Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 488

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The theme of the poem is the need of the poet to connect himself with a previous, perhaps more innocent time and to establish a sense of himself in the present. Although he is ostensibly writing a letter to Thoreau, he is also using the poem as a vehicle to declare his own sense of connectedness and purpose, the “strange love in a distant land” with which the poem ends.

Part of the problem of identity for Booth is his perception of the encroachment of the machine that threatens the land, the chain saws that “rape a virgin stand to stumps” and that have “more power than has ever been seen before.” They desecrate the natural landscape: “an orange oil tank flaws the spring; girders bloom with concrete blocks.” In addition to the incursion of the machine, time has wrought additional havoc: wars, inflation, tourists, pollution. “Tight-paired jets” write “cryptic warnings on the thin blue air.” The jets symbolize not only the present but also a future dominated by machines and by violence.

Booth’s view of the mechanization of modern life is a step beyond that of Thoreau, who in Walden found a place for the railroad as symbol of the new age of the machine. Like Walt Whitman in Democratic Vistas (1871), Thoreau saw the machine as part and parcel of his transcendental vision. It was all part of the transformation of the world, a new vehicle for humanity to reach a state of higher development. Apparently neither Thoreau nor Whitman foresaw that modern science and technology would lead to the destruction of the environment. For Philip Booth, that destruction made great inroads on the quality of life and on the state of nature.

Booth takes this whole situation one step further: For him, the world is on the verge of war. This poem was written in the early years of the Cold War, in which the United States and the Soviet Union maintained hostile relations with each other and believed each nation sought the destruction of the other. The image of the jet overhead and the carcass of a “traffic-flat” skunk suggest a vulnerable world subject to imminent and total destruction. Booth recognizes, though, that war and death are not some new part of American life. He points out that Thoreau wrote Walden during a period of great violence and war. This was also the time when the issue of slavery was tearing the country apart.

Booth sees himself, a century after Thoreau, crossing “the middle-ground/ toward hope.” Despite the fact that America has changed dramatically and that new and more potent dangers have emerged, Booth declares that he must make do with what he has and ask only that nature provide him with a home and the wisdom that was granted to Thoreau. Like Thoreau before him, he believes his salvation will come from hope and love derived from reverence for and appreciation of nature.