“Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trode on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night.” Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever, – to be the dwelling of man, we say – so nature made it, and man may use it if he can. Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific, – not his Mother Earth that we have heard of, not for him to tread on, or to be buried in,- no, it were being too familiar even to let his bones lie here, – the home, this, of Necessity and Fate. There was clearly felt the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man. It was a place of heathenism and superstitious rites, – to be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rocks and to wild animals than we… What is it to be admitted to a museum , to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star’s surface, some hard matter in its home! I stand in awe of my body, of which I am one, – that my body might, – but I fear bodies, I tremble to met them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature, – daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, – rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid Earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?”
– Henry David Thoreau, Ktaadn
Recently I had to create a group presentation about Into the Wild by John Krakauer, and my job was to analyze this specific epigraph in the beginning of Chapter 17: The Stampede Trail, and I found a lot of stuff that had some sort of significance. So I decided that I wanted to share my analysis with everyone because I was wondering: Did you have the same thoughts? Do you understand what I mean? Did you even read it?
So, the first thing that caught my eye was Chaos and Old Night, because that’s an interesting description for Earth, for Mother Nature. Because usually, we as humanity see Mother Earth as a caring and nurturing sanctuary. But through Thoreau’s description/perspective, he doesn’t agree; So I decided to research on the origin of Chaos and Old Night. And I discovered that Chaos and Old Night was a concept that originated from Paradise Lost by John Milton, a story which was basically about Lucifer’s casting-away by God and the perpetual clashes in between God and Lucifer. And in Paradise Lost, Chaos and Old Night was the realm in which Lucifer fell into after being casted away, and so Chaos and Old Night is supposed to represent or symbolize Hell. This made me realize that perhaps Thoreau, who was an avid transcendentalist, believed that Earth and nature weren’t in fact a good to us, but an evil.
Then I moved on to no man’s garden: and most of you who have studied or taken classes of history that involved the 19th century to 20th century, should know the reason for my analysis of this statement. During World War I and World War II, the innovation and creation of trench warfare – which is when two fighting nations create trenches opposite of each other and throw both bombs and troops at one another. The area between both trenches is called no man’s land, and because of Thoreau’s play of words and describing Earth as no man’s garden further emphasizes Thoreau’s belief that Earth was a hell to humanity and civilization. And another idea that came to my mind when analyzing this statement, I realized that perhaps because nature is supposed to be a Hell that when Chris McCandles entered the wild that he had already entered Hell; and died, passed away, became a ghost to humanity’s world.
Man may use it if he can was one of more of the literal perspectives on my analysis of the epigraph: because Thoreau so blatantly states that man may use it if he can, he implicates that because humanity may not be able to control nature, that nature is an opposing entity or force towards humanity. That when nature and man were created, that there was once an existing and thriving connection between them but because of our progression and development as humanity, our connection has been severed and man’s belief that nature is our sanctuary, our backyard, is no longer true. Because now nature has become the opposing force to us, the evil to our good.
And next came heathenism and superstitious rites. Usually when you hear ‘heathenism’ and ‘superstitious rites’, you think of the Era of the Ice Age, of caveman, of primitive homo sapiens still developing and progressing as a species. And I also realized that my prior impression that perhaps Thoreau’s statement about the development and progression of humanity did have a significant effect on the story. Because of humanity’s advancement our connection with nature – our connection with the ability to find the true meaning of life – is severed. For example with Neanderthals, who were already advanced in the development of homo sapiens, had problems and gradually increasing conflicts between themselves and between them and nature due to their advancements in other areas. Thoreau gives off the implication, in the transcendentalist perspective, that due to our lack of connection with nature, our ability to discover the truest meaning of life is lost; thus being heathens with superstitious rites is better than being advanced as a species. That even though right now humanity is advanced in areas such that they make it easier for us to live our lives and further develop mental aspects of life, we have become less advanced than ‘caveman’ and ‘heathens’, who were advanced in the ability to understand the mysteries and truest meaning of life.
It’s interesting that Thoreau isn’t scared of spiritual and intangible concepts of life but is incredibly fearful of the human body. But I fear bodies, I realized, only further stressed on the idea of humanity’s development and progression; thus correlating to Thoreau being fearful of humanity’s advancement. To support this statement, I researched the origin of the excerpt from the epigraph and found out that it was from one of Thoreau’s many literary works. The epigraph came from Thoreau’s journal/diary on his solo expedition to Mount Katahdin, that he decided to call Ktaadn; and because it was a solo expedition, Thoreau was alienated from both society and himself which led to his confusion and fear. But how and why did these emotions come up? Why hadn’t he reacted differently if he was such an avid transcendentalist? I concluded that maybe it was due to the inhibition of the human emotions on the human body. It was, after all, due to our human emotions that humanity has continued to develop and progress as a whole. It was due to our negative human emotions of greed and selfishness to create innovative creations and inventions to allow our lives to become easier, that led to our connection and relationship with nature becoming stagnant and non-existent.
While analyzing Titan, I realized that it only further stressed on the idea that our body represents our advancement of mankind; because our body is like a window to the development of mankind, in body and in mind. And so this ‘unnatural’ development of our body, our titan (or divine being/God), our connection with nature is lost.
The next one amused and intrigued me because the first thing that came to mind when I saw the common sense, was literally The Common Sense by Thomas Paine: which was basically written by Paine, an advocate for American colonists rebelling against Great Britain for independence, and also included the ideas of natural rights from John Locke. The natural rights of life, liberty, and property. And this gave me an epiphany: perhaps the reason why Thoreau all of a sudden mentions the common sense, an abstract idea, out of no where was because of Paine’s Common Sense. Because then the connection between man’s belief of natural rights and Thoreau’s transcendentalist belief of man’s ability to find the truest meaning of life through our connection with nature, exists. That now we are misled as a species that our development as humanity doesn’t affect our connection with nature, that nature is our property. This action taken by mankind, to create this idea of natural rights and that we have the right to own nature, only shows our severed connection with nature and our attempt in recreating that connection.
And finally, Who are we? Where are we? Why would he all of a sudden, out of random, question the existence of not only himself but also humanity? When this idea of questioning one’s existence came up, the first thing that came to me was the psychological idea/experiment by Schrödinger called Schrödinger’s Cat. Basically the idea is that if something doesn’t acknowledge another’s existence, then that other thing doesn’t exist. But then that would contradict with the analogy to Thoreau’s and McCandless’ isolation from society and civilization in the wild, wouldn’t it? THEN, I came to a realization that, perhaps the reason for Thoreau’s and all the others’ fear and confusion of their existence and the existence of humanity in general, is due to nature’s lack of acknowledgement of mankind. That because the connection between man and nature had been severed and because we developed as a species, that nature refuses to acknowledge us. And though Thoreau, Mccandleuss, and Krakauer believed that nature acknowledged them with the harsh experiences they endured; but in reality these harsh experiences is in a whole, nature’s un-happy reaction towards humanity coming into its territory. That we are the Hell to nature, as nature is Hell to us.
And finally we come to an end, and so do you agree with what I said? Do you have any different thoughts/opinions? Or did you not get it?
What do you think?