A Stravaig Through the Snow with Henry Thoreau: Norman Bissell
Images: Douglas Robertson
Welcome to this first issue of Stravaig, the online journal of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics. Henry Thoreau was one of many forerunners of geopoetics, a man who had a keen perception of the world around him and who wrote about it extensively in his books and journals. He was quite a walker too (unhappy if he didn’t manage four hours a day) and so it is highly appropriate that this first issue of Stravaig (a Scots word meaning to stroll or wander) should be inspired by his work and feature essays, poems and images which clearly demonstrate the creative benefits of getting out of the house and going outwards.
I first heard of Henry Thoreau back in 1963 at the Jargon Group in Glasgow. He and Walt Whitman were favourably referenced in the course of a wide-ranging talk Autopsy of the Modern by Kenneth White to an informal discussion group he set up around the University of Glasgow that year. White presented a radical critique of the prevailing, atrophied contemporary culture and advocated the need for a deep-going change in consciousness, a cultural revolution – a position which had instant appeal to students such as myself who grew up in the then smog-bound, poverty-stricken city of Glasgow. He also led us stravaiging on field trips over the Fairlie moors and across Arran, a practice, I’m pleased to say, which continues today in the ongoing activities of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics.
In between my studies in philosophy and history I readily took up White’s recommendation that we read Henry Thoreau’s Walden and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Whitman’s extravagant celebration of the individual life and passionate call to the open road had the greater appeal to me at the time whereas Thoreau’s construction of a cabin and solitary life in the woods seemed something of a pipe dream and a far cry from tenement life to a city lad like me. Thoreau’s outlook seemed more akin to the emerging opt-out hippy culture of the sixties which I rejected.
Later when I re-read Walden I came to realise that what he was advocating was not that everyone should drop out and build a cabin in the woods but that we should focus on the essentials in life, become mindful of everything around us and learn from the ways of nature. His approach to life was grounded in an understanding and appreciation of the natural world which is available to each and every one of us.
Reading his Cape Cod recently I found it an altogether less didactic, much happier book without that sense of moral superiority towards others which had marred my first reading of Walden. It is an account of three journeys he made by coach and on foot along the hook-shaped peninsula which he calls ‘the bended arm of Massachusetts’ and it takes in the beaches, the lighthouses, the sea and the dunes as well as the wildlife, villages and people of the area. Could it be that the invigorating salt sea winds of Cape Cod had the beneficial effect of opening Thoreau’s mind and improving his mood?
Walking the Coast
As Mohammed Hashas’s essay makes clear, Thoreau is a major precursor of geopoetics whose writing continues to resonate today. It was for this reason that we decided to invite contributions to this first issue of Stravaig on the theme of the significance of his work for today. I hope you will agree that the responses we received, mainly from members of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics themselves, demonstrate his continuing relevance and an admirable quality of expression.
We were particularly pleased to receive submissions from Christian McEwen, the author of the recently published World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, and Abigail Rorer, whose splendid illustrations adorn several Folio Society books including Leaves of Grass, two of the growing number of members who live along the eastern seaboard of the North American continent.
Equally welcome were the essays from James McCarthy, the prolific author of books on the geography of Scotland and its explorers and plant hunters, and Gordon Peters, who has extensive knowledge of and experience in geography and social work, two long-standing Council members of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics whose profiles you can read on our Members’ Pages. The first provides a most enjoyable account of how he learnt his trade as a forester and the second illuminates the social and political significance of Thoreau’s work and its connections with geopoetics.
Alastair Cook’s highly personal and moving filmpoem Abachan raises the bar for moving image art which takes a poem and creates something new with it. What also emerged from some of the poets and photographers who made submissions was an understandable fascination with the snowy weather we enjoyed last winter and poems and images which sparkle with the brightness of its beauty.
How better then to start 2012 than a stravaig through the snow with Henry Thoreau?
You can find out more about many of the contributors by clicking on our Members Pages above.
Your thoughts and suggestions on any of the contents of this first issue would be greatly appreciated.