Reconsidering Thoreau in a Burning World

Megan Marshall on Living Through Loss in the California Wildfires

This past August I was at my desk in Belmont, Massachusetts, proofreading an essay describing my trek to a remote Japanese hillside where a Buddhist monk lived as a hermit nearly a millennium ago, when I received news that the Caldor Fire, burning rapidly out of control in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, had done something unheard of before this summer. The 187,000-acre blaze (which would eventually consume another 35,000 acres) had leapt from the Western side of the mighty range to the East. In its first weeks, the fire had forced evacuations of numerous small towns and campgrounds in its path and destroyed hundreds of homes. Now a tiny log cabin that had been in my family for generations was in danger.

Smoke already filled the Echo Lakes basin, tucked away off Highway 50 a thousand feet above Lake Tahoe, where the cabin was one of 121 similarly rustic dwellings built in the first half of the 20th century on land leased from the US Forest Service under the federal “Cabin in the Woods” program. On August 29, flames were seen shooting up from Becker Peak, the fairytale crag that had been my last vision beneath a star-filled sky on the many summer nights I’d fallen asleep on the cabin’s back porch as a child, snug in my sleeping bag on an army cot—or, later, wrapped up in sheets and wool blankets on the double bed we moved outside for a cushier rest in the frigid Alpine air.

My essay was intended for a book called Now Comes Good Sailing: Writers Reflect on Henry David Thoreau, due out in October. The title seemed to mock my feelings at the moment, especially considering the stiff winds so common at high elevations and likely to send the fire roaring down the steep mountainside to the cabins. I had learned to sail in a friend’s Sunfish on the lake—or, rather, learned to right a capsized Sunfish in the all too frequent event of an unexpected gust.

My own contribution to the book was a bit of an outlier. Over decades of writing on the women of Transcendentalism, I’d grown disenchanted with the men of the movement, especially the Concord recluse, whose ingrained misogyny I’d once called out in a keynote address. Thoreau was scarcely mentioned in my pages, which I’d devoted instead to Kamo-no-Chōmei, the 12th-century monk whose book Hojoki (“The Ten-Foot Square Hut”), a Japanese classic, has been compared to Thoreau’s Walden. I thought I’d moved on. But as the prospect of losing my own purchase on the wilderness bore down on me, I realized I was the one who’d turned traitor, not Thoreau.

What was there of value in my life today that I couldn’t trace back to lessons learned in that cabin, whose primal significance I’d first realized while reading Walden as a 15-year-old in high school English class? I can remember it now, the feeling that Thoreau had written his book for me, because I, too, had lived in a simple cabin by a lake and fronted, in my own way, “the essential facts of life,” to borrow Thoreau’s famous phrase.

In that cabin, I’d learned how little, materially, was required for contentment: who needed electric lights, hot running water, a refrigerator? On the rocky, timbered landscape outside the rough-hewn door, I’d learned to find my way in the woods, on mountain paths—and even off trail, climbing peaks high above the tree line with only the sun and my knowledge of the terrain to guide me. On the lake itself, I’d discovered I could lie down in a rowboat on calm days and drift, staring up into the dome of blue sky overhead until, as Thoreau’s companion Emerson wrote in Nature, I could feel “the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me.” Maybe I’d learned the independence and self-assurance it took to tweak Thoreau for his sexism during my summer weeks in the Sierras.

Does Thoreau’s message of inward-seeking hold up in our burning world?

And quite likely the cabin had entered my family’s life thanks to Thoreau. His book never sold well in his lifetime, or in the later decades of the 19th century. But when his complete journals were published in 1906—two million words, 14 volumes—Thoreau’s reputation soared, and the story of his two-year retreat to nature in a one-room dwelling of his own design and manufacture became legend. Within a decade the “Cabin in the Woods” program was born, and within two more, our cabin was built.

*

Thoreau even had something to do with my departure from California. I was drawn to the New England that was his wilderness, and I decided to apply to colleges there. In Cambridge on a campus visit sponsored by the grandparents who’d purchased our cabin in the 1940s, I insisted they drive me out to Concord to see Thoreau’s pond and cabin site. Like so many other first-time pilgrims, I was startled to find a crowded swimming beach with lifeguards at one end and (in those days) a trailer park called Walden Breezes at the other. Still, the first summer I didn’t return to Echo Lake, the summer after my graduation from college, I persuaded friends to celebrate my June birthday with a picnic at Walden Pond.

I stayed in the east, immersing myself in the written remnants of the previous century’s nature-worshipers, visiting the Sierras for a week most summers with my children, who took their own lessons from the cabin, the woods, mountains, and lake. Mercifully, others in my generation of Echo Lakers stayed out west, some of them as compelled by their mountain childhoods to pursue an outdoor life fighting wildfires as I had been to seek distant literary sources.

It was two of these men—Josh Birnbaum and Loren Sperber, both fire captains, the first retired, the second off-duty—who took action the night of August 29. Evading road closures and ignoring the mandatory evacuation order, they hiked through the smoky darkness up and over a mountain pass into the Echo Lakes basin. They carried on their backs the gear they would need to tamp down spot fires and relay key information on fire activity to their Laker comrade, Jim Drennan, Battalion Chief at South Lake Tahoe Fire and Rescue. A swiftly formed Facebook community of anxious cabin families posted Sperber’s daily updates on its webpage, vivid accounts of the battle the men waged, at first with few numbers, and soon with reinforcements. I hung on his words as I had Thoreau’s a half-century before.

There were topographic and meteorological details mixed with fire-fighting terminology, the kind of reporting Thoreau, surveyor by profession and naturalist by vocation, would have applauded: “High winds yesterday caused more extensive spot fires on the slope below Talking Mountain and Becker Peak. Fire is now established in multiple locations on those slopes [and] will continue to spread with ember cast and roll-out, but spread is checked somewhat by granite fuel breaks.”

There were hints of the all-out effort required: “CalFire hand crews worked overnight to strengthen line at Hemlock Tract and reported some success. Josh slept and monitored up in Hemlock to be available [with boat transport] for emergency evacuation if needed.” In response to the chorus of gratitude on Facebook there was self-deprecation: “We are just doing what each and every one of you would do were you in our boots.”

Sperber was educating us, too: “The fire is currently continuing its low intensity burn in most places, with occasional tree torching. This is a health pattern for the landscape. . . . If not for our beloved cabins being in the way, the fire could happily creep and bump its way down to the lake.” One of my cousins, a co-owner with ten others of our 20×30-foot domicile, took to chanting, “Good fire, good fire!” in hopes of appeasing the inferno in our backyard.

Few readers of Walden know that the year before Thoreau retreated to the pond, he’d accidentally set a fire that burned nearly two hundred acres on the outskirts of Concord.

At last, Sperber delivered the news we’d been hoping for: after nearly a week of spelling each other in round-the-clock shifts, along with three more Laker firefighters who’d joined them, Sperber and Birnbaum were “confident in both the trajectory of the fire and the adequacy of the incident resources assigned to Echo Lakes.” With nearly a hundred firefighters on the scene, including teams from as far away as Colorado and Kansas, the pair headed back to their “non-Echo homes.”

Still, spot fires continue to burn as of this writing, October 1, burrowing into the forest’s dry, dense understory, lodging in root systems and threatening to flare dangerously again if the high-altitude winds should rise.

*

Another contributor to Now Comes Good Sailing is Pico Iyer, a friend with whom I share a love of the New England Transcendentalists and of Japan, his primary residence for nearly 30 years. Iyer’s essay also mentions Kamo-no-Chōmei’s retreat to the woods at the turn of the 13th century and Hojoki, the Japanese monk’s prequel to Thoreau’s record of a year lived deliberately. Iyer himself has something in common with Chōmei: eight centuries apart, both writers found solace in Buddhist teachings on impermanence in the aftermath of catastrophic fires.

Elsewhere, Iyer has written of the day in young adulthood when he watched as a wildfire near Santa Barbara, California, devoured his family’s home, and “reduced everything we owned in the world, every last scrap of paper and souvenir, to ash.” Chōmei’s besetting conflagration ravaged much of the ancient city of Kyoto, where he lived and worked as a minor nobleman and court poet. The fire may have broken out in the crowded quarters of a company of dancers, and it spread quickly through neighborhoods of densely packed homes and shops, sprawling palace and temple complexes, all made of wood, paper, and straw. “Flames driven by / unrelenting gusts / flew whole blocks,” Chōmei wrote. “Scores of men and women perished,” along with “countless” horses and cattle. His conclusion:

All of man’s doings are senseless
but spending his wealth
and tormenting himself
to build a house in this hazardous city
is especially foolish.

For Iyer, accommodating to the abrupt loss of material possessions and the life trajectory they represented was difficult at first. But retreat to a solitary cell in a monastery overlooking the ocean brought insight. Emptying his mind in silent austerity, he discovered: “The world was closer to me than I was to myself.” He learned to lose himself in “That great encircling blue ocean far below. That sky that arcs over everything.”

Chōmei wrote simply:

If your mind is not at peace
what use are riches?
The grandest hall
will never satisfy.

I love my lonely dwelling,
this one-room hut.

But what if it is your monk’s cell, your hut—the place where you learned to do without—that burns? There was little in our cabin that any of us would miss if the place went up in smoke. The one tangible item my cousins and I all feared losing was the cabin’s earliest guestbook, the repository of memories written in the still-recognizable handwriting of family members long gone, and in our own childish scrawls. This we could easily take home and scan to a computer file, and we would at the next opportunity.

Yet that didn’t mean there would be no loss to us if the cabin burned. One cousin told her worried grandchild, “the rocks will always be there.” If we couldn’t come back and sleep on the porch under the stars, the one built by our fathers on one glorious jumble of a multi-family weekend in the mid-1960s, was that comfort enough?

*

Before the cabins, Echo Lake had its own hermit, Hamden El Dorado Cagwin. He lived year-round on one of the small islands at the farthest end of the lake in a shack made of old boards and decorated with driftwood. He died at age 64 in 1915, the year the “Cabin in the Woods” program got started. My mother remembered Ham Cagwin’s deserted cabin. As a child I paced the perimeter of the vanished structure, the smooth rectangle of earth still suggestive of a life lived in the rough, on nights we held cookouts on Hermit Island—nights that ended with roasted marshmallows and singing “Goodnight, Irene” and then a slow ride home across the lake in the dark, our five-horsepower motor emitting a low sputter as we sought the familiar shore with our flashlight beams.

But what if it is your monk’s cell, your hut—the place where you learned to do without—that burns?

Like Kamo-no-Chōmei, Ham Cagwin retreated to the wilderness in his fifties and spent the last decade of his life in the woods. But he kept up an active commerce with the outside world, trapping and fishing, and in winter snowshoeing the US Mail along the same route the Caldor Fire had taken up what is now Highway 50 to Echo Summit, then on to Carson City, Nevada. His choice was more like Sperber and Birnbaum’s: to serve a purpose while also indulging his need to be outside, high up and far away.

What can I say of my own choice? Reading Loren Sperber’s updates, learning of my Echo Lake contemporaries’ outdoor careers, seeing many women among the firefighters on the ground and in the air in news broadcasts, I felt a sharp regret. What had I already given up, lost, without even losing my family’s cabin to fire?

Yet Thoreau had stayed in his cabin on Walden Pond for only two years, two months, and two days, and then written a book that could stir a 15-year-old high school student in her windowless classroom 200 years later and 3,000 miles away. My own writing will never reach that far, but the path that brought me here wasn’t a wrong one, and Thoreau led me to it.

*

In his “Conclusion” to Walden, Thoreau writes dismissively of the great explorers of the past, and more recent ones such as Lewis and Clarke, whose journey overland to the Pacific most Americans of Thoreau’s time considered heroic—all of them determined to fill in the white spaces on maps of the world. But “what does the west stand for?” Thoreau asks. “Is not our own interior white on the chart?”

“Explore your own higher latitudes,” Thoreau counsels, advice that—even if it had been more widely received—arrived far too late, in 1854, to stem the tide of Yankee migration west or to stall the annexation and exploitation of Native lands well underway. For many today, the American west has come to stand for environmental disaster, its newly prolonged fire season exhibit one in any argument for the catastrophic effects of unremitting development and the manmade tragedy of climate change. Does Thoreau’s message of inward-seeking hold up in our burning world?

Few readers of Walden know that the year before Thoreau retreated to the pond, he’d accidentally set a fire that burned nearly two hundred acres on the outskirts of Concord and cost his townsmen $2,000 (the equivalent of $60,000 today) in lost property. Stopping to fry up some fish on a canoe trip down the Concord River with a friend in late April, the 26-year-old Thoreau failed to note the dry grass surrounding the tree stump where he’d made his campfire, which swiftly spread, “leaping & crackling wildly and irreclaimably toward the wood.” The pair tried stomping on the flames and beating at them with a board, then fled for help, the friend by canoe, Thoreau along the road to town: “What could I do alone against a front of flame half a mile wide?” he wrote in his journal when he could finally bring himself to record the event six years later.

Thoreau wrestled with feelings of guilt over the incident, and some have argued that his sojourn at Walden was a form of penance. His most recent biographer, Laura Dassow Walls, points out that in the years following, wildfires became increasingly common in New England, ignited by sparks from railroad engines passing through the wooded landscape. Thoreau joined his neighbors in putting out his own fire, helping to dig trenches and set backfires—the same tactics employed by crews fending off the Caldor fire—until they tamed “the demonic creature” to which he’d “given birth.” And he continued to volunteer in similar emergencies or when farmers recognized the need for controlled burns in the surrounding woods, a practice learned from the Penobscot Indians who still camped seasonally on the river bank.

Ultimately Thoreau offered himself absolution—the land, he saw, needed the regeneration of fire, whether started by his hand or by lightning strike. He found in the process yet more proof of his prescription for self-renewal. In spring, Thoreau’s fire had raced over the fields, leaving them “sere and black,” he wrote in his journal. By mid-summer the same land was “clad in a fresher & more luxuriant green than the surrounding even. Shall man then despair? Is he not a sproutland too after never so many searings & witherings?”

The cause of the Caldor fire remains a mystery. Its sister fire, the Dixie, which crested the Sierra 150 miles to the north and has burned close to one million acres, may have been sparked by faulty electrical equipment. But no one has yet suggested the same for the Caldor. During the month of August 2020, 14,000 lightning strikes were counted in the state of California. Climate change has brought more “dry” thunderstorms in summer, rendering even some “natural” conflagrations manmade. Thoreau may have argued to himself that the fire he set was “as if the lightning had done it” and taken heart from the greener landscape left behind; yet some Concord residents held him responsible for burning one of the last remaining groves of virgin forest in the state. Those trees were gone for good. Where will the rain come from to turn the Sierra’s burned-over slopes green again?

Even more than the potential incineration of the family guestbook, my cousins and I feared the loss of the 2,000-year-old juniper that stands ten yards from our front door. The fire didn’t come that close, but CalFire hand crews were under orders to fell trees standing near cabins and likely to catch burning embers in their limbs. The ancient tree had seen Washoe Indians pass by on their way to fish in the Echo Lakes, Ham Cagwin trek past on snowshoes, my siblings and cousins and my own children play on the slabs of rock in its shade.

When Echo Lakers were finally allowed back to their cabins in late September to shutter them for the winter, we learned what mattered most: the juniper had been spared. A US Forest Service biologist was there too, surveying the terrain with an eye toward remediation: re-seeding the hand-lines cut and back-burned by the firefighters. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau famously wrote. We now know that already, in his day, it was not too soon to ask: Can our world preserve wildness?

Megan Marshall
Megan Marshall
Megan Marshall is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, and The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism. She is the Charles Wesley Emerson College Professor at Emerson College, where she teaches nonfiction writing in the MFA Creative Writing Program, and a past president of the Society of American Historians.





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