The visual artist Ben Shattuck didn’t set out at first to write a book about retracing some of Henry David Thoreau’s most famous journeys across New England, as detailed in texts like Cape Cod, A Walk to Wachusett, and The Maine Woods. But what started out as a necessary compulsion to get out of the house after being injured turned into a happenstance series of brilliant meditations on the philosopher and what it means to be part of the natural world.
In Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, out now from Tin House, Shattuck visits striking New England landmarks like Maine’s Allagash Wilderness Waterway and Mt. Katahdin, Wachusett Mountain, sleepy Cape Cod towns in Massachusetts, and Thoreau’s family’s former homestead in Rhode Island’s Sakonnet Point. Like Thoreau, Shattuck includes some of his own detailed sketches that help give image to essential moments in his journeys. The book serves as a momentous landmark in time, reminding us of what might be lost in this world and what must be preserved.
We spoke on the phone recently about clouds and butterflies and what it’s like to have the tip of your finger explode.
The Rumpus: You mention that, before you started reading Thoreau’s journals, you remembered him as “a boring, possibly chauvinistic writer who’d lived beside his mother and grew beans as if he were Aristotle.” And I’ve got to say: That was my first recollection of Thoreau, too. I’m curious as to when you first encountered his writing, and what made you willingly and deliberately give his work a second chance.
Ben Shattuck: I think you’ll find that most people who interact with Thoreau, either on an academic level or as a fan of his writing, start off this way. They won’t at first like him. Like me, they’ll resist him. There’s always a winter of most readers’ relationship with him, which probably starts in high school. We were all forced to read Walden and “Civil Disobedience,” which are not very accessible, not anywhere near how accessible his journals are. I think that’s part of his identity. There’s a section of American literary culture that loves to hate Thoreau at first. And then they’ll find themselves loving him, if they read him later in life, if, like me, they come to his journals.
Another reason we find him difficult is that he doesn’t fit into an easy category. I’m not the first one to say this, but we’ve come to see him as three people: the political activist—the abolitionist, pacifist, and environmentalist—and then he’s the artist, the poetic and gifted writer who will end his book with the line, “The sun is but a morning star”; and then he’s the hermit, building his own cabin in the woods. But those three identities don’t always interact well with each other. They can cancel each other out, and we get frustrated. Sure, he’s a hermit, but he’s also the guy who would have dinner with his mom and have her do his laundry. He’s the abolitionist and activist and defender of human rights, but he doesn’t seem to like people all that much, at least certain types, in his writing. But I think anyone who immerses themselves in his writing and life will see a fourth identity: this poetic, silly, questioning, incredibly smart, life-loving thirty-something who died so young—at forty-four—and who wanted to write about so much. He’s this silly uncle-type who babysits Emerson’s kids, the guy who goes ice-skating with Nathaniel Hawthorne and, according to Hawthorne’s wife, tries to do twirls and leaps off the ice. The guy who fed a little mouse by hand.
He’s a little like a millennial; he might not have all the answers and is sometimes a little difficult, but he’s willing to keep asking questions. Like, how can we continue to live ethically in a country where so many people are enslaved? How can we live in a country that prioritizes profit and industry over old-growth forests? He doesn’t have those answers, and he’s full of contradictions, but he’s willing to write through it all. I don’t think we see enough of this person—this fourth identity—because we first encounter his writing at the wrong time.
Rumpus: In high school?
Shattuck: Yeah, I think that’s just lazy curriculum building. It’s the same with assigning Moby Dick, one of the weirdest, most beautiful books ever that is terrible to encounter in high school. Thoreau’s journal readings are where the nectar is. They’re the most direct lines to his silliness and his sense of wonder in the world.
I mention this in the book, that I chopped off the tip of my finger before I started reading his journals. I was recovering at my parents’ house. My dad gave me a copy of Thoreau’s journals, edited by Damion Searls, for Christmas. I opened up the book, flipped to a random page, and, after reading a few sentences, thought I had randomly chanced on the best part of the whole book, because it was so good. But the whole book was like that! It was just all so good! There was gold under the ground of every page. So that’s what brought me back. While I was recovering, it was extremely therapeutic to read his work.
Rumpus: I wanted ask about that incident, too. Six Walks also serves at times as a disease and recovery memoir. You lost the tip of your finger after the gunwale of a boat chopped it off, and you spent a cold winter recovering afterward, and then you contracted Lyme disease that following May. I know that the recreations of Thoreau’s walks afterward were mentally (spiritually? emotionally?) medicinal, but what made you want to put your body through that much physical punishment? Because I know that Lyme disease is real a bastard on the joints and on the brain.
Shattuck: Honestly, none of these walks are very hard to do. I mean, Mt. Katahdin, for example, isn’t a very difficult walk these days. You make a reservation to park at the bottom of the mountain, and then you walk up a very obvious trail. In Thoreau’s time, he was way out there, and he couldn’t even summit because the “hostile ranks of clouds” were keeping him down. What he describes as a “place at the edge of the world” is where kids in summer camp go up each day, and where people now have enough cell signal to FaceTime each other.
If we’re talking specifically about the effects of Lyme disease, though, what affected me and worried me the most was the brain fog and the intense fatigue. I had really bad headaches, but my legs weren’t painful. There was a lot of extreme tiredness. I mention this in the book, too, that I love sleeping outside, and I was able to take naps as I traveled. Halfway up Wachusett, for example, I had a nap, and I know I slept in places along the beaches of Cape Cod.
Rumpus: With that intense fatigue, then, what drove you to want to get up and take these walks?
Shattuck: This is really overused word, but this book came out very organically. I mean, I graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop ten years ago, and I’ve been working on short stories and a novel, and that’s been all the very serious Writing with a capital W, but the Thoreau book came to me differently. I don’t know how to say this, but it felt like not writing about this wasn’t an option, you know? Despite being tired, the only thing I wanted to do during this recovery was to read Thoreau’s journals, connect with this person in the past, and take these walks alongside him. By the end of the walks I was past Lyme disease, and I really knew that I was writing a book for sure. Sitting at home with headaches and fatigue was way worse than lying down in a grassy meadow and watching the clouds. I had to take the walks, and I wanted to write about them.
Rumpus: In comparison, yeah, I can see how much you would have wanted to get out of the house. Going back to what you just said, reenactment seems to play an interesting role in your life. I know you’ve been a Civil War reenactor, and there’s that scene you describe at Walden Pond, where a family mistakes you for a Thoreau stand-in while you’re visiting his cabin.
Shattuck: That was right in the middle of my Lyme disease, yeah.
Rumpus: The family was probably thinking, Oh, he looks haggard.
Shattuck: “He looks completely run over by life.”
Rumpus: Exactly! So would you say these walks felt more like reenactment to you or independent journeys, or a combination of both? How did you see those retraced steps essentially?
Shattuck: So the title of the book, Six Walks, is a little deceiving. They are Henry’s walks that I was following in any number of ways. In terms of reenacting, and for any Thoreauvians out there, they’ll know that Henry went to Cape Cod three times as his main walks for the book, so it wasn’t as simple as each walk being just one, momentous journey. His walks were really entangled and stretched out over time.
With the Civil War reenacting, it’s really easy to laugh at. It’s silly. But there can be those moments for people in the reenactment community where the image of the past bleeds into your own present reality, and it can give you a little thrill. Like, you’re camping at a reenactment, out in a field, and there’s really woodsmoke around you, and there’s a banjo playing out from under one of the canvas tents, and the sun is setting, and there are only people in wool uniforms standing around you, and there is the sound of crickets, and you get this chill. You really do.
There’s this other thing that happens in the reenactment community called “seeing the elephant.” It’s when you’re reenacting the battles. There’s gunpowder around you, and the metal buttons on your outfit are hot from standing in the sun, and you’re with thousands of other reenactors around you at, say, the Battle of Bull Run. When you see all this smoke around you, and then see these hundreds and hundreds of other people running at you, there’s this touch of fear that happens, you know? Real fear. It’s hard to replicate, but it reminds you that your own reality is pretty malleable.
But I don’t think I was trying to reenact anything here. Thoreau was from a time that’s so divided from our own. We have antibiotics and cars and telephones and lights and everything else. Reminders of how long ago he lived were all around me. Like, when I walked through those forests with these long, stone walls—and you’ve probably seen this, too, having lived in Princeton—I remember that these were constructed in the middle of open fields at the time.
With the Thoreau walks, they were less of a reenactment and more of a way of following instructions. In reenacting, you’re trying to jump into a reality outside of yourself, with a lot of other people involved. With the Thoreau walks, I was trying to turn inward, focusing on personal, troubling issues. Thoreau was the soft voice in my ear for that time. It felt like someone was perched on my shoulder, reminding me of what I was seeing at the present. You’re really trying to escape the present in reenacting. I don’t think I was trying to escape anything on those walks. I was trying to see the present in its most vivid colors.
Rumpus: I’d say that the pandemic serves almost as its own setting in the book. How would you say that walks and hikes in nature have changed for you, both before the pandemic and during it? And has it changed for you now that many of us seem to be less cooped up?
Shattuck: I’ll start off by saying that the pandemic has seemed to touch domestic and urban life so much more. I know that the pat answer to this is that the pandemic has boosted levels of appreciation for us just being able to get outside. The reality is, though, that a lot of people have just binged Netflix for the entirety of the pandemic.
Rumpus: Or maybe the pandemic hasn’t explicitly changed your relationship with nature.
Shattuck: I’d say it’s changed but maybe not in the way you’re thinking. We had a baby at the time, and before we had our daughter—who’s just a little over one year old right now—I loved to be outside, being a little uncomfortable, away from my bed. Now, though, even spending one night away is tough if you’re trying to navigate everything.
But regarding Transcendentalism and what Thoreau and Emerson were doing, and what the Luminous and Hudson School painters were doing, and what Darwin was publishing then, there seemed to be this thread of spirituality—from God and the Church to Nature. Maybe it was happening without people knowing it was happening, or understanding why it was happening. I know this had to do with cultural shifts and industry and technology and scientific understandings, but something was happening in the world, and in America particularly, when we realized we could look upward and outward to nature for some kind of recognition and understanding that our egos and ourselves are small in the universe. At least in relation to God or divinity or the forests or salamander migrations or monarch butterfly migration patterns, we realized we were a part of something greater than ourselves, and being a part of something greater makes you feel better about your place.
I think, as the inheritors of New England Transcendentalism, we still feel that philosophy, but we don’t recognize it all the time. The Transcendentalists really charged the American/New England/cultural body, or you could say they electrified it, and that charge is still there. With climate change, with roads piercing so much landscape, with Google Maps allowing us to explore everything, we don’t know what nature means anymore. It was much simpler in the nineteenth century in that it meant “someplace where people aren’t.”
On top of Wachusett Mountain, for example, Thoreau was looking out toward the forests spreading out below him, and to Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, and that was what was amazing to him. To me, the most wonderful part of that view was the guy standing next to me who came to the mountain to count hawks, and who talked about the butterfly populations, and how he’d found new love in the second half of his life. So I think people are part of the landscape now, and that they’re often the most interesting parts of landscapes.
I also think we want to stop obsessing over ourselves. We want to, as Emerson said, lose our “mean ego.” We want to become that transparent eyeball, we want to leave our own worries, we want to think about and care for other people and become less selfish. And so I think nature and people are so intertwined right now, and the pandemic has underlined so much of that. People are supposed to be together in groups, and that’s what human nature is. So if my new definition of nature has to include people in it, and if the pandemic has shown us that being alone is not what we want, then it’s also shown me that a return to nature is a return to community, to being in the same physical place with people.
This goes back to how Annie Dillard broke my mind open in the best way when I first read her. I think Thoreau can certainly do that, but Dillard helped me explode my understanding of myself. We don’t really have enough words for our own experiences in nature, even though we know those experiences exist. If you see a rainbow, for example, you feel good and you feel lucky. You feel something positive. Or if you wake up and it’s a cold and drizzly March morning, you feel bad, but you still feel something. When we talk about the weather, we’re talking about our relationship to the sky and the trees and to the amount of moisture in the air, and all of those things make you feel something. But what about all those shades of feeling between being happy and sad? What does a growth of new grass on a hillside in spring make you feel? Is it a mixture of nostalgia and hope? Or what does a distant mountain range wreathed in a crown of clouds make you feel? There aren’t easy words to put to those things, but they really inject you with abstract emotions.
So maybe when people say that they feel calm when they go outside, what they feel is some sort of emotional rejuvenation or a layering of emotions that you can’t get from anywhere else.
Rumpus: It doesn’t have to be seen as a polar opposite situation.
Shattuck: Right. So maybe the act of going out on these walks can activate different senses of pleasure and displeasure in the mind. And maybe within the pandemic, these types of walks can make us feel less isolated and instead connected to something bigger than ourselves.
Rumpus: What do you hope to impart on your daughter regarding the natural world and being a part of it? As a new father, what kind of lessons do you want to teach her about that world?
Shattuck: Before becoming a father, I had this idea of lessons that I wanted to impart on my child, and that those lessons would help her go forth and be a particular kind of person. Instead, it feels more like passing through light. I can’t grasp it and I don’t know what it is, whether that be joy or frustration or extreme love. But at this point, I don’t even know what a lesson is anymore. I mean, we’re in California right now and everything is green, and the bougainvillea is out, and we saw our daughter pulling on the plants. My wife, Jenny, told her to be gentle while she was pulling, and that she needed to be careful pulling on its ‘body,’ and I thought that was such a sweet thing to say. That the plant had this tender body, and that its body needed to be respected in a way. So that’s one thing.
I’m also a big bird watcher. I went to Cornell and spent a lot of time at the Lab of Ornithology there, and I worked at several research stations, so I know that I at least want her to be able to tell the difference between a redwing blackbird and a grackle by the time she’s six or so. Just being able to name things and identify them within an ecosystem. I know Thoreau was brilliant and could identify so, so many flowers and other things in the landscape, so I guess the easiest answer is to say I want to impart on her a sense of humility and respect for nature, and for her to be able to give it names for what it holds.
Author photo by John Borowicz