Thomas’s work, but I’ll take your word that what you’ve said above is a proper summation of her work), the analogy, when toyed with, ultimately falls apart. I think that is in the differences between the two that we get a real sense of what those two zones are, and what we are lacking.

        Climbing with my daughter on massive rocks in a forest and howling like wolves is, for me, an absolutely different experience than having a conversation with her on a webcam. The first is intimacy, the second, a poor substitute.

        Now, my experience in the forest mentioned above certainly isn’t wild. But it’s closer to it then sitting in front of some screen.

        Is it possible for the digital domain to be wild in the sense that Thoreau would think of it? I’d like to see that demonstrated.

        And I wonder if the similar states engendered by wilderness and the “webbed world,” that is, of feeling both “suspend[ed]…perpetually between terror and wonder, lost and located, solitary and collective” you find yourself feeling comes from not being attuned with the wilderness. I would think that someone with a more organic connection to the wilderness would not feel terror or lost, or even solitary in the wilderness. I don’t feel that way, and I wouldn’t even consider myself to be attuned with the wilderness, and certainly not wild.

        1. The distinction between Thoreau’s ideal wildness versus his experienced wildness seems crucial — as much as he’s “tempted to seize and devour [the woodchuck] raw” he isn’t actually wild or embodied enough to do it, and he’s able to ennoble that hypothetical act because he doesn’t have to it. It’s always a mediated experience he has of the wild, and aspiring to a “pure” wildness assumes that there is such a thing. As much I personally prefer howling on rocks (as does my own daughter) to howling online, what’s useful to me about the analogy is being reminded that “wildness” in practice always depends on that mediation and hybridity: Thoreau in his wildest moments shakes off culture as much as he can, but never completely. So while getting online makes a poor substitute for getting outdoors, neither is as wholly natural or wholly artificial as it might seem at first glance, and both are powerful (I think) because they let us be ourselves and yet not ourselves at the same time.

          1. The “wild” Thoreau talks about in “Walking” is an unadulterated wildness–a nonhuman wildness. Thoreau talks about embracing his “wildness” as much as he can–as he takes off on his walks that most other humans are incapable of doing, as he tells us in the essay’s opening paragraph–but he is, after all, a human and a product of society. But what he means by speaking “a word for nature’ is that there must be wild places in the world–places humans do not go to, where they do not climb the rocks or howl in the wind, or build even national parks. He means that if we do not set aside truly wild places, then we’re in danger of losing our own sense of wildness, and thus our place on the planet. I guess should that (God forbid) happen, we will have entered the realm of sci-fi movies.

  2. Yes, Steve, the Sublime! A major element of Romantic and American Renassaince literature, but something that still looms large for us today: the feeling of beauty and fear in when faced what is impossible for us to comprehend. And perhaps the web is like that. Maybe what we’ve done and still have to do is like that also: that we have to continually figure out ways to keep adapting and survive.

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