Thoreau versus Edward Abbey

Writer Gary Nahban calls nature writing “going out into the boonies and interviewing plants” in the excellent (but sadly out of print) anthology Words from the Land.

For many years I taught a nature writing course at the late, lamented Chester College of New England. On field trips, students and I explored woodlots and trails (including one case of accidental trespassing), and in a classroom with a fireplace we read dozens of books and essays by John McPhee, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez and more.

Here are the two authors my students rated as the best (Edward Abbey) and the worst (Thoreau).

Down the River

by Edward Abbey

If you could combine Henry David Thoreau with George Carlin, you’d get someone like Edward Abbey. Or here’s a better comparison: Edward Abbey is Ralph Nader with a gun. He is (was—he died in 1989) the funniest nature writer out there. I tried some of his fiction, such as his best-known novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, and didn’t like it. His nonfiction, though, is insightful, descriptive, and hilarious.

Desert Solitaire is his most famous book, but Down the River is my favorite collection of Abbey’s essays. In the first long essay, “Down the River with Henry Thoreau,” Abbey and friends take a trip down the Green River on the eve of the 1980 Presidential election. Abbey brings along a copy of Thoreau’s Walden. For the next 40-odd pages, he contemplates nature, muses about politics, ridicules his vegetarian friends, and simultaneously pays homage to and pokes fun at Henry David Thoreau In one amusing passage, Abbey imagines a marriage of two reclusive literary oddballs, Thoreau and Emily Dickinson:

EMILY (raising her pen): Henry, you haven’t taken out the garbage.
HENRY (raising his flute): Take it out yourself.

Abbey is often provocative, but as he himself once said, he’d rather antagonize people than bore them. He certainly isn’t boring.

Walden, or Life in the Woods

by Henry David Thoreau

I hated chapter one of Walden (“Economy”) the first time I read it in high school. That was back in the days when we had to walk to school uphill both ways and the only computers in our classrooms where Apple IIs barely capable of playing Pong.

More recently, I moved my chair to the front of the classroom. Teaching a college class about nature writing, I put Walden on the reading list. (Why should I be the only one to suffer?) But I almost decided to have the students skip chapter one and start right in with the “good stuff” in chapter two.

Then I reread “Economy.” Hilarious! Henry David was a riot. It was the funniest damn thing I’d read all week. I loved it, much to my surprise. What had my high school self been thinking? In any event, chapter one went back on my class’s reading list.

The students hated it, of course. They detected no humor in chapter one, and described the experience as “enduring literary thumbscrews.” The rest of the book, in their opinion, wasn’t much better, except for the bit about walking across the frozen pond in winter.

I’m beginning to think that Walden is one of those books best read leisurely after age 30 (without the pressures of a full course load).