Thoreau’s Human Consciousness

The human consciousness, and its power of insightful connections that enlighten us to deeper meaning, is our most valuable possession. Leo Marx claimed that, in Walden, Thoreau says ultimate meaning and value, “[do] not reside in the natural facts or in social institutions or in anything ‘out there’, but in consciousness. It is the product of imaginative perception, of the analogy-perceiving, metaphor-making mythopoeic power of the human mind”.  This is true, for Thoreau well-demonstrated how his focus on the natural world presented him with gateways into deeper thinking that permitted exploration, understanding, and connection with himself and his beliefs. The chapters: “Sounds”, “Brute Neighbors”, and “Spring” display the greatest examples of this in Walden.

In “Sounds”, Thoreau speaks at length of the Fitchburg Railroad’s impact on nature and humanity. Its interruptions to his greater narrative show that any tangent of life can allow the human mind to embark upon intense examination of the meaning and connections one can derive from the event. “To do things “railroad fashion” is now the byword,” stated Thoreau (127), lamenting that his fellows set their clocks and lives by the railroad’s ticking time, rather than embracing a more contemplative time, as he does: “[he] lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that “for yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing…” (120). He continues more darkly: “We have constructed a fate, an Atropos that never turns aside”, linking the course humanity has set itself upon with that Greek Fate, whose charge it is to sever the thread of each human’s life. This profound connection continues to weave its thread through his narrative, echoing itself in his lamentation that the train cannot truly be heroic, for it brings unwelcome change in human behavior; not only altering the perceptions of time itself, but also in bringing air and noise pollution and reshaping the structure of the land and how society evolves and interacts with greater ability to travel and new focus on innovation of technology, leading us further from nature. Truly, this is a profound observation to come from a simple moment of an annoying train shattering his prior line of thought, and shows well the power and value of the human consciousness, in taking the passing fancy and extracting great meaning from it, as Thoreau understands it in his meditations.

Yet, not all thoughts must be profound to showcase the power of the human consciousness. Thoreau begins “Brute Neighbors” with a tête-à-tête between a ‘Hermit’ and a ‘Poet’, possible personas of himself that aid him in his exploration of human thought. The Hermit claims to have been experiencing a “serious meditation”, though his prior inner thoughts, are anything but (243-244). However, this haphazard thinking shows the how the human consciousness operates, springing from idea to idea, linking concepts and moments together, seemingly at random, upon an external prompt: farmer’s horn, to farmhands, to the work they do, to a dog on the farm, to the farmhouse and its keeping, to the effort it takes to keep a house, and then back to nature again with hollow trees and the woodpeckers who would make their homes within them. And through the conversation between the Hermit and the Poet, one mind—Thoreau’s—explores two, and so shows how one can come to understand the characters of different people. The Poet focuses on the beauty before him, in the moment. He wishes to fish and spend time with the Hermit. In turn, the Hermit struggles; he is caught between remaining and attempting to find a deeper and more ‘meaningful’ meditation—and so therefore ascend to ‘heaven’, metaphorically, by continuing spiritual pursuits, or else do likewise as the poet and reconnect with the immediate and concrete world. The ultimate result of the inner conflict is shown in the Hermit’s prior thoughts—his earlier ‘meditations’, while significant, carry not the profundity he desires; moreover, his greater focus already appears to be upon fishing, for he can describe the best worm-hunting spot and method to the Poet without hesitation, implying his scattered thoughts before were distracted by the immediate rather than the upward-thinking. This shows how the human consciousness holds value as a tool to understand both ourselves and others, how we might achieve our desires, and where our true interests lie.

In the penultimate chapter of Walden, “Spring”, Thoreau again demonstrated where he found meaning and value in life. He stated, “Few phenomena gave me more delight than to observe the forms which thawing sand and clay assume in flowing down the sides of a deep cut on the railroad through which I passed on my way to the village…” (330). While this beginning passage shows his value in the natural world—for it certainly cannot be denied that he places vast importance upon it and the appreciation of it—he also uses this connection and focal point of time as a mental ‘gateway’ to explore his own consciousness—which holds the greatest value to him, as every bit of nature or thing that he sees and involves himself in serves as a bridge for his consciousness to explore. The imagery of this passage flows through a stream of consciousness, examining interconnection of life and humanity, as Thoreau likens the patterns the clay and sand made to vines and leaves, then to animal parts, and then to human body parts. As he watches, he muses on word sounds and how similar shapes can be found in many things—such as butterflies, Earth, ice, and trees. Ultimately, he comes to view this phenomenon as a representation of spring and of nature’s interconnection to humanity, currently and historically: “but this [phenomenon] suggests at least that Nature has some bowels, and there again is mother of humanity. This is the frost coming out of the ground; this is Spring. It precedes the green and flowery spring, as mythology precedes regular poetry” (334). Clearly, the human consciousness holds great value in its ability to link together life, language, and nature— allowing us to understand the significance of these things and their relationship to one another.

Thoreau’s interest and exploration of the human consciousness cannot be denied, for it forms a central theme of Walden, touching on everything, for thought and self-awareness are vital to his contemplation of nature and the things surrounding him and the ways they might connect to a higher meaning. His appreciation of the value and meaning in the human consciousness remains clear: he obsesses over it, speaks for pages using it, and lets his surroundings serve as doorways into passages of intense thought and intricate linkage and understanding of the interconnections of life. Truly, Leo Marx spoke correctly: ultimate meaning and value are derived by the activities of the human mind and its power.


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