Thinking of Henry Thoreau

Thinking of Henry Thoreau May 6, 2024

Man Walking
Thomas Eakins


Henry David Thoreau died on the 6th of May, 1862, in Concord, Massachusetts. He was 44 years old.

Thoreau was a complicated figure. Not always attractive. But at his best, he was very, very good.

I think of him as a spiritual original, sort of our homegrown American Taoist sage. He was an important part of that literary and spiritual collective we call Transcendentalism. I think of him as a spiritual ancestor for all of us trying to find our way rooted in soil of our place, finding our own paths into the contemplative life.

As a for instance, I’m a big fan of his peculiar spiritual discipline, sauntering, or walking.

He describes it in his essayWalking

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.



About James Ishmael Ford
James Ishmael Ford is a Zen teacher and Unitarian Universalist minister. You can read more about the author here.
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