This book written was written by Henry Thoreau as a memorial to his brother John. They had shared a week-long trip along the Concord and Merrimack rivers in New England, and here, a number of years later, Thoreau recounts their trip, one chapter per day. While describing their journey, and some of the nature along and in the river, he uses the opportunity more to share his perspective on life and his thoughts on a wide range of topics. As well as his clear love of nature, he also discusses philosophy, books and poetry as well as local anecdotes and history.
This combination of topics makes for an interesting read. It is very relaxing to picture yourself in the countryside with him, describing what he can see, and even more imagining the joy he feels in nature; or listening to some anecdotes of his other adventures exploring different parts of the countryside. But you must then come back to attention as he takes you into a more intellectual or philosophical train of thought.
This book surprised me in a couple of ways, from the limited I knew about it in advance. First, given it was a memorial to his brother, I had expected some description of him, but he is barely mentioned. And secondly, from the description of only “a week” on the rivers, I had imagined quite a short book, whereas it stretches to around 400 pages given Thoreau’s many digressions. Having said this, it is an interesting read if you want to understand him more, but be prepared to spend some time with him. There were a few sections which I found less interesting and skipped through, but overall it was an enjoyable and enlightening read.
Thoreau is clearly someone who loves and knows nature well, and in particular takes a delight in the details. For instance he describes happily waiting under a tree for hours while the rain is too heavy, using the time to study the tree and the bark. And on the first day of this trip he gives us a description of all of the types of fish local to the river. Possibly due to this affinity with nature he also has a lot of sympathy and respect for the Native Americans, and he recounts a number of tales of their relationships with settlers, including both fights and attempted conversions by Christian missionaries. These give a great insight into how life must have been at this time, and being mostly local stories I imagine they wouldn’t be found in other books.
Thoreau thinks experiencing nature is important in many ways. He thinks that education, if only made up of studying books, is incomplete without time spent chopping wood for instance; and that for writing, creating new thoughts can only come from nature and not from reading old books, as how could we get new ideas from these? He is also critical of science when it is only collecting facts about the world, and not gaining understanding.
In his reading, he prefers poetry, and admires poets such as Homer and Chaucer, and shares quotes from a large number of poems in this book. While being well versed in the bible, he is critical of Christianity, but finds certain Hindu writings interesting, and laments that in general the West is unaware of Eastern writers.
He also shares his dislike of the state and institutions which oppress man’s freedom, and gives us the example of Sophocles’ Antigone. Concerning friendship, he is critical of how most people approach it too lightly, as if “To say that a man is your friend, means commonly no more than this, that he is not your enemy”. Instead, he calls for much deeper friendship than helping each other with physical needs, and instead calls friends to be enriching each other’s spirits and encouraging virtue in each other.
In conclusion, as a city dweller this book is a helpful prompt not to forget the world around us, but to be inspired by his example and make time for what we can learn from nature. However I wouldn’t go so far as to think it can give us all answers or our full meaning in life.
A couple of quotes I enjoyed:
“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all”….”Books, not which afford us a cowering enjoyment, but in which each thought is of unusual daring; such as an idle man cannot read, and a timid one would not be entertained by, which even make us dangerous to existing institutions-such call I good books”
“We have heard much about the poetry of mathematics, but very little of it has yet been sung. The ancients had a juster notion of their poetic value than we. The most distinct and beautiful statement of any truth must take at last the mathematical form. We might so simplify the rules of moral philosophy, as well as of arithmetic, that one formula would express them both.”