Walking Thoreau

Originally delivered as a popular lecture, Henry David Thoreau's "Walking" (1850) is an essay that introduces its readers to Thoreau's views on nature and the importance of immersing ourselves in it. While the subject is the physical act of walking, Thoreau takes his readers on an intellectual walk, wandering from topic to topic through free association and subtle metaphor. Rich in literary and rhetorical devices, the essay contains a number of memorable quotations that encapsulate Thoreau's philosophy on nature and humanity's place in it.  

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Table of contents

    The Purpose of Thoreau's Walking

    By the time he sat down to compose "Walking" in 1850, Henry David Thoreau had completely traversed the state of Massachusetts by foot, hiked Mount Katahdin in Maine, and spent a rainy week trudging through the dunes of Cape Cod. He was also known to spend much of his free time exploring the woods surrounding his native Concord, Massachusetts. He was, in the words of his friend and occasional walking companion, Bronson Alcott, "a walking muse" who "comes amidst mists and exhalations, his locks dripping with moisture, in the sonorous rains of an ever-lyric day."1 It is hard to imagine anyone more qualified than Thoreau to write about walking.

    While Thoreau does want to communicate the pleasure that he takes in walking, this was not his only motivation behind writing the essay. Like his friend and intellectual influence, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau believed that nature has a moral, spiritual, and philosophical significance. This was a key tenet of the loose collection of writers and intellectuals in early to mid-nineteenth century America known as Transcendentalists.

    Transcendentalism was an early 19th-century intellectual movement that emphasized the importance of the natural world alongside individual expression and choice.

    "Walking" is Thoreau's attempt to articulate what he called a "higher law," that would be above the laws of societies or nations. The essay was written in the midst of a political controversy over the Fugitive Slave Law. Passed in 1850, this law allowed slave owners to hunt down and reclaim their escaped slaves across state borders, including in states like Massachusetts where slavery was illegal. Thoreau, who together with his family was actively involved in the Underground Railroad, was furious.1

    The Underground Railroad was the name of a secret network of households that would help escaped slaves travel to free states or Canada.

    While Thoreau would address the consequences of the Fugitive Slave Law directly in his 1854 lecture and essay, "Slavery in Massachusetts," in 1850 he was still trying to avoid drawing attention to his and his family's anti-slavery activities. A lecture about walking may seem far removed from political and legal issues surrounding slavery, but, Thoreau explains in the essay's preface that it is, in fact, about:

    absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture simply civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of nature—rather than a member of society.2

    Therefore, the essay's purpose is to demonstrate that absolute freedom to be able to simply walk away from a town, family, or society and into the wild is due to every human being.

    Thoreau's Walking Summary

    Henry David Thoreau begins by announcing his intention to "speak a word for nature" which, he suggests, is poorly represented when compared to "civilization." His point of entry to nature is walking, but not just of any sort: taking walks, he informs us, is an art, and one that few have mastered. A true walker is like a crusader or a pilgrim in search of the Holy Land in that they are prepared to leave everything behind – family, friends, job, even life itself – to fulfill their quest. A real walk lasts a minimum of four hours and may extend to days. This requires a degree of "leisure, freedom, and independence" clearly not available to most people. Whether by choice or necessity, however, the majority of people spend most of their time indoors, and Thoreau finds this unthinkable and harmful to both physical and intellectual health.

    The idea that walking is a pilgrimage or crusade is the central idea of this essay.

    The place for a real walk must be somewhere untamed and uninhabited such as "the fields and woods" rather than a manicured garden or yard. Being in the woods is, moreover, not just about bodily location; it is also a state of mind. To truly be in the woods, you cannot be "thinking of something out of the woods," like some unfinished business or schoolwork. You must be totally immersed in your physical environment. The farther away from cities, towns, property boundaries, or any kind of human alteration of the landscape, the better the walk will be.

    Walking Thoreau Woods Alone Hiker StudySmarter

    A lone walker in the woods, pixabay.

    Furthermore, a good walk should not make use of a pre-existing highway or road. These are "made for horses and men of business" – people, in other words, who are in a rush to arrive at their destination rather than savor the walk itself. A possible exception here would be old, abandoned roads that no longer lead anywhere (Thoreau here includes one of his own poems, "The Old Marlborough Road," dedicated to one such road outside of his native Concord).

    Thoreau notes that every walk begins in uncertainty over which direction it should take, but that he himself always tends to go southwest, as "the future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side." This is, he thinks, not peculiar to him but a general human tendency: Americans were pushing the border of their country west towards Oregon as Thoreau wrote. Before them, Columbus and the European explorers had sailed west across the Atlantic. Even the ancient world dreamed of Atlantis and the Hesperides as westward paradises (Thoreau notes with disapproval the recent settlements in Australia, a "retrograde movement, [which,] judging from the first generation of Australians, has not yet proved a successful experiment.")

    The idea that the West is wild, and that human beings ultimately belong there, is another central idea of the essay.

    The West is more than just a direction for Thoreau. He cites a number of European botanists, geographers, biologists, and travelers who were among the first to see the New World, and all of them agree that its wildlife is bigger, better, and more beautiful than what they had seen before. The West, Thoreau thinks, represents humanity's future, where people will "grow to greater perfection intellectually as well as physically" and initiate a new "heroic age." This is only because "The West" is synonymous with "The Wild," and it is in the wild that mankind is really meant to live:

    Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest.

    Thoreau goes on to subvert his audience's expectations by arguing that tanned skin is better than pale skin, common shrubs are better than exotic flowers, and swamps are better than towns, cities, or fields. The great cities of civilizations have all depended on the woods and farmland that surrounded them. The world's greatest literature, among which Thoreau counts Shakespeare, Homer, the Bible, and Greek mythology, also acknowledges the superiority of wildness in its "uncivilized free and wild thinking." The superiority of wildness is further illustrated in music, and in some of the animals that are most important for us, like horses, buffalo, and even on occasion, cows. Despite this superiority of wildness, most human beings are "like dogs and sheep...tame by inherited disposition" and not interested in living in the wild. This doesn't mean, however, that all of them should "have their natures broken that they may be reduced to the same level."

    Thoreau rejects the idea that names are a meaningful way of distinguishing between people since they are essentially arbitrary and meaningless. Names in foreign languages we don't understand sound like children's babble to us, and even familiar names essentially give us no information about their bearers. The one exception here is the nickname, "[a]t present our only true names" when they are used to designate some feature of a person's character. Names, then, give us no way to distinguish the foreign and the familiar, the wild and the civilized. A "savage" person may have a name that we recognize as civilized, just as "we have a wild savage in us, and a savage name is perchance somewhere recorded as ours."

    Thoreau notes that nature, unlike our society and culture, operates in cycles of sleep and wakefulness, darkness and light, which are mutually complementary: constant sunlight would cause damage, and lack of sleep stunts our physical and intellectual development. Analogously, Thoreau thinks that too much knowledge is potentially a harmful thing, and that ignorance can be "not only useful—but beautiful." Trying to do nothing but accumulate knowledge would be like keeping a cow in a barn all year long, feeding her hay instead of letting her graze. We need, in other words, to go out and experience the world. An excess of knowledge can also result in a kind of know-it-all pretentiousness, which is far worse than someone who knows nothing but is aware of their ignorance. It is not knowledge but "[s]ympathy with Intelligence" that we should really aim for. We ought to try to live freely rather than to discover laws, which, even when they are the laws of matter or of nature, ultimately bind us.

    Walking Thoreau Moon Forest StudySmarterThe moon over a forest, pixabay.

    The modern age treats human life as a "trivial comedy or farce" rather than the "divine drama" that it was in the past. We are simply no longer excited by ideas or thoughts in the way that people used to be, but preoccupied with society and relationships. If we could restore our relation to nature, we might also regain this perspective on life and the world as inherently meaningful. Thoreau admits that even he lives "a sort of border life" with respect to nature, and so receives only occasional glimpses of what this sort of life might be like. Walking through a common farm, for example, he noticed the slanted evening sun shining through a pine forest and felt that he was in "a stately hall" full regal personalities – the pine and oak trees, the lichen, the bees, all inhabiting a self-sufficient world in total ignorance of the farmer whose property they were.

    Our dissociation from nature results in our ideas diminishing in both number and grandeur. Thoreau suggests that we need to "elevate ourselves a little." He means this quite literally: we should spend more time climbing mountains or even trees. This, in turn, will expand our horizons both literally and metaphorically, revealing the world to us from a new perspective and even making us truly aware of our surroundings. Thoreau notes anecdotally that, after climbing a pine tree, he discovered a beautiful flower on top of it. Immediately taking it into town to show anyone who was interested, none could identify it as a flower belonging to the pine. Despite being surrounded by these trees for their entire lifetimes, they were unaware of the beauty hiding just out of their sight.

    Thoreau concludes the essay with an urgent call for us to live in the present and to remember the past as little as possible. He takes the rooster as an emblematic animal, symbolic of this healthy attitude of immersion in the present. The rooster's morning call is:

    an expression of the health and soundness of Nature, a brag for all the world,—healthiness as of a spring burst forth, a new found of the Muses, to celebrate this last instant of time. Where he lives no fugitive slave laws are passed. Who has not betrayed his master many times since last he heard that note?

    After describing a remarkable sunset that he witnessed on a recent walk, Thoreau returns to the crusade or pilgrimage metaphor that he developed in the essay's opening paragraphs. He will continue, he tells us, to walk in quest of his Holy Land, in the hope that the rays of the sun sinking westward over the horizon will "shine into our minds, and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light."

    The structure of "Walking" resembles the ideal walk that Thoreau describes: long, rambling, exploratory, and ending at sunset by returning to the same place where it began. See "Walking and Thinking" in the analysis below for further development of this theme.

    Walking Thoreau  Woods Sunset StudySmarterA sunset in the woods, pixabay.

    Thoreau's Walking Analysis

    "Walking" is not just an essay about how to take walks; it is a comprehensive statement of Henry David Thoreau's philosophy regarding nature, humanity, and the good life. For Thoreau, knowing how to walk and live are the same thing. Walking, living, and thinking also turn out to have many important similarities.

    Walking is a Pilgrimage

    The running metaphor that Thoreau introduces in the opening paragraphs of the essay – that walking is like a pilgrimage to the Holy Land – is the central message of the text. Thoreau is not suggesting that we should literally walk to an important religious site, like Jerusalem or Mecca. The Holy Land is also a metaphor, this time for the wild nature that is just on our doorstep.

    While this pilgrimage doesn't necessarily require long-distance travel to any particular location, it does require us to be in the right state of mind and to have the right set of values. We must learn to set aside our worldly concerns, such as businesses, relationships, or schoolwork, and be entirely present to the world during our walk. We also need to try to see the world from different perspectives, both literally (such as by climbing trees and hills) and figuratively. This may require us to explore new places, get lost, and be alone with our thoughts. Walking, then, looks like a model for how we should live our lives: mindfully, sensitive to the world around us, and not overly invested in our work or material things.

    The West is the Wild

    While it is not particularly important where we go on our walks as long as we are walking with the right intentions and frame of mind, for Thoreau, the West does have a special significance. Throughout history, he thinks, the West has represented the future, new possibilities, and wildness, while the east represents the past, history, culture, and tradition. The westward expansion of the United States, much of which happened during Thoreau's own lifetime, is of special importance to him: it represents a fresh new direction for humanity and a further chance for us to immerse ourselves in wild nature. It is part of humanity's (or, at least, European civilization's) gradual westward movement and, in turn, like one massive walk, spanning centuries, generations, and millions of people. Movement westward, for Thoreau, is symbolic of humanity's chance to reclaim its place in the natural world.

    It's important to note that Thoreau was not interested in the economic development that westward expansion would bring, or in any idea of bringing civilization to the west. On the contrary, the west for Thoreau was our chance to escape from the demands of civilization and the preoccupation with work and material things that often accompanies it. In "Life Without Principle," a later essay conceived as a follow-up to "Walking," Thoreau would harshly condemn those who moved west in pursuit of gold or other resources. In his view, they were not only wasting their time but also destroying the natural environment that makes the West wild.

    Walking Thoreau Mountain Sun Trees Path StudySmarterA mountain path in the sunlight, pixabay.

    Walking and Thinking

    Walking and thinking have a kind of mutual interdependence for Thoreau. We cannot master the art of walking without thinking about the world in the right way, and we cannot think well without devoting at least a part of our lives to taking walks. Thinking, like walking, also requires us to be alone, explore, get lost, and try to see things from new perspectives. It turns out to be difficult, if not impossible, to think well without also walking well.

    This is perhaps best illustrated in the structure of "Walking" itself. The essay begins with the idea of a walk as a pilgrimage and, from there, seems to wander through digressions and side-paths, sometimes with seemingly little relation to the topic of the essay. Thoreau is exploring ideas in the same way he explores the natural surroundings during a good walk. Thoreau also notes that a good walk has an elliptical or orbital shape, starting off from home, wandering out into one direction, and gradually circling back towards home. As Thoreau closes his essay, he gradually returns to the same idea, of walking as a pilgrimage, that he opened the essay with, figuratively returning home as the sun sets on his intellectual walk.

    Rhetorical Devices in Walking

    "Walking" was originally conceived as a lecture, meant to be delivered live in front of an audience. Due to its popularity, Thoreau would deliver the lecture to different audiences in different locations over a long period of time, gradually modifying and expanding it as the years went by. It was only after Thoreau's death that "Walking" was published as an essay. As a result of this format, "Walking" is rich in rhetorical devices intended to capture the attention of a listening audience as well literary devices that are more common in written texts.

    Metaphor and Simile

    As mentioned above, the central message of the text could be summarized with the metaphor "walking is living," and this, in turn, hinges on two running metaphors: walking is a pilgrimage, and the West is the Wild. Metaphors and similes recur throughout the text, often in order to illustrate Thoreau's ideas about walking and walkers.

    Some of the more memorable of these include:

    • A walker is a meandering river.
    • Walkers are knights.
    • A good walker is like a camel (ruminating, or thinking, while walking).
    • A good walk is like a "cometary orbit."
    • A person learning is like a horse or cow eating grass.
    • The woods are the hall of a great family.

    Simile: A literary device where one thing is directly compared to another, usually using the terms "like" or "as."

    Metaphor: A literary device in which one thing is described as something else.

    Overstatement and Hyperbole

    Hyperbole: The purposeful use of exaggeration or over-emphasis in order to make a point.

    Thoreau takes delight in contrariness and upending his audience's expectations, and hyperbole is often the tool he uses to do this. In developing some of the metaphors above, for example, Thoreau claims that "the chivalric or heroic spirit" that is associated with knights "seems now to reside in" walkers. In going for a walk, we also need to be "prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms." In championing the wild over the civilized, Thoreau also makes great use of hyperbole, claiming that swamps and bogs are better places than towns and cities.


    Anecdote: A brief account or story about an individual or an event, usually in order to illustrate a point.

    While speaking about how one should live, Thoreau does not shy away from using events in his own life as examples, both positive and negative. Thoreau lets us know that he himself feels the need to walk a minimum of four hours every day, easily exceeding 20 miles. He often uses his own experiences as starting points for the topics he develops, such as his walks on the Marlborough road, his experience of two panoramas (one of the Rhine and one of the Mississippi), an evening he spent on Spaulding's Farm, the time he climbed to the top of a pine tree, saw a different horizon, and discovered a new flower that he brought back to town, and the sunset walk that closes the essay, to name just a few.

    Familiar Tone

    Tone: A writer's attitude or mood as expressed in a text.

    Despite the philosophical seriousness of the topics that Thoreau is trying to discuss, he maintains a light-hearted tone. He does this through the use of anecdote and hyperbole, which often sarcastically contrast high moral seriousness with down-to-earth homeliness. Thoreau also makes frequent use of first-person pronouns, either telling the audience what "I believe," "I witness," and "I wish to" do, or including himself among the audience by using "we" and "our." This helps Thoreau maintain a conversational tone, keeping himself at the same level of his audience.

    Allusion and Intertextuality

    Allusion: A reference, usually explicit, to another work of literature or art

    While maintaining a light-hearted and conversational tone, Thoreau manages to reference, either directly or indirectly, a staggering number of literary and theological texts, including The Bible, The Vishnu Purana, The Quran, The Ballad of Robin Hood, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Milton's "Lycidas," among others. While he is never mentioned directly, the themes developed in "Walking" are deeply indebted to the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson, especially as developed in "Nature" (1836) and "Self-Reliance" (1841).

    Thoreau's Walking Quotes

    In Wildness is the preservation of the world.

    He who sits still in a house all day may be the greatest vagrant of all.

    What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?

    Every sunset which I witness inspires me with the desire to go to a West as distant and as fair as that into which the sun goes down.

    I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows.

    When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable...the most dismal swamp.

    Many a poor sore-eyed student that I have heard of would grow faster, both intellectually and physically, if, instead of sitting up so very late, he honestly slumbered a fool's allowance.

    My desire for knowledge is intermittent; but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant.

    Methinks we might elevate ourselves a little more. We might climb a tree, at least.

    Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present.

    Walking Thoreau - Key Takeaways

    • First delivered as a lecture in 1850, "Walking" was one of Thoreau's most popular pieces.
    • "Walking" was written in the context of a controversy over The Fugitive Slave Law.
    • Thoreau uses the act of taking a long walk as an occasion to present a comprehensive philosophy of nature and humanity's place in it.
    • The West is the natural direction for a walk to take. Thoreau thinks that the West represents wildness and that human beings ultimately belong in the wild.
    • For Thoreau, immersing ourselves in the wilderness is essential for the physical, spiritual, and psychological development of individuals and entire societies.

    1 Laura Dassow Walls, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, 2017.

    2 Phillip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay, 1995.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Walking Thoreau

    What is Thoreau's message in walking?

    Thoreau's message is that we all should spend more time walking, and that in learning the art of walking we will also learn how to think and how to live. 

    What did Thoreau say about walking?

    Walking requires time, dedication, and the right mindset. If we absorb ourselves in the act of walking for long periods of time, and walk in wild, isolated places, we will become real walkers and, by extension, better people.

    When did Thoreau write walking?

    Thoreau originally wrote walking in 1850, but continued to make changes to it throughout his life. It was only published as an essay after his death in 1862. 

    What does Thoreau mean by his use of the word sauntering?

    Sauntering is another word for walking. Through a dubious etymology, Thoreau connects the word 'saunter' with the Crusades (via the French term Sainte Terre, or Holy Land). Sauntering or walking means walking with a purpose greater than reaching any destination. Thoreau thinks that walking ultimately reveals to us how we should live our lives. 

    What is the central argument of Thoreau's walking?

    The central argument of walking is that humanity's place is in the wild, and that learning how to take walks is one way of accessing the wild. It is by walking in the wild that we learn how to think and how to live. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is the best description of Thoreau's tone in 'Walking'?

    Which writer does below does 'Walking' make an allusion to?

    Which metaphor best expresses the main point of 'Walking'?


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