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Nature vs. Civilization

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The Thinking Man’s immediate two predecessors, the Homo erectus and Homo habilis, represent the stages at which man was at perfect harmony with his environment. Devoid of intellect and conscious reasoning capacity, they mostly depended on their instincts to survive. This means that they were less aggressive and incidentally, less destructive on their environment. Their hunting and gathering rudimentary weapons were limited to providing immediate needs and as such, caused minimal damage to their surrounding. However, the evolutionary emergence of the sapiens marked the beginning of man’s civilization and consequently, the departure from absolute dependence on nature. His needs became more complex and beyond the means of his rudimentary weapons. He devised more effective means of utilizing natural resources to satisfy his ever increasing needs,. In the long run, simple innovations led to mechanized techniques of operating and eventually, an industrial revolution. The effects of these developments were massive exploitation and destruction of resources. Thus, it was when man started to think that he became a danger to his environment and at variance with nature.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau examines the effects of human civilization on the environment, and the resultant conflict between nature and human activities. His brief stay near the Walden Pond represents experimentation with the pre-sapiens life, where man lived at the heart of primitive nature. His vegetarian tendencies portray the desire to live the primitive life common before the innovation of hunting techniques and industrial production. However, his dependence on outside supplies from the civilized outside world which he intended to escape presents us with the paradox of his idealized life: while he wanted to live in perfect harmony with nature, life could not be complete without disrupting its normal cycle; the supplies that he received from his mother were largely industrial products that he cannot provide for himself in the forest. Similarly, his cottage was built at the edge of the forest, just outside the fringes of town. The idea revealed is that he could not survive if he totally transplanted himself from the civilized world, reason why he did not venture into the heart of the jungle. Richard Zacks observes that while Walden is a great American book, Nature Boy (Thoreau), ventured home every weekend to ransack the family cookie pot. Despite his claim of living in the woods, he frequently visited nearby Concord. His mom, who stayed just two miles away, supplied him with basketfuls of meals, doughnuts and pies every Saturday. The more one examines his stay in the woods, “the more his sojourn resembles suburban boys going to their tree-house in the backyard and pretending they're camping in the heart of the jungle” (Zacks, 1962).

Thoreau presents man’s need to escape the drudges and monotony of daily life in the civilized world, and seek newness in the heart of nature. He explains that he chose Walden Woods in his desire “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”. While his actions were desperate attempts to escape the weariness of work in the civilized world by seeking refugee in the wild, the futility of it all is that he found himself working harder than before: he busied himself building his cottage, maintaining it on a daily basis, chopping firewood for heating and cooking, clearing land to cultivate beans and vegetables, commuting to town as well as writing manuscripts. The underlying idea is that the forces of nature alone can not fully provide for man, and that he must exploit it to satisfy his needs. Since he did not live virtually on gathered fruits or live in a cave as the primitive man did, it demonstrates that society would never retrace its steps to the savagery. The need for shelter and other daily supplies in the woods shows that man cannot transplant himself from his civilization and live a primitive life dictated by the forces of nature alone. Human activity upon the environment is as much a necessity as the resources that nature provides. Man has evolved way far past the cave man’s era where he depended on rudimentary means of survival. Poet John Whittier interprets Walden as futile attempts to make man” lower himself to the level of a woodchuck and walk on four legs" (qtd. in Wagenknecht, 2001).  He termed the work as very heathenish and wicked, reiterating that “I prefer to walk on twos.” He went further to castigate the work as "very wicked and heathenish", remarking "I prefer walking on two s.

The whistling of the train is presented as the chaotic interruption of modernity upon the peaceful quietness of a pastoral life. He complains that the sound of the train and the church bell interrupted his reverie in the woods. The railroad symbolizes human civilization in terms of technological advancement, which destroys the natural set up of primitive life. However, it should be noted that even nature itself was not totally quiet: he was equally bothered by the mowing cows, hooting owls, croaking frogs and crowing cockerels. In this regard, human civilization is not a totally new and strange phenomenon, but an advanced stage of human history. The train represents another chapter of man’s existence, with the same challenges as those experienced before civilization.

Nature is also a representation of solitary living, away from the hustles of human activities. Thoreau says that he experienced a companionship of its kind in solitude. However, the old cliché that ‘man is not an island’ comes into play when his dependence on the world he sought to escape is examined. Besides is frequent liaison with his mother for daily supplies, he sometimes visited his neighbors, the Emersons, for an occasional diner. In his other writings in The Maine Woods, he admits of the futility of trying to live in the woods, for he could neither achieve self sufficiency nor stand the loneliness. Critics, however, see his lonely adventure as against the norms of communal life in a civilized society. His self isolation is not only akin to the wild, aimless wondering of the cave man, but in modern terms very selfish. By deserting society, “He was a skulker, not wishing virtue to go out of him among his fellow-men, but slunk into a corner to hoard it for himself. He left all for the sake of certain virtuous self-indulgences” (Stevenson, 1880).

Whether in the civilized world or I the jungle of nature, man is faced with the same option of exploiting resources for profit. While in the woods, Thoreau cultivated beans which after the harvest, he sold for a profit of nearly $9. He used it to meet the expenses of his needs. What emerges from this incidence is that what he had succeeded in doing is not really embracing nature, but lowering the scale of production. In the end, it became unprofitable since all proceeds were used to cover his expenses. Evidently then, the kind of harmony that he had sought to achieve with nature is not suitable for a civilized society. Civilization meant that man was able to maximize production in proportions that surpassed his immediate needs. The surplus is what was channeled to the industrialization process. Confining man to the provisions of nature hinders his innovation potential and hampers revolutionary progress.

At the same time, the quest for life in the wild undermines all that man has already achieved, and instead encourages a return to savagery and barbarism. After sheltering in another farmer’s hut during a storm, Thoreau ‘advises’ him to go and live with him in the woods so as to escape from his creditors. Of course, the foolishness of this simplistic solution is evident; however, it is the kind of reasoning behind it that makes us question his intelligence. Let me highlight two points. First, the call to free into the woods to escape responsibility is not madness- madmen don’t give reasons for their actions; neither do they understand their actions in the first place. Yet, Thoreau knew what he was saying, and gave due reasons. Rather, it is a manifestation of the de-civilization qualities of nature. After spending a few months in the woods, Thoreau is possessed with the illusion that all men should become savages. Second, his host refused to follow him, due to what I regard as his better, rational judgment that he would not exchange the comfort of his home for the cold of the wilderness. What is portrayed here is the idea that nature cannot accommodate logical minds: they will realize her insufficiencies and instead of revering her embrace, exploit her resources for better living. Is it a surprise then, that the thinking man, the Homo sapiens, realized these shortcomings of nature centuries ago and left the cave?

In the world of nature, everybody is his own authority. Thoreau recounts an incidence in which he was arrested for refusing to pay tax. His reasons for not paying notwithstanding, i.e. the government’s condoning of slavery; a literary critique recognizes the metaphorical significance of the incidence. His brief stay in the woods had eroded his civil character, making him have a wild mind sort of, similar to that of the savage man. Without a proper conscience of any civil responsibility, he failed to recognize an established government and consequently, the legality of paying taxes. Since it was only after moving into the woods that he started opposing government policies and defaulting taxes, then nature had the effect of distorting his worldview- if he had any- to the extent of making him as unruly and untamable as the wild animals he lived with. In this sense, nature is anti-civilization, in that it works against the recognition of civil power and the responsibility of members in supporting government institutions.

Nonetheless, in the same breath Thoreau portrays the double edged nature of civilization. The allusion to slavery points to the existence of two civilizations, with one more advanced as to enslave the other. It should be recalled that the enslavement of the black people was as a result of earlier civilization witnessed in Europe from the turn of the 12th Century. Because of her superiority in technology, she was able to conquer other human societies and subject them to servitude. In this regard, civilization is not entirely beneficial to society, as it provides the means by which men exploit others. In contemporary times, slavery is not necessarily forced labor, but its subtle forms of exploitative labor relations such as domestic workers and casual laborers.

And lastly, man’s quest for comfort and security can not be achieved in the wild. Nature, by its very laws, nurtures as well as destroys. Since it is indiscriminate and unpredictable, man is forced by circumstances to anticipate its destructive elements. Accordingly, the construction of buildings is a safeguard measure against natural catastrophes like floods and storms. The insufficiency of primitive life is demonstrated when Thoreau was caught by a storm while wondering in the woods (like a wild deer, I suppose), and was forced to take refugee in John Field’s hut. It occurs that when threatened with hunger or natural disasters, Thoreau was quick to jump back into the civilized society for food and refugee. In other words, nature in itself is neither sufficient nor reliable. While nature provides water which is a vital component in sustaining life, it also destroys by the same means when flooding takes place or storms occur. And since nature cannot be tamed to measure out her life giving provisions proportionately, it turns out that civilization is man’s response to her unpredictable forces.

In conclusion, what Walden advances then is a quest for balance between satisfying human needs by way of utilizing natural resources and the need to conserve the environment. In modern society, an ever increasing demand for industrial products and luxury means that more resources utilize. Absolute pursuit of either is impractical, since man must utilize the planet’s resources, and at the same time guard against their exhaustion.

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