William Eaton has just passed on an essay, “Wild Life, Wild Mind” (from the July 31 Chronicle of Higher Ed) that seems just right as I approach the mid-point in my Thoreau seminar.
I just finish pecking that word ‘seminar,’ and leap startled to see a flotilla of yellow-green wild parrots with long tails chasing each other and alighting for rest on the discolored one-time white stucco walls of the apartments in view from my 5th story window. I’ve heard they’re an invasion from Africa. The contrast with rusted iron window grates and endless smatterings of air-conditioning units clinging to walls is extreme.
As if by design, they are making William’s point — or one of them: that the wild is not a place but a strange intrusion of the unexpected and un-corralable. He adds that we can’t try to sustain these moments. The parrots flee as quickly as they noisily arrived. That’s linked to the Susan Sontag epigraph: “None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory.” Note, she doesn’t deny that there are moments of innocence before all theory. She just says that they can’t be retrieved. They can’t exactly be sought after either, though they may be of the highest imaginable value to us. Unbidden, they speak to us. What’s uncanny, for we who are self-starters and always getting here and there, is that they initiate, they corral us. That’s to see — or hear — that something addresses us. We’re out of the driver’s seat. We listen up or lose it.
I think Thoreau’s prose in Walden works that way. A sentence starts; we’re in the driver’s seat; no strange words or syntax (for the most part). A change gathers strength behind our back. Suddenly we’re lost in the wild. We had been comfortably beside Thoreau as he listened to a freight train rumble by, shaking the silence of the pond. By degrees the parrots start squawking, transforming our resentment at noisy intrusion. We refused ‘an ode to dejection,’ but who could have anticipated what gathers behind our back, this slow startle into minor transfigurations, hearing palm for summer hats, remnants of sails from ocean storms, lumber itself transformed from trees, and lime from Maine. It’s as bad as hearing ice from Walden become a monument on Concord Commons, and then ripple at the ankles of Holy men reciting Vedas in the Ganges.
Thoreau has the wild accost us. And if we try too hard to stare down what’s happening, it’ll disappear: it’s an innocence before theory.