There is something about Thoreau that always pushes me to reflect deeply on my own set of experiences and memories. Reading Walden last semester was one of the highlights of my year, not only because his thoughts and opinions greatly resonate within my being, but also because this encounter with his work greatly highlighted the exciting and noteworthy results of combining empirical observations, philosophy, and the act of creative writing. Thoreau’s Cape Cod, a series of articles published posthumously (which in unison give it a novel-like quality), achieved a very similar effect to Walden despite of its so-called darker tone and seriousness. Although slightly somber and less “optimistic” (I’m not sure if this word is appropriate, but it’s the closest one I could come up with) than Walden, Cape Cod follows a similar format to the former, in which the exploration of a natural space leads to wonderful insights of the world and the human condition.
However, Cape Cod seems to delve deeper into the implications of the relationship between the human and the natural world, depicting it at times as a hybrid association, and other times as a hierarchical, power-driven liaison: humans are indeed powerless when compared to the scope and the sheer force of the natural world. This is perhaps exemplified best with the very opening of the novel, which discusses Thoreau’s encounter with the St. John shipwreck. The man-made vehicle was unable to withstand the power and impartiality of nature, and the humans who gathered around the scene in Cape Cod were helpless witnesses to this frigidity. It is in moments such as these that you truly understand the fragility and the complexities of living and thinking.
The chapters in Cape Cod that most stood out for me due to their discussion of the relationship between humanity and the natural world were the ones that discussed Thoreau’s experience at the beach. This, of course, is very subjective on my behalf, seeing as I grew up in an island. Beaches were consequently an integral part of my upbringing, and to be quite frank, being away from them for large periods of time while living in Indiana has affected me immensely. Above is a picture that I took of what is arguably my favorite place in the world: Jacinto’s Well, located in the town of Isabela in the island of Puerto Rico. The picture clearly doesn’t do justice to the sheer majesty and enchantment of the area: cliffs meet dunes of warm sand. Brutal waves roar and desperately try to climb the crevices within the mounds of rock. And yes, every once in a while, you may even see a sea turtle leaping from the waves into the vast blue aura of white and cerulean.
I would frequently visit this place during the night, where the majesty and grandeur of this place would increase tenfold… an open sea, an open sky, an open mind. Thoreau’s depictions of the beach vividly awakened my memories of the beach. I could smell the salt in the air. I felt the chill of encountering the blackness of the sea during a stormy night. I could feel the immense loneliness that manifests when confronting the sea one-on-one. And once again, as I recalled this set of experiences, I felt as if Thoreau were sitting right next to me, contemplating the exact same scenario, for his experiences of the beach were amazingly similar to my own. I guess that is indeed what makes good literature, is it not? Is not writing good literature the practice of aesthetically condensing experience and concatenating it with future generations?
I think I instantly connected with Thoreau when he described the opulence of the sea, especially when in contrast to the human body. The experience is almost paradoxical: as you stand in front of a stormy beach, or in front of a sea that is rough and poses the threat of danger, it is quite easy for you to feel lonely, terrified, insignificant, and impotent. Yet strangely, the combination of all of these ultimately makes you feel alive. Indeed, it is quite easy for you to delve into nihilistic thoughts and emotions during this experience, but there is an inevitable sense of connection with nature being fostered.
Indeed, we are nothing when compared to the scope of the sea, as Thoreau very well posits when he illustrates his first encounter with the Cape Cod beaches during stormy and unsettling weather: “A thousand men could not have seriously interrupted it, but would have been lost in the vastness of the scenery, as their footsteps in the sand” (28). How can this notion be comforting? How can we, as humans find comfort by feeling small and powerless? To make matters even more complicated, how about when we think of nature in an even greater scale? Are we nothing but an evanescent force within the grand scale of the universe, and have we all not sat down to contemplate that realistically speaking, we are nothing but a germ in the universal scale?
I am no psychoanalyst, but perhaps this joy, this contemplation, this awe, and this desire arises from a deep sense of wanting to belong to something bigger, to something grand. Confronting the ocean one-on-one, in this case, is no different to a religious experience or doctrine: we want to know that there is something bigger than us out there, and we want to believe that we ultimately can be part of it in one way or another. And notice that in order to achieve this union in most religious systems of belief, humans are required to die, or in more philosophical terms, the human must cease to exist. It is uncanny that in Cape Cod, Thoreau himself seems to indirectly discuss this aspect of transcendence through death via the encounter of a mangled pile of bones and flesh at the beach:
Close at hand they were simply some bones with a little flesh adhering to them […]. But as I stood there they grew more and more imposing. They were alone with the beach and the sea, whose hollow roar seemed addressed to them, and I was impressed as if there was an understanding between them and the ocean which necessarily left me out, with my sniveling sympathies. That dead body had taken possession of the shore, and reigned over it as no living one could, in the name of a certain majesty which belonged to it. (47)
There are two brief comments I want to make of this passage. Note that Thoreau states that the dead body-parts have taken possession of the shore, meaning that these dead remnants were finally able to master or take control over the power of the ocean. However, this body is no longer a living agent, so rather than assuming control over nature through traditional means, the body took an almost Emersonian route of control in which power is obtained through submission. Thus, it is almost as if Thoreau were implying that power is obtained through yielding, a very different idea to what he posited in his discussion on civil disobedience (keep in mind, however, that in “Civil Disobedience” he deals with socio-political forces whereas in Cape Cod, he deals with natural ones). Secondly, note that this encounter with the dead body alludes to an argument that Thoreau posited in the first chapter of Cape Cod titled “The Shipwreck,” in which he posits that “It is the individual and private that demands our sympathy” (8).
Unsurprisingly, Thoreau’s encounter with a single body (or arguably, a bone) affected him more than his encounter with an entire group of people who passed away on the shipwreck. Although I am not entirely clear as to why the individual and the private invokes more sympathy, it can be argued that this sympathy alludes to the value of individualistic experience as a form of transcendence. Seeing as death is perhaps the loneliest of processes, and seeing as the ocean invokes individualistic musings, perhaps Thoreau is intentionally trying to bridge the similarities between a humanistic and a natural experience, therefore continuing to challenge and complicate the circulation of power and control between the human and the natural world.
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