Just put finishing touches on a piece, “Thoreau’s Wild Ethics,” to appear soon in The Concord Saunterer. Here’s a sample.
One sees moral salience and hears its call. Ethics is experiential and reflexive, a Source that makes the call of things audible, as light is a Source that makes color and shape visible. The face of a river, or the flight of a swallow, or the plight of a child call on our preservative care. The motif of recurring wonder (even amidst devastation) is a motif of enduring care. As we behold such luminous things, we inwardly feel their imperatives to see and hear more, to respond and become better, in this quite particular situation. Such felt-imperatives do not derive from theory or from a fanciful system “any rational mind” ought to accept. I see a child in danger and reach to protect her. I might think, “She’s about to fall, about to be harmed.” But that is not to enunciate or defend a principle. It is not to endorse the maxim, “Always treat children well.” It is caring for this child, the one here at hand, this very moment.
Rivers, persons at risk, meadowlarks, are, in a sense, “primitive”: we can delve no deeper
than their presence and their call on our care. And our increasingly attentive flow with them is “primitive,” too: there is no deeper or better contact to be had. Thoreau’s narratives deliver thankful celebration of our cohabiting common life, in growth and decline. We are of nature, and nature is of us. We startle in happy wonder and gratitude that such events are occurring, that this is the place of our moving and being.
We value the particular and deliberate way Thoreau lived out his cares and we value his steadfastness in adversity and loss. He gave stoic attention to every passing moment, not letting a thing pass unnoticed. He had a way with words that was the other side of his way with perception: he could see more in a week than most of us see in a year. And he had faith in enigmatic shifts from suffering, trauma, and sadness to absolute delight—not something effected by denying terrors or degradations but something arising in letting the lily or muskrat not escape notice. Like Goethe and perhaps Nietzsche, he knew how to see into the abyss and yet sparkle with life. A rare knack: perhaps the heart of his genius, wild as it is.