In Thoreau’s footsteps

Cape Cod writer pens new book about the naturalist.


Some of us, at various ages and stages, have fallen hard for the prince of the Concord woods, specifically the woods around the homey 150-square-foot cabin built by the famous Henry near Walden Pond. What’s not to love about a nature lover who writes, “There’s a heart inside that animal, my mind told me, watching the porcupine move down the slope, back to the edge of the forest. Maybe the size of a chestnut. There’s a heart at the center of all animals. Everything is soft underneath. A very suitable small fruit.”

This is from Thoreau’s essay “A Walk To Wachusetts,” which begins at his front door — presumably his mum’s house, to which he returned after his bold experiment in the woods. The sudden coming-into-being of Ben Shattuck’s new book, “Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau,” reminded me of a long-term pledge of my own to read Thoreau’s Cape Cod saga, wherein he explores an inland dweller’s fascination with the sea. And for a Islander who picked up “Walden” during her long-ago high school years and has reread it many times since, including some three years ago when I was asked by a former editor and director of the Thoreau Farm Institute of Concord, Margaret Bergman-Carroll, to contribute an essay to a new book, “What Would Henry Do?: Essays for the 21st Century.”

So, inspired at last, I jumped recently into Thoreau’s Cape Cod adventure, and accompanied him on his four walks along the shore. For those of us who visit the Cape often, and watch our changing views of it across the Sound, it’s interesting how much the land mass mystified our Henry back in his day. Mostly he’s intrigued by the constantly shifting sands and the consequent inability to know where anything will stand in a matter of years, including lighthouses: “Perhaps what the ocean takes away from one part of the Cape it gives to another — robs Peter to pay Paul.” 

Also, the dwarfish trees fairly make him chortle: “the country for the most part destitute of trees — and the solitude was that of the ocean and the desert combined.”

So now we come to Shattuck’s book, devoted to the sainted Henry and his famous strolls along the shore where Shattuck resides with his girlfriend Jenny in the summer home where he grew up, his parents having vacated to the other side of the wide saltwater river. Shattuck looks to Thoreau to bail him out of his own life’s challenges that weigh on his soul, and he finds this bit of the famous naturalist’s wisdom: “When I go out of the house for a walk, uncertain as yet whither I will bend my steps, and submit myself to my instinct to decide for me, I find, strange and whimsical as it may seem, that I finally and inevitably settle southwest, toward some particular wood or meadow or deserted pasture or hill in that direction … the future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted or richer on that side.” 

OK, let’s all synchronize our directions from Thoreau: Imagine yourself on your favorite walk through the woods. You come to a fork in the road. You know which way has always pleased your sense of wayfaring wonder. Is it southwest, by chance? Maybe Thoreau was on to a good thing? Or was he, in addition to being a brilliant botanist, ornithologist, and early ecologist, also just plain nutty? 

After his stroll along the beaches of the Cape, Shattuck, inspired by Thoreau’s travels through the Northeast, climbs Mount Katahdin and Mount Wachusett, down the coastline of his own hometown, and then through the Allagash. The central question of this template of footsteps is Thoreau’s favorite theme: Is walking life’s basic cure-all for all problems mental, psychological, and spiritual?

Well, sure. And, of course, so is meditation, and devouring a hot fudge sundae. Plus Shattuck is also a fine artist, and decorates his new book with atmospheric black-and-white illustrations. But for Shattuck’s purposes, he looks to Thoreau and walking to understand his own life’s challenges, starting with, a few years previous, heartbreak over a lost girlfriend which yielded scary nightmares, to the pandemic to which he briefly tips his hat, perhaps more to place his timeline in this past couple of years harrying all of us, to his current life situation which includes engagement to a woman named Jenny — surname withheld, but a celebrity from the “Saturday Night Live” circuit — who in the final chapters of “Six Walks,” accompanies the author on a Cape Cod beach trek and who happens to be pregnant with the couple’s baby. 

In the destiny of Ben and Jenny, meaning lies in being together in their euphoric early romance, with the inclusion of a coming family. In other words, they’re happily involved in humanity’s normal confluence of experience, and the reason humanity embraces the whole rigamarole is because it works for well-nigh everyone, at least initially and ideally. For Thoreau, on the other hand, a more strenuous situation propels him to find himself. Shattuck gives us this insight from Henry’s rigorous approach to life:

“The only way to really be with Henry, as revealed by his companion, Ed Hoar, on his Maine walk was ‘to go with him in his walk; to walk long and far; to have wet feet, and to go so for hours; to pull a boat all day; to come home late at night after many miles. If you would do that with him, he would take you with him. If you flunked at anything, he had no more use for you.’”

Perhaps what most of us discover is to pursue whatever line of inquiry works best for us. Even Ed Hoar had trouble with keeping pace with Henry. And did Henry achieve his ultimate goal of finding spiritual redemption in hard walks through the woods? We know, of course, that he died on May 6, 1862, at his parents’ house in Concord, at the relatively young age of 44, of tuberculosis. I personally take courage from this story of Thoreau’s last days nursed by his Aunt Louisa, who asked tremulously, “Henry, have you made your peace with God?” to which the great philosopher and, it turns out, theologist, replied, “I hadn’t been aware we’d quarreled.”

And for Shattuck, barreling forward with his fiancée Jenny, a new daughter, and continued life on the Cape, he too, without quite so much hardship, finds comfort and stability in his rambles through the woods, ending his lovely joint account of his and Henry’s reflections on life, with an etching of irradiated blades of nighttime grass, which he calls “Light in the Grass.” And there it is: He also has avoided a quarrel, at least a recent one, with the Divine. 

“Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau,” by Ben Shattuck. Available at Bunch of Grapes bookstore and Edgartown Books.