In Walden, what does Thoreau mean when he says "In Wildness is the preservation of the world"?
Henry David Thoreau was certainly emotionally and intellectually invested in the notion that it was imperative for humans to coexist on equal terms with nature. Whereas most viewed the wilderness as an obstacle to be overcome on the road to additional conquests, Thoreau viewed man as one with nature. It was, in effect, a symbiotic relationship. In an essay titled "Walking," published in the April 1862 issue of The Atlantic, Thoreau issued a warning to humanity. He began this important essay,
“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.”
Thoreau followed this with a warning about the perils of ignoring his advice:
“The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World. Every tree sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind. Our ancestors were savages. The story of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf is not a meaningless fable. The founders of every state which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source. It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the northern forests who were.”
“Walking” is Thoreau's observations of man’s expansion westward. He comments favorably upon the natural inclinations of Native Americans to consume in an efficient manner consistent with preservation of the world around them. Even with the consumption of animals like antelope, Thoreau notes, the Native American uses what he needs and wastes not. In contrast with this “naturalistic” approach to consumption, Thoreau comments negatively on modern (read: European settler) man’s manipulation of his environment: “This is probably better than stall-fed beef and slaughterhouse pork to make a man of.” Thoreau believed that the industriousness of the white man came at the ultimate expense of the natural world.
In his best-known work, Walden, Thoreau appealed to his fellow man for the preservation of wilderness lands, decrying the defilement of nature’s beauty (“Alas! How little does the memory of these human inhabitants enhance the beauty of the landscape!”). Humans, he argued, needed to learn to appreciate not only the natural beauty of the wilderness but its essential role in supporting human existence. Without pristine lands and uninhabited forests, humanity could not long persevere. Human constructs that were fundamentally incompatible with nature would prove ephemeral because they would hasten the destruction of the planet. This is what Thoreau meant in his comment.
The Thoreau quote, “In Wildness is the preservation of the world,” does not appear in Walden. It’s a line in his essay, “Walking.” This is followed by several paragraphs outlining the benefits of natural wildness to humans. “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps,” he writes. Although the term “biological diversity” or “biodiversity” was not coined until more than a century after Thoreau’s death, he seems to have unconsciously been drawn to -- and found important -- the most botanically diverse places in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts.
The concept of wildness appears in Walden in the “Spring” chapter, as follows:
“Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness -- to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
In this passage, he again brings up diversity, but with examples of birds and mammals. He also introduces an important dichotomy: We want to be able to know and name wild things, but we also want them to somehow stay wild and mysterious. Do you think we can we have it both ways?
Thoreau here is returning to one of his principal themes, which can be summarised as follows: humans need wildness in order to ensure their survival. Thoreau saw humans as being placed in a critical relationship with nature, yet the problem with humans is that their civilisation and society often seems to involve the destruction of the untamed wilderness of nature and its systematical ordering. In the beauty of wild nature, Thoreau saw the source of the human spirit of independence and self-reliance, which were necessary in order for humans to keep on surviving and growing as a species. Thus, as he argues here, the wildness of nature actually contains the secret of the preservation of the world.
Put in other words, the wildness of nature helps us to remind ourselves of how we have to be independent and self-reliant in order to survive in this world. The wildness of nature is a necessary antidote to the various evils of society which detracts from these important values and encourages us to grow soft as humans.