Henry David Thoreau: “Walden” (1854): Part Two

Patriotism is a maggot in their heads. What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact, that there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousands of miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private seas, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone. (578)

The chapters in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or, Life in the Woods, following the indispensable introductory chapter “Economy,” consider different aspects of Thoreau’s economic, social, and philosophical life. They all flow from “Economy” and can be read in really any order once that initial chapter has been mastered. Oft-repeated, in many different ways, is his claim that most of the accoutrements of modern living are unnecessary—or even hostile—to living a good and reflective (he might say a “philosophical”) life. A handful of the chapters will be of special interest to people interested in nature writing, since they are focused on the local environment near Thoreau’s home at Walden pond. No chapter, even the ones devoted to nature, are indifferent to the social. Although he lived alone, he was never far enough away from society. Despite his choice to live alone, in the woods, Thoreau seems to have longed for human encounters and the authentic solidarity that came from interacting with neighbors. He has, however, utter disgust for the hierarchy and presumption that shapes so many human experiences. In his view, solidarity and community must be based on individual autonomy. Without it, you travel inexorably down the path to hierarchy.


The joint chapters “Solitude” and “Visitors” consider the nature of loneliness and society. He finds most social interactions worthless compared to a more spiritual connection. It bears mentioning that most of the lonely people are surrounded by others all the time and Thoreau, living alone, claims to have been rarely lonely surrounded by nature and never far from potential visitors and conversation.

Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable, and tat we need not come to open war. We meet at the post office, and at the sociable, and about the fireside every night; we live thick and are in each other’s way, and stumble over one another, and I think we thus lose some respect for one another. Certainly less frequency would suffice for all important and hearty communications. Consider the girls in a factory,—never alone, hardly in their dreams. (430)

Perhaps this is the introvert’s perspective on social life. Looking around, I see plenty of people who seem to relish the constant companionship of others (otherwise explain the constant texting and Facebook updating). Are those who do not see a contradiction between withdrawing from the banality of society and yet longing for some rich company in the minority?

The chapter “Higher Laws” is of particular interest to me for it takes on the question of the morality of eating meat. He suggests that eating meat (as with hunting) is something that exists in the larval state of humanity. (That is his metaphor.) “We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected. This was my answer with respect to those youths who were bent on this pursuit, trusting that they would soon outgrow it. No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature, which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.” (492) The argument, fully developed, is that when people takes the time to understand their neighbors they will less likely be desiring to exploit and harm them. He then goes onto a discussion of other appetites and how they do not satisfy him, but we can develop his argument in another way and suggest that is it not also true that capitalism and its values exist in the larval stages of modernity. Thrust from our communities only recently, we are still like the young boy who first picks up his rifle, when we interact with our neighbors. Thoreau overcomes the desire to eat meat as he comes to understand the animals he shares his world with. In the same way, actually building communities and solidarity is the key to destroying the violence of capitalism. An interesting suggestion in this chapter is that self-sufficiency demands solidarity and simplicity in life. Someone who cooks their own food, washes their own dishes, and builds their own home will naturally accept a bit more simplicity than one who relies on others to do that job for them.

I am sure many readers of Walden find the type of he lives appealing, but has anyone read this account with a bit of disgust. Are most enthusiastic readers of Walden deceiving themselves? Deep down, do they really think such a life is possible for themselves? I have not uncommonly heard people proclaim the virtues of a simple life, yet maintain massive wardrobes. I am sure every “hoarder” can read a book like Walden and see its wisdom. Why is the gap between thought and action so far in this respect? Perhaps they will equivocate and say: “Well, that was possible in nineteenth century New England, but not now.” Was Thoreau any better prepared for two years in the woods than anyone living today? Perhaps, but it did not sound like anything he did was beyond the capacity of someone with a bit of common sense.

I think we should set aside the critique of “lifestylism” and take Thoreau seriously as a systemic critique of industrial capitalism and a model of an alternative. He clearly desired a future written with a new set of rules. In this way, he remains a politically important voice as we engage in creative imagining of the future.

There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dulness [sic]. I need only suggest what kind of sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries. There are such words as joy and sorrow, but they are only the burden of a psalm, sung with a nasal twang, while we believe in the ordinary and mean. We think that we can change our clothes only. It is said that the British Empire is very large and respectable, and that the United States are a first-rate power. We do not believe that a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip, if he should ever harbor it in his mind. Who knows what sort of seventeenth-year locust will next come out of the ground? The government of the world I live in was not framed, like that of Britain, in after-dinner conversations over the wine. (587)

Mark Twain: “Following the Equator” Chapters 41–end: India and Africa

That was England, the English power, the English civilization, the modern civilization—with the quiet elegancies and quiet colors and quiet tastes and quiet dignity that are the outcome of the modern civilization. And following it came a picture of the ancient civilization of India—an hour in the mansion of a native prince: Kumar Schri Samatsinhji Bahadur of the Palitana State. (655)

Twain at the time of the publication of "Following the Equator"

Twain at the time of the publication of “Following the Equator”

There is a passage in Jurgen Osterhammel and Niels P. Peterson book Globalization: A Short History that helps put the realities of a world coming together into its proper perspective. World history tends to look at flows and by doing so cover-up questions of class and inequality and power. One of the powerful contributions of imperial history is that it reminds us that globalizations of the past were disruptive and often brutal. “It [network concept] tends to trivialize societal dimension, to flatten hierarchies and power differences, and to overlook the varying depth and intensity of relationships. The fact that networks cross or eliminate existing boundaries does not prevent them from creating new ones.” This is known (mostly) to students of empire, but often forgotten by students of globalization, especially its most eager supports in the historical profession, world historians.


Mark Twain’s Following the Equator is a powerful look this reformation of class boundaries in the global system created by mature European imperialism. Twain’s 1895–1896 tour of the world was really a tour of the Anglo-American empire. He first visited Hawai’i, then Australia and the South Pacific, then India, and finally Southern Africa. He was seeing worlds that were already heavily incorporated into the world system created by Europeans. In my first post on Following the Equator I focused on labor migration and the violence of empire. The situation changes a bit in the second half of the story, shifting to India and Africa, places where Europeans had to content with an existing culture that had deep roots and could not be easily supplanted, as in Australia. Twain devotes much of the second half of the book to understanding the culture and society of South Asia, but as the book makes clear, although the Hindu society was not at risk at being destroyed, it was under great stress and violent transformations as a result of British rule.  Chapter 41 is a good summarization of this, as he shows the local Hindu princes under increasing strain of the British modernization project. A century earlier they would have thanked the British for not overtaxing or for not “bringing famine upon them.” But, by the end of the nineteenth century the local princes’ powers were evaporated by “factories, schools, hospitals, reforms” and other institutions of colonial modernity. It was these institutions that did the job of reforming the class lines in colonial India and Africa.

In the process of these institutional changes, colonial India was becoming a progressively more violent and divided place. Twain digs up court trials, stories of American-style hucksterism, and—most significantly—a history of the rise of the Thug cult as evidence of how British rule destabilized Indian society. And while he points out that the inherent diversity of cultures in South Asia played a role in the rise of the Thuggee, he relishes in pointing out that the Thuggee were a mirror of European imperial barbarism. “We white people are merely modified Thugs; Thugs fretting under the restraints of a not very thick skin of civilization; Thugs who long ago enjoyed the slaughter of the Roman arena, and later the burning of doubtful Christians by authentic Christians in the public squares, and who now, with the Thugs in Spain and Nimes, flock to enjoy the blood and misery of the bull-ring.” (703) The best example of British imperialism disrupting Indian society is the Sepoy Mutiny of the middle eighteenth century, the scars of which still existed for Twain to notice and reflect on over a century later.


Another civilizing project of the British that piqued Twain’s interest was the eradication of wild animals. “For many years the British Indian Government has been trying to destroy the murderous wild creates, and has spent a great deal of money in the effort. The annual official returns show that the undertaking is a difficult one.” (776) The reader gets the feeling that the strategy employed by the British to regulate wild animals was not much different from the approach to the Thuggee or the Sepoys a century earlier. Twain confesses that animals do seem to kill many people in India. He cites that snakes kill 103,000 in six years, to which the British kill over 1,000,000 snakes in retaliation. I am not sure if the environmental history of empire has been fully written, but we can see the consequences of the logic of the extermination of nature all around us.

Twain’s stay in Africa is considerably less lengthy and covers only the last few chapters of the book. As with India we see the institutions of law, violence, institutions of power, and economic incorporation into a global capitalist economy devastating the lives of native people. If Twain is to be believed it was as brutal in South Africa as in Australia. “The great bulk of the savages must go. The white man wants their lands, and all must go excepting such percentage of them as he will need to do his work for him upon terms to be determined by himself. . . . The reduction of the population by Rhodesian methods to the desired limit is a return to the old-time slow-misery and lingering-death system of a discredited time and a crude ‘civilization.’” (868–869) This brief section on Africa ends with a look at the diamond minds and the semi-forced labor that worked the mines. As across the British Empire, intense labor regimens, depopulation, violence, and global capitalism worked hand in hand.


Other Travels

This particular volume ends with thirteen short selections under the title “Other Travels.” Some of these were published earlier by the Library of America in the collected short works of Twain. Others expand on themes explored in some of his other travel narratives. For that reason, I will not put up what may be a redundant post about more of Twains travels. I have covered all of his travel narratives earlier in this blog.

These assorted travel narratives stretch from 1873 until 1897 and are by and large about Europe. The first and one of the last of these narratives speak to the question of empire. In “The Shah of Persia,” Twain discusses the arrival in London of the Shah of Iran. We see that the British tried to apply pressure on the Shah to change policies (through an expat Parsee population), even as the Shah was arriving as a theoretical equal. In “Queen Victoria’s Jubilee” we see a celebration of the successes of the reign of Queen Victoria. Part of the celebration was putting the empire on display. “Then there was an exhaustive exhibition of the hundred separate brown races of India, the most beautiful and most satisfying of the complexions that have been vouchsafed to man, and the one which best sets off colored clothes and best harmonizes with all tints. . . . The procession was the human race on exhibition—a spectacle curious and interesting and worth traveling to see” (1050) In both of these cases, we see the empire from the perspective of London. Like the Shah twenty years earlier, the true horrific reality of Britain’s empire building is not on display, only its grandeur.


Twain used travel narratives to hack ideas of American exceptionalism. As I looked at in an earlier post, “The Cradle of Liberty,” Twain believed that Switzerland was a better example of a libertarian tradition than the United States. In a similar vein, “The Chicago of Europe,” uses Berlin as an example of rational urban development. “Some National Stupidities” does this in a more humorous way by contrasting some do the absurdities of daily life in Europe and the United States. “America could adopt this [German] stove, but does America do it? No, she sticks placidly to her own fearful and wonderful inventions in the stove line. She has fifty kinds, and not a rational one in the lot.” (1035) As Twain started to learn in the context of the American conquest of the Pacific the separation between the Old World and the New World may not have been as great as many American writers believed.

Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac” (1949): Part Two

“Seeing Like a Mountain” in the second part of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac touches on the dramatic turn in his own mind about wildlife management. In earlier years, Leopold believed that the killing off of wolves would increase the deer population, thus ensuring the survival of deer (one type of wildlife) for the use of hunters. In a sense, this was seen in the early twentieth century as a mutually beneficial act, a way of mitigating the divide between the human need for outdoor sports and nature. “Seeing like a mountain” suggests the poverty of that view. Although he did look into the “green fire” of the eyes of the wolf, he did not need to in order to take the broader perspective. Leopold’s realization was that the mountain needed the wolves to prevent the destruction of the mountain ecosystem by uncontested deer populations. “I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn.” (116)


The second part of A Sand County Almanac branches out from Sauk County Wisconsin and draws from Leopold’s experiences in wildlife management and conservation across the country, particularly the Southwest, where he worked for almost two decades after he earned his degree. While the first part are more impressionistic, in which he hopes to allow the dynamics of the woods around his farm to speak for itself. Starting with part two, he embraces a more polemical tone challenging many of the assumptions about conservation that he embraced throughout his career. Centrally, his idea is that wildlife management is fundamentally flawed because it requires an intrusion by humans. Managing the wilderness means the end of the wilderness. “Thus always does history, whether of marsh or market place, end in paradox. The ultimate value in these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate. But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.” (89)

When reading this I was thinking of the consequences of this for human freedom. This goes beyond Leopold’s belief that human’s requires some relationship with nature to be free. What I considered was that even within human societies Leopold’s point about managing is true. James Scott’s books Two Cheers for Anarchism and Seeing Like a State argues about our preference for vernacular organizations rather that state-managed organizations. He shows how the vernacular order tends to look messy but work very well (the bartender providing mental health counseling or the local naming of roads to match their real purpose are two examples he gives), but state-run attempts at order (Stalin’s collectivization or general urban planning) tend to both destroy the vernacular order and make things objectively worse. We are reminded that dangerous, disorderly and often bizarre nature can teach us about the virtue of the vernacular in our own societies. A minor extension of “seeing like a mountain,” if you will.
A similar lesson about nature comes from “Cheat Takes Over,” an essay showing that “solidarity and co-operation among plant and animal pests” exists much like the human “honor among thieves.” While Kropotkin suggested that such mutual aid tended to exist only within species, Leopold sees it among entire subcultures of plant life, the “ecological stowaways.” (136—138)


The third and final section of A Sand County Almanac, titled “The Upshot” is made up of four essays. The first of these “Conservation Esthetic” takes on the dilemma of humans in industrial societies seeking wilderness, while that quest rapidly destroys that wildness. Mass-use of these resources necessitates (it seems) a degree of artificiality, whether it is a road or a pier or a restroom. Mass-use also seems to destroy the reason humans seek the wilderness, solitude and communion with nature. Leopold could not fully answer the questions brought up by democratic access to the commons, although he was burdened by it his entire life. It may be one of his most important questions for free societies to grapple with, as we all know too well.

“Wildlife in American Culture” makes the same point but goes deeper into the American affection toward nature. “Wildlife once fed us and shaped our culture. It still yields us pleasure for leisure hours, but we try to reap that pleasure by modern machinery and thus destroy part of its value. Reaping it by modern mentality would yield not only pleasure, but wisdom as well.” (160)

“Wilderness” begins to propose a solution. Some wilderness needs to be sustained for “the primitive arts of wilderness travel” such as hunting and foot travel. This may be undemocratic but as most of the woods are already conquered by the “mechanized recreation” this amounts to minority rights. Another part of wilderness needs to be sustained for science, mostly untouched so that they can understand how the land sustains itself. Finally, humans needs to devote some part of their land to “permanent wilderness.” This is only a “rear-guard” action, however. However, if this is the best we can do, we will expect wilderness to slowly decline.
This leads up to Leopold’s famous “Land Ethic,” the final essay of the A Sand County Almanac. Its beauty is in its simplicity. The Land Ethic consists simply of including the land (and now we can add oceans and air) to our ethical decision making process. It does not require accepting any of the metaphysical baggage that comes with some aspects of deep ecology. For Leopold it was as simple as extending our obligations to one another to the lands that we have power over. “Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land.” (176–177) Leopold does not fail to add that for many farmers at least (if not quite so much for the people partaking in “mechanized recreation”) this is in their self-interest anyway and an easy sell.


A Sand County Almanac came at the end of Leopold’s life. It was accepted for publication just days before his death of a heart attack after helping his neighbors with a fire. The rest of the Library of America collection consists of his assorted writings, his journals, and some of his letters. In the coming posts, I will explore Leopold’s ideas with an eye to his changing values as well as take on some of the very practical issues of the management of the commons in free societies.

Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac” (1949): Part One, The Almanac

I first encountered A Sand County Almanac when I was in high school biology. At the time I suppose I thought that the teacher (I forgot his name) was just wasting time reading selections from Aldo Leopold book to use, but in hindsight I wonder if I should have appreciated his generosity in sharing Leopold’s words with us. In any case, I did not appreciate it at the time.  There is nothing I can do about my ignorance and the lack of curiosity I had as a teenage. I wonder if I went to high school in any place except Wisconsin, would my teacher have had the same relationship to Leopold? (The growth of importance of the text is certainly ending whatever provincial character it had.)  I can say, living now in Taiwan, at the time of year that I miss my home state most of all, reading Leopold’s little book is a joyous experience.  While living in Taiwan, I suspended by Library of America subscription, but I did make a point of having this recent publication shipped here. Published in 2013, the LOA collection of Leopold’s writings is a wonderful contribution to the series.

coverFor those who have not read A Sand County Almanac, I can only urge that they pick it up. It only takes a couple hours to read through the first section, the almanac proper. It is a series of vignettes from his life on a rather unproductive farm in Sauk county Wisconsin. The vignettes are arranged throughout the year, starting with “January Thaw” and ending with “65290” (about chickadee’s winter survival). Each month has at least one story, some have several. This is followed by a broader set of essays set in other parts of Wisconsin or in other states but like the almanac are autobiographical and tell complex stories of ecological systems through his own experiences. The first part are some of his more formal essays on conservation, including “The Land Ethic.”


Leopold always combines a serious scientific approach while casting doubt on the human ability to understand the minds, perspectives, and lives of the animals he writes about. Much of the power of the work comes from his subtle celebration of the diversity and otherness of the natural world. The reader sees this in his attempt to explain the inexplicable survival of chickadee 65290, banded by Leopold as part of his local conservation work. Falling short of learning very much, the banding experience gave Leopold a chance to just enjoy being in awe of the otherness of the chickadee, and in particular this small life. “I know so little about birds that I can only speculate on why 65290 survived his fellows. Was he more clever in dodging his enemies? What enemies? A chickadee is almost too small to have any. That whimsical fellow called Evolution, having enlarged the dinosaur until he tripped over his own toes, tried shrinking the chickadee until he was just too big to be snapped up by flycatchers as an insect, and just too little to be pursued by hawks and owls as meat. Then he regarded his handiwork and laughed. Everyone laughs at so small a bundle of large enthusiasms.” (81–82) Even in the small locale of his farm and surrounding forests, there was so much unknown about the plants and animals. One need not travel far to find radical otherness.  Take for instance his discussion of the evening “sky dance,” put on by the woodcocks. “I owned my farm for two years before learning that the sky dance is to be seen over my woods every evening in April and May. Since we discovered it, my family and I have been reluctant to miss even a single performance… It is fortunate, perhaps, that no matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all of the salient facts about any one of them. ” (29)

A second thing that struck me while reading these vignettes was the deep sense of natural history. He reminds us that with every human act on nature we are intruding (and often ending) creatures with experiences deep into the past, making us neophytes at best. Most clearly laid out in “Good Oak” about the cutting down of an aged oak tree. With each pull of the saw blade, he goes deeper and deeper into that history, reversing (if only in his mind) the damage done to the Wisconsin landscape. ” The mental journey ends with the birth of the oak tree in the 1860s, “when thousands died to settle the question: Is the man-man community lightly to be dismembered? They settled it, but they did not see, nor do we yet see, that the same question applies to the man-land community.” (15) Later, he writes: “It is an irony of history that the great powers should have discovered the unity of nations at Cairo in 1942. The geese of the world have had that notion for a longer time, and each March they stake their lives on its essential truth.” (20)

Another message, and one that is particularly important. is that we need the land in order to be free and creative. On one level, we learn about agency from observing the land and its residents. They are not simply following evolutionary programming but are engaging with their world. In one chapter Leopold describes himself as a landowner with tenants, but his sovereignty is completely contingent on the acquiesce of the animals.  Bottom-up political systems had always been there, it just had to be observed.  But I will say more on these radical political conclusions of A Sand County Almanac in the following posts.

leopoldWith a book like A Sand County Almanac, I find it useful to just enjoy the beautiful prose and the profoundly simple prose, which can carry such significant ideas. I wish people could speak so clearly.


William Bartram, “Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida” (Parts 2-4)

“Solemnly and slowly move onward, to the river’s shore, the rustling clouds of the Ephemera.  How awful the procession! innumerable millions of winged beings, voluntarily verging on to destruction, to the brink of the grave, where they behold bands of their enemies with wide open jaws, ready to receive them.  But as if insensible of their danger, gay and tranquil each meets his beloved mate in the still air, inimitably bedecked in their new nuptial robes.  What eye can trace them, in their varied wanton amorous chances, bounding and fluttering on the odoriferous air!  With what peace, love, and joy, do they end their last moments of their existence?” (87)

Florida Mayfly (Ephemera)

Florida Mayfly (Ephemera)

In my last post, I suggested that one way that William Bartram speaks to us is that he provides a model for solidarity with nature.  For him, nature was a window into creation (he was a clear theist) and a reflection of our own habits, customs, morals, and sympathies.  One troubling aspect of Bartram is that he spills much ink in describing the lives of Southeastern Indians, sometimes in the same chapter as his discussions of plant and animal life.  I am reminded of Jefferson placing his discussion of blacks in between passages on Virginia’s flora and fauna.  Does Bartram suggest Indians are part of nature?  Something that one experiences while adventuring in the back country?  I do not think so.  Perhaps we can blame a naturalist for putting on the ethnographers hat a bit too much, but he is very clear throughout the work that Indians are part of civilization.  For Bartram this civilization is not a euphemism for European culture, but a diverse set of potentialities.  Traveling in the mid-1770s and writing in the 1780s (published in 1791), Bartram even suggests that white America can learn much from the Cherokee, Muscogulgues, and Creek (just to mention a few he discusses) as they begin affecting their revolution.  I resubmit my claim from the last post.  Bartram was a thinker of the American Revolution and his intense interest in Indians was not because he confused them for nature – his main subject – but that he was searching for alternatives to monarchy and a model for the proper defense of human freedom.  This was all being done at a time when the new republic was playfully experimenting with the same questions.  It is with this in mind that I read the rest of Bartram’s Travels.

bartram drawing

In all fairness, he often does discuss Indians in the same language with which he describes others.  Most notably when he described Creek violence.   But, at the same time, if they are animals so are we all. “The Indians make war against, kill, and destroy their own species, and their motives spring from the same erroneous source as they do in all other nations of mankind. . . . But I cannot find, upon the strictest inquiry, that their bloody contests at this day are marked with deeper stains of inhumanity or savage cruely, than what may be observed amongst the most civilized nations. . . . all their slaves have freedom when they marry, which is permitted and encouraged, when they and  their offspring are every way upon an equality with their conquerors.  They are given to adultery and fornication, but, I supposed, in no greater excess than other nations of men.” (186)  Even their violence against nature is familiar.  “They wage eternal war against deer and bear, to procure food and clothing, and other necessities and conveniences, which is indeed carried to an unreasonable and perhaps criminal excess.” (186)

The final part of Bartram’s Travels brackets out Indian cultures in four short chapters.  It is here that Bartram is at his most revolutionary, seeing the potential for universal human solidarity and rights.  He sees the potential for peace, social stability, and “civil government” without authority or violence.  “How are we to account for their excellent policy in civil government; it cannot derive its influence from coercive laws, for they have no such artificial system.  Divine wisdom dictates and they obey.  We see and know full well the direful effects of this torrent of evil, which has its source in hell; and we know surely, as well as these savages, how to divert its course and suppress its inundations.  Do we want wisdom and virtue?  let our youth then repair to the venerable councils of the Muscogulges.” (393)  He praises their simple constitution, their democratic institutions, and their efforts to secure “mutual happiness.”

Bartram was also not unaware that he was traveling through a slave society and the brutality of slavery may have shaped his quite favorable and sympathetic view of Indians, even to the degree of suggesting them as a potential model of governance.    He saw signs of an institution in decay and crisis.  In Georgia almost half of the slaves ran away at some time during the Revolutionary War.  We are reminded how of slaves were willing and able to take advantage of these crises to secure or attempt to secure their freedom.  “Observed a number of persons coming up a head, whom I soon perceived to be a party of Negroes.  I had every reason to dread the consequence; for this being a desolate place, I was by this time several miles from any house of plantation, and had reason to apprehend this to be a predatory band of Negroes; people being frequently attacked, robbed, and sometimes murdered by them at this place.”  (379)  We do not know for sure if these were runaway slaves, but it seems likely given that his context of his travels – a revolutionary society.

In conclude:  William Bartram is a beautiful naturalist writer, who effectively shares his awe of the natural world with his reader.  The Library of America volume contains many of his beautiful drawings and paintings, which add to this otherwise slim volume (by LOA standards – 700 w/ notes).  It also provides a basis for discussion of looking to our own traditions (this time indigenous) for libertarian models of social organization, without the idealization that we sometimes get with the “ecological Indian” narratives.


The volume also contains his report to John Fothergill, which is more of his journals.  It is very technical and contains mostly scientific descriptions with little of his beautiful and fascinating commentary.  I skimmed this (a forgivable sin I hope considering the scope of this project).  It also contains seven shorts scientific essays, which have little to add to what I have already said.  His “Observations of the Creek and Cherokee Indians” does give us a little more meat and will be the subject of a short post, next time.


William Bartram, “Travels” (Part One) A Revolutionary Naturalist

The Library of America collection of William Bartram’s writings is a slim volume by the series standards but rich in material.  It contains his major work, Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida (1791), his report to John Fothergill on those travels, and eight essays.  My perspective on Bartram, which I will develop as I re-read this works this week, is that he was a naturalist of the American Revolution and in his own way was as much of a founder as John Adams or Thomas Paine.  Although I am not sure he knew this, he was tasked with providing an American understanding of the North American natural world.  He went to frontier areas, as far as he could away from the European influence still felt in the urban areas.  He attempted to study the American Indians of the Southeast, not as part of nature or as savages, but as a potential bridge between the settler societies and the continent they established.  His vision of the natural world is one as dynamic and changing as the world he saw around him.  His writings also show the influence of the revolutionary turmoil in American religion at the later 18th century, when people sought an emotional connection to God.  That places Bartram in his time, but he speaks to us by giving us a model for a degree of solidarity of nature even as he poses a warning about our tendencies to idealize the natural world.


The Travels begins with a powerful description of Bartram’s fascination with Nature, he feelings about its divine origins, and the familiarity between the human world and nature.  Without going so far as to call humans part of nature, he does suggest the possibility of some solidarity of feelings between humans and their brothers and sisters in nature.  Of course, he begins with a discussion of creation.  “This world, as a glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the sovereign Creator, is furnished with an infinite variety of animated scenes, inexpressibly beautiful and pleasing, equally free to the inspection and enjoyment of all his creation.” (13)  Mixed with these shouts of religious awe are lists of the Linnaean taxonomy of plant life of America.   He presents a fascination with the order of nature.  “Nature seems to have furnished them [Sarracenia] with this cordated appendage or lid, which turns over, to prevent a too sudden and copious supply of water from heavy showers of rain, which would bend down the leaves, never to rise again. . . . These latent waters undoubtedly contribute to the support and refreshment of the plant: perhaps designed as a reservoir in case of long continued droughts, or other casualties,” (16)  Nothing here surprising in a pre-Darwinian thinker.  I cannot help but notice that no advocate of intelligent design in the present world can produce as beautiful prose as Bartram does in this introduction.

Bartram goes beyond the elegant design of the natural world to suggest a moral center to animal life.  “If then the visible, the mechanical part of the animal creation, the mere material part, is so admirably beautiful, harmonious, and incomprehensible, what must be the intellectual system? That inexpressibly more essential principle, which secretly operates within? that which animates the inimitable machines, which gives them motion, empowers them to act, speak, and preform, this must be divine and immortal?  I am sensible that the general opinion of philosophers, has distinguished the moral system of the brute creature from that of mankind, by an epithet which implies a mere mechanical impulse, which leads and impels them to necessary actions, without any premeditated design or contrivance; this we term instinct, which faculty we suppose to be inferior to reason in man.” (19) Bartram will have none of that prejudice.  He describes filial love in animals, birds socializing, emotion among animals suggesting love.  At one point he contrasts the hunting skill of a spider with that of a Seminole.  This is the foundation, for Bartram, of a possible solidarity with nature.  The Indians, however, are not part of nature, or at least no more so than Europeans.  He ends his introduction with a belief that the Indians could enter into civil society.  Clearly, Bartram still sees a divide between Nature and humans, but he is close to breaking it down, not by bringing humanity to the level of animals, but rather by lifting up the plants and animals he observed into our brothers and sisters.

Chapter one describes Bartram’s arrival in Charleston.  During his travels he is reminded of how powerful nature is.  “how vain and uncertain are human expectations!  how quickly is the flattering scene changed!  The powerful winds, now rushing forth from their secret abodes, suddenly spread terror and devastation; and the wide ocean, which, a few moments past, was gentle and placid, is now thrown into disorder, and heaped into mountains, whose white curling crests seem to sweep the skies.” (27)  The “majesty” of the oceans is on his mind as he travels by ship, but he was incapable of applying his scientific knowledge to the oceans.

He does not stay long in Charleston and soon travels to Savannah.  His expertise is soon applied as he can carefully define and categorize the animals and plants of the land.  He also makes note of the human settlements, the frontier religion, agriculture, and mixed economy.  The human successes in development matter little in the face of nature, represented in a violent thunderstorm.  “When instantly the lightning, as i were, opening  a fiery chasm in the black cloud, darted with inconceivable rapidity on the trunk of a large pine tree, that stood thirty or forty yards from me, and set it in a blaze.” (36)  As he did in his introduction, in this chapter he gave animals human characteristics.  In this case, it is the bald eagle, who stands above his subjects through “rapine and violence” extracting “tribute and subsidy from all the feathered nations.” (32)

In chapter three, Bartram begins his consideration of the American Indian people.  When he first met an armed Indian, like Rowlandsen, Bartram surrendered himself to God’s will.  His safe passage into the Indian settlement convinced him of the universal morality shared between all humans (and it seems many animals who seem to him driven my a moral compass).  “Can it be denied, but that the moral principle, which directs the savages to virtuous and praiseworthy actions, is natural or innate?  It is certain they have not the assistance of letters, or those means of education in the schools of philosophy, where the virtuous sentiments and actions of the most illustrious characters are recorded, and carefully laid before the youth of civilized nations; therefore this moral principle must be innate, or they must be under immediate influence and guidance of a more diving and powerful preceptor, who, on these occasions, instantly inspires them, and as with a ray of divine light, points out to them at once the dignity, propriety and beauty of virtue.” (45)  Without evolutionary theory, and without Darwin, Bartram could not come to a evolutionary model of morality but he is close.

Chapters four and five, complete part 1 of Bartram’s Travels.  These chapters develop some of the same themes of the power of nature, its divine spark, and descriptions of Indian settlements.  Bartram is the naturalist of the American Revolution and far more than arguing for a nationalist picture of the American ecosystem, he is calling for a broader solidarity with nature, at the same time Thomas Paine is demanded the universal rights of man.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “The Seance and Other Stories” (Vegetarianism)

Many of Singer’s stories speak directly to his vegetarianism.  Earlier stories in this collection (Collected Stories: Grimpel the Fool to The Letter Writer) addressed animal rights. This theme becomes stronger in the collection Seance and Other Stories, published in translation in 1968.  In “Blood”, collected with other stories in Short Friday, Singer connected sexual perversion and excess to the indiscriminate slaughter of animals.  He also case doubt on the entire profession of kosher slaughtering.  No matter how much education the slaughterer acquired, he was still one step from a murderer and easily seduced by criminal behavior.  I think he was casting doubt on the possibility, in the modern world, of kosher butchering.  Behind closed doors, with just the slaughterer and his victim the rules of ritual slaughter cannot be enforced.  (I understand that this is the heart of Jewish vegetarianism as a movement, which argues that all industrial and modern meat processing is inherently against God’s laws.)      In his preface to Food for the Spirit by Steven Rosen, Singer wrote: ” Vegetarianism is my religion. I became a consistent vegetarian some twenty-three years ago. Before that, I would try over and over again. But it was sporadic. Finally, in the mid-1960s, I made up my mind. And I’ve been a vegetarian ever since.  When a human kills an animal for food, he is neglecting his own hunger for justice. Man prays for mercy, but is unwilling to extend it to others. Why should man then expect mercy from God? It’s unfair to expect something that you are not willing to give. It is inconsistent.  I can never accept inconsistency or injustice. Even if it comes from God. If there would come a voice from God saying, “I’m against vegetarianism!” I would say, “Well, I am for it!” This is how strongly I feel in this regard.  In orthodox religious circles, this would be considered heretical. Still, I consider myself a religious man. I’m not against organized religion, but I don’t take part in it. Especially when they interpret their religious books as being in favor of meat-eating. Sometimes they say He wants sacrifice and the killing of animals. If this is true, then I would never be able to comply. But I think God is wiser and more merciful than that. And there are interpretations of religious scriptures which support this, saying that vegetarianism is a very high ideal.  Whether the mass of people accept the vegetarian interpretation of religion or not really doesn’t matter. At least not in my life. I accept it implicitly. Of course, it would be wonderful if the world adopted vegetarianism, on religious grounds or any other. But this is not likely. I am a skeptic, it’s true, but I’m also realistic. In any event, what the people in general do will not affect me. I will continue to be a vegetarian even if the whole world started to eat meat.”

isaac singer

Now, while I have little patience for the religious path to vegetarianism.  Like Singer, I find God’s existence, non-existence, or revealed guidelines for life irrelevant.  Without too much trouble, one can get to vegetarianism from utilitarian and environmental arguments just as easily, without clouding the question with dubious God-claims.  While I find moralism about vegetarianism and veganism tiresome and unlikely to persuade, I am a vegetarian because the killing and eating of animals reinforces hierarchical sensibilities between people, and between men and women, and between people and the natural world.  If we want to crush authority, we must address authority in our daily lives and the most common for of violence most humans participate in is the consumption of meat.

There are a handful of stories that speak to Singer’s disgust with the production of meat.  “The Slaughterer” is the opposite of “Blood.”  In “Blood” a brutal slaughterer turns from his profession – and meat eating – only after being driven to the depths of violence, thievery, and sexual indiscretion.  In “The Slaughterer” the title character (Yoineh Meir) was unwillingly appointed the town’s ritual slaughterer.  He suffered at the death of every animal he caused.  He was the exception to the rule mentioned in other Singer tales, that for some people slaughtering or murdering are the only two possible professions.  His job forces Yoineh Meir to meditate on death, to engage in deep study of religious texts, and the morality of his profession.  “Verily, in order to create the world, the Infinite One had had to shrink His light; there could be no free choice without pain. But since the beasts were not endowed with free choice, why should they have to suffer?  Yoineh Meir watched, trembling, as the butchers chopped the cows with their axes and skinned them before they had heaved their last breath.  The women plucked the feathers from the chickens while they were still alive.” (548)  His disgust with the horrors of his job eventually leads him to suicide.  His point seems to be, that if ritual slaughtering can cause so much suffering in a good man, how can participation in that system be moral?

“Cockadoodledoo” is told from the perspective of a chicken and we are reminded that celebrations for humans are often the end of the line of beasts.  “I have seen a rooster castrated and force-fed.  I know the end all too well: death.  Whether they’ll make a sacrifice of me for Yom Kippur, whether they’ll put me aside until Passover, Succoth or for the Sabbath of Moses’ Song of the Red Seas, the slaughterer waits, the knife is sharp, everything is prepared: the tub for soaking, the salting board, the gravy bowl, the stew pot, or maybe the roasting over.”

In “The Letter Writer,” a sick, bachelor who was left mostly alone by the Nazi crimes against European Jews meditates on many things but in a striking and often-quoted passage is able to feel empathy for a mouse.  He also is one of the first to contrast the meat-packing industry with the Nazi death camps.  “All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated.  In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.  And yet a man demands compassion from heaven.” (750)

This completes some of my thoughts on the first volume of Singer’s work.  I have decided to set aside the remaining two novels.  I have acquired a book contract and this will require me to review Melville in detail.

Jack London: “Sea-Wolf”: Resistance and Other Themes

In my last post, we met Wolf Larsen, captain of the Ghost, and found him to be the logical consequences of the capitalist,dog-eat-dog world that London critiques throughout his career.  He was self-made and ambitious but violence, brutish, and would have died alone if not for the company of the novel’s narrator Humphrey van Weyden.  He is the logical consequence of the turn-of-the-century Social Darwinism that praised the struggle of individuals over the community and honored the captains of industry who rose to domination by crushing their competition, abusing the commons, destroying unions, and manipulating the political system.  Morality for these types is secondary to personal gain.


One easy response to this, which is a response London may not have had access too, is that of Kropotkin.  In Mutual Aid, Kropotkin argued that evolution was not simply the struggle for survival between individuals, but was based on cooperation within species.  Species that “succeeded” tended to work together to achieve goals and care for each others, sharing resources and labor.  That is, the most successful species were communists (from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.)  The anarchist Kropotkin could also notice that for all of natural history this was one without the aid of a state distributing resources.  This is one of the origins of evolutionary ethics, another being Thomas Huxley who contrasted ethics as a gardener ensuring the stronger weeds do not kill the weaker but more valuable flowers.  London was either no aware of this idea or rejected it.  For London, nature was incompatible with socialism and cooperation.  Socialism would consist of overcoming our Social Darwinian tendencies to dominate or be dominated (The Law of Club and Fang).

Peter Kropotkin

What are the forms of resistance that London offers up in The Sea-Wolf.

The first method of resistance is that of van Weyden, who choose moral suasion and the modelling of an alternative.  In chapter eight, van Weyden attempts to reeducate Wolf Larsen on Herbert Spencer, suggesting that the Wolf has read Spencer all wrong.  For Van Weyden, Spencer demands that people practice altruism for their own self-interest.  Altruism benefits the individual, her children, and her “race.” As in every other moral argument presented by Van Weyden, and later Maud Brewster, Wolf is unimpressed and proclaims his own amoral reading of Spencer.  “But with nothing eternal before me but death, given for a brief spell this yeasty crawling and squirming which is called life, why, it would be immoral for me to perform any act that was a sacrifice.  Any sacrifice that makes me lose one crawl or squirm is foolish.” (545)  Wolf Larsen ends his life with little change in attitude after the many conversation

s with van Weyden.  If anything, van Weyden enabled him by providing a forum for Wolf Larsen to refine his philosophy.  Van Weyden even gets a bit of the Wolf in himself in the end when he alone repairs the Ghost, experiencing a moment of joy at his solitary accomplishment.  “I did it!  I did it!  With my own hands I did it!” (765)  Wolf would have been so proud.  The moral argument is a dud.

The crew takes another approach, that of open resistance.  The mutiny failed and Wolf Larsen remained in charge of his ship, but the mutiny at least provided a significant challenge, unlike van Weyden’s tedious moralizing.  The problem with the mutiny was that Larsen was fully capable of maintaining his power.  He was disciplined, powerful, intelligent, adaptive, and had an endless reservoir of will.  The international crew was too internally divided to overthrown Wolf Larsen.  Being unable to bring equal force of will to bear, the mutiny was doomed to failure.  The instigators of the rebellion hate Wolf Larsen for personal reasons.  The mutiny is not a revolution.  Instead it is an expression of rage.  Without direction, unity, or an alternative it is weak.

There two strategies needed unity.  The sailors were simply the other side o

f Social Darwinian coin.  The heads was the exploiter – Wolf Larsen, the tails the exploited – the sailors.  What they lacked was the clear vision of an alternative.  Van Weyden, a sideline obse

rver of the mutiny could have provided that.  He did not want to get his get blood on his hand and rejected his occasional ideas to murder Wolf Larsen.

The force that finally defeats Wolf Larsen is his brother, Death Larsen.  Death sh

ared many of the characteristics with his brother.  They are both Nietzsche’s  “supermen.”  Both have a ship.  Both are autodidacts (although Wolf has more academic curiosity).  After an earlier battle where Wolf achieved victor, Death is able to leave his brother for dead, alone on his ship.  This action is all told in flash back and takes place after van Weyden escaped the ship with Maud Brewster.  (It would have been interesting to see how he would have interacted with Wolf’s brother, but alas the novel is long enough as it is.)  The choice here is to choose our tyrant.  The crew chose “Death” because he paid them off.

A fourth method of resistance could be London’s socialism, which is never presented overtly as an option in the text.  It is, however, the only choice left.  The intellectual failed, the enraged violence of the unorganized working class fai

led, and victory of Wolf Larsen came only in finding his equal in brutality and amorality.


I want to mention one more thing about The Sea-Wolf.  Underneath the enti

re plot is a story of American empire and environmental destruction.  The brutal destruction of the seals on the Arctic coasts parallels the brutality on the ship.  Wolf Larsen is a terror to his men, but the entire crew is a terror to the helpless seals.  “And north we traveled with it, ravaging and destroying, flinging the naked carcasses to the shark and salting down the skins so that they might later adorn the fair shoulders of the women of the cities.  It was wanton slaughter, and all for women’s sake.  No man ate of the seal meat or the soil.  After a good day’s killing I have seen our decks covered with hides and bodies, slippery with fat and blood, the scupper running red; masts, ropes, and rails spattered with the sanguinary color; and the men, like butchers plying their trade, naked and red of arm and hand, hard at work with ripping and flensing-knives, removing the skins from the pretty sea-creatures they had killed.” (603)  Passages like this remind us of the brutal war against nature that shaped so much of the American conquest of the Pacific.  From the slaughter of sea otters, to the deforestation of Hawaii, to the dropping of nuclear bombs on Bikini Island, the U.S. Empire in the Pacific came at the cost of nature.  It is to his credit that London, a participant in these activities, was aware that the Pacific was not an empty ocean to be secured for American shipping, but an alive world, mostly helpless against the force of capital.


Seal Hunting Then


And now.

And now.

Jack London: “Call of the Wild”

Like Martin Eden, Buck spends much of the novel as an exploited worker, carrying sleds of supplies across the Klondike.  And like Martin Eden, he seeks to dominate his arena, but even through struggle and eventually success Buck can only be a high-ranking servant.  Many of the sled dogs are killed or left for dead when they become to exhausted to continue the treks.  Individualism fails for both Martin Eden and Buck.  None of Buck’s struggles for domination, none of his assertive resistance can defeat the “law of club and fang.”  Unlike Martin Eden, who found salvation only in suicide, Buck is able to return to a primitive equality by joining a wolf pack.  This is the equivalent of Martin Eden joining with his socialist friends – but of course Martin Eden rejected that choice.

call of the wild

This is the reading I would like to propose for The Call of the Wild, the next text in my adventure through Jack London’s writings.  When I last read London’s works 4 years ago, I read a greater ambivalence about individualism and community than I am seeing now.  I used to see The Call of the Wild as a text calling for radical individualism, reflected in Buck’s rejection of the human world.  But now, I see the harsh brutality of the capitalist machine that Buck was drawn into.  Like the East Enders in People of the Abyss, like the maritime workers London drank with in John Barleycorn, and like poor Martin Eden, Buck spends much of the novel facing exploitation.  As an animal, Buck is subjected to even worse torture and brutality and indifference.  Owners mock him, starve him, smash him with clubs, murder his companions at will, and encourage violence among the sled dogs.  As the recent fire in a Bangladesh textile factory shows, workers around the world today are seen as less than human and are allowed to die for profit.   Let’s not delude ourselves.  We are Buck except for some slight protections governments feel fit to bestow on us.  And but for genetic luck, we would be one of the billions of animals tortured, raped, murdered, dissembled and eaten/worn/discarded.


The plot is well-known and straightforward.  Buck is owned by a gambler and drunkard who has to sell him to pay off some debts.  After being disciplined into submission with the “law of the club,” Buck joins a sled team.  Buck rises to dominance within the sled team by defeating Spitz in a battle to the death.  After a brutal mail run, Buck and his team were hungry and worn down.  Some had died or been killed.  Unable to make the return trip, the team is sold to some naive newcomers, who seem good-hearted but end up misusing the dogs when frustration brought on by their ill-planning and ill-experience overwhelms them.  Buck is eventually adopted by John Thornton, who is the one human who sees beyond Buck’s material utility.  Buck becomes more wild as he fights to defend Thornton.  It is at this time that Buck begins fraternizing with wolves.  When Thornton died, Buck joins the wolf pack.

The humans early in the book are all odious, symbolizing the cynical, experienced, iron-hearted capitalists of industrial America.  They willingly discard and kill and exploit.  Charles, Hal, and Mercedes, the greenhorns are more complex.  They lack the experience to properly manage the team.  They overfeed the team and are forced to starve them when the food runs out.  Despite their good intentions and comparable warm-hardheartedness, when things got hard for them they abuse of the animals increased.  “In excess of their own misery they were callous to the suffering of the animals.  Hal’s theory, which he practices on others, was that one must get hardened.”  (54)  London is clear that in practice the suffering of the team was worse under the inexperienced than under the professional exploiters.  With these characters we have the liberals.  They want to do good.  They are softer and less cynical.  But their good intentions cause as much harm as self-aware exploiters.  They mismanage resources and weep over their crimes as well as their own suffering.  We are surrounded by people like Charles, Hal and Mercedes.  These are the people who consume organic crops harvested by exploited immigrant workers.  These are the people who sponsor children in “developing” countries but own clothes sewn by slaves.  These are the people who proudly eat at Chipotle for its “locally-grown” vegetables, indifferent to the suffering of animals and workers in the slaughterhouse or the low-pay and scientific-managed regulation of the workers behind the counter.   These are the Obama voters who looked the other way at Guantanamo Bay, the destruction of unions, drone strikes, and forty years of stagnant wages.  John Thornton sees through them and knows who they are.  As should we.

John Thornton is their to make money, but he is the only one who seems to manage this without exploiting others.  Contrasted with the other characters, Thornton is the anarchist.  He works to liberate Buck.  Buck and Thornton work together and protect each other.  But rather than rehabilitating humanity, this brings Buck closer to the “wild.”  It is under Thornton that Buck has the freedom to encounter the wolf pack that will eventually lead to his liberation.

Who is Thornton for us?  My guess is that for London, Thornton is the socialist.  We will want to read him differently, but in any case he emerges as an authentic liberator.  It is nice to imagine that each of us through will or self-direction can free ourselves from dependency and slavery.  In reality, these struggles more often parallel the struggles between Buck and Spitz.  My guess is that we need to create Thornton for ourselves first.  He will not be waiting for us at a prospecting camp.