In 1845, Henry David Thoreau – naturalist, philosopher, abolitionist – moved to the woods at Walden Pond, near his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. There, he built and resided in a simple cabin, hoping to ‘meet the facts of life’. His resulting work, Walden, is today celebrated not only for its quotable musings on meaningful living, but as the work of a proto-environmentalist.
In Now Comes Good Sailing, writers reflect on Thoreau and his writings, proving his relevance in our age of manifold crises: from the ruination of our attention spans, to the (related) ruination of planet Earth. As Jordan Salama notes in his contribution, our relationship to ‘nature’ has changed since Thoreau’s time. It’s difficult, he suggests, for many young people ‘to fully fall in love with the natural world, simply because there’s just not much of Nature left’ – a wilderness trip today offers constant reminders of ‘loss’. Such loss is powerfully conveyed by Wen Stephenson, who describes retracing Thoreau’s footsteps at Cape Cod, where the writer stood humbled by ‘naked Nature’. Stephenson didn’t walk precisely where Thoreau did; that path has ‘long since gone under the waves’. He reminds us that his path will soon vanish too, as sea levels rise with climate change.
Amid such loss, Thoreau’s perspective feels increasingly vital. Kristen Case highlights the value of simply ‘registering’ the natural world, as Thoreau did in his meticulous observations of seasonal phenomena. Novelist Lauren Groff (who reread Walden in rural isolation, as Covid-19 spread) similarly celebrates Thoreau’s ability to encourage everyday awe.
In fact, as Sherry Turkle suggests here, Thoreauvian reverie is a crucial counterbalance in our digital age (something the selfie-takers of Walden Pond, noted in Stacey Vanek Smith’s contribution, might do well to consider). Indeed, this anthology’s entries bring Thoreau sharply into the present, among them Rafia Zakaria’s brilliant interrogation of ‘solitude’, that oft-romanticised concept associated with Thoreau (he may have felt at home in his local woods, but Zakaria felt unease in hers, after spotting a machete there).
Far more than the sum of its parts, Now Comes Good Sailing forms a wonderfully incidental biography of Thoreau and proves his immortal value. It will surprise and delight Thoreauvians and newcomers alike.