When Henry David Thoreau spoke on the art of walking at the Concord Lyceum on the evening of April 23, 1851, he called on the members of his audience to recall from the comforting “lawns and cultivated fields” of Massachusetts “the impervious and quaking swamps.” He spoke for the wild presence that haunts the New England mind, “for nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and Culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” Against the cultural protestations of ministers and school-committees, as well as the cultivated residents of Concord, Thoreau made his case for the wild.
For some reason I’ve been imagining Thoreau walking the streets of Pune. Perhaps it is because I’ve been doing a lot of walking myself, exploring less traveled lanes, moving among the many, many people on the more traveled roads, picking my way over broken pavers and bricks, concrete pipes and mounds of fine-grained gravel. Or maybe it is because I’m always thinking about Snyder’s question about where we begin to resolve the dichotomy of the civilized and the wild. Still, I like the image of Thoreau cutting across a busy street, with a dog or two following him, dodging honking rickshaws and cars, jumping out of the way of a two wheeler speeding silently off the hill with engine cut to save gas. Perhaps he would stop at one of the tea stalls on the sidewalk, ask for a masala chai and dig in his wool trousers for a few rupees. Had Thoreau been out on the streets this morning, sauntering, he would have heard the cicadas buzzing in the trees. He would have felt the heat and perhaps taken a nap in the shade under one of the acacia trees lining the bicycle path that winds through Deccan Gymkhana. People would be watching this strange white man intently, too, as Indians are included to do. Had Thoreau actually “sauntered to the Holy Land,” as he put it, he might well have ended up on the subcontinent, one among many nomads, pilgrims and saints.