The path of the modern solitary druid has many predecessors. Some of whom would probably not wish to call themselves druids. But their values, their writings, and the model of their lives, demonstrate the proposition that there’s a spiritual kinship between people and the landscapes wherein they dwell. And that, I think, makes them kin to the modern druidic movement. Certainly, their writings ought to serve as inspirational material. And just as certainly, without their trail-blazing effort, the path of the modern solitary druid, as we know it today, would not have been possible. Here is the first of two predecessors who you should know.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Widely praised as the best American nature writer, Thoreau’s whole philosophy could be almost completely contained in this sentence:
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.93
And this word spoken for Nature was a twofold proposition. The first, as is plain, was a word in praise of the landscapes and elements and wild things. The second, as is implicit, was a word of protest against the growing industrial-mechanical takeover of the earth. Jean Jacques Rousseau had already uttered such a word about a hundred years earlier. But Thoreau brought it to America. Now, this industrial takeover of the land was still only beginning in Thoreau’s time: he could still claim that “there are square miles in my vicinity which have no inhabitant” and “in one half hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth’s surface where a man does not stand from one year’s end to another…”94 But Thoreau could see how this was soon to change. In an essay called “Wild Apples” (The Atlantic Monthly, November 1862) he wrote: “I fear that he who walks over these fields a century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah, poor man, there are many pleasures which he will not know.”
In the year 1852 Thoreau left his hometown of Concord Massachusetts, and built a wooden hut near the shore of Lake Walden, and lived there for over two years. His reason for doing so appears in one of the most quoted paragraphs in the book he wrote about the experience:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. (Thoreau, Walden. (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854) pg. 98.)
Thoreau’s desire to “live deliberately” and “front the essential facts of life” is an echo of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for “an original relation to the universe”. And this desire is expressed in gentle, smooth, and loving prose. His arguments are few, and his propositions many, but he’s no less philosophical for all that. The proof of his propositions is in the great wealth of literary knowledge and environmental awareness he brings to his text. In the aforementioned essay “Wild Apples”, for instance, he lists over a dozen ancient books which describe apple trees in poetic terms: from the usual herd of Greeks and Romans, to the Bible, and the Prose Edda. He also brings to his works an extraordinary depth of self-awareness, which many might claim to attain, but few do. In my ears, his style falls half way between philosophy and poetry. It’s as if he’s sitting just behind you, talking away, letting his thoughts guide his words as a friendly wind might guide a boat across his lake. Of course, this sometimes leads him around topics that may seem unrelated to each other. On one page he might praise the inherent goodness of the simple life; on the next he might lament that so few people can read Plato and Homer in the original Greek. Yet the careful reader hears the full force of his argument so powerfully that you cannot help but see things exactly as he does, for a while.
Thoreau’s general argument, as expressed in Walden and other texts, is that the ability to live simply and mostly self-sufficiently, in terms of material and intellectual needs, in natural environments, and especially in wild environments, is absolutely necessary for the spiritual life. And the ability to appreciate the beauty of such places as a solitary walker, is similarly necessary. Therefore such wild and natural places deserve protection, as do such lifestyles that involve entering, exploring, writing about, thinking about, and dwelling in such places. There’s a subtlety to Thoreau’s spirituality. When he discusses God he generally does so as a deist, that is, one who believes God exist but who subscribes to no particular religious institution. In his day he would have been labelled a ‘transcendentalist’, following in the footsteps of his mentor Emerson. So when Thoreau discusses God, he usually sounds like this:
Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man. In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages. (Walden, pg. 105)
This idea owes more to Vedic Hinduism than to Christianity, and Thoreau nearly says as much (cf. pg. 318-9). But such passages appear rarely, and almost as digressions, in his prose. It’s as if God just isn’t Thoreau’s main concern. But he is a spiritual man nonetheless. This next passage is a better example of the way he talks about the spiritual life most of the time:
Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself. I have been as sincere a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks. I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did. (Walden, pg. 96)
A ritual like this should be recognizable to any neo-pagan alive today. Consider next how he characterises the life of those who do not see in their hearts what he sees in his, as the natural world has awakened it: “The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive.” (ibid, pp. 97-8) And in the light of that proposition, notice how he plays upon the meaning of the word ‘sleeper’ in this passage about the railroad:
We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon. (ibid, pg. 100)
Those are fighting words. They condemn the soullessness of the new industrial era, still in its infancy in his day. As an aside, it always seemed significant to me that Walden was published the same year that Karl Marx published The Communist Manifesto. Both books, although in different ways, were responding to the same problem: industrialization, as a danger to the life of the working class, for Marx; and for Thoreau, as a danger to landscapes and to the spiritual life. Therefore in an essay called “Walking” (which is really about thinking), Thoreau warned:
But possibly the day will come when [the land] will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only – when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days come. (Walking, 1862)
Before continuing on, take a moment to think about whether Thoreau’s warning has come true.
Brendan Myers is a professional philosopher, specializing in social justice, ethics, game theory, environmentalism, and spirituality. He’s taught philosophy at six different institutions in Canada and in Europe, and provided policy research for government agencies, labor unions, game design studios, and various private clients. His work has been featured by the Pacific Business & Law Institute, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, as well as numerous environmental groups, interfaith and humanist societies around the world. Since 2004 he he has published nine books, including six nonfiction titles, two novels, and a political strategy game.