Nature Vs. Man
The mass of men lives a quiet desperation, claimed Thoreau, and he was right. It is true that most people live in bondage created by their society, their families and their loved ones. In society man is always trapped by his love and his fear, his dignity and his shame, his pride and his cowardice, by a social contract universally accepted against his will and without his knowledge. Every man is raised as he is expected to be by his society, not as he naturally should be. As a result, he is force fed ideals and burdened by responsibility, taught what he should love and hate, and most importantly, taught to obey without questioning. The society that Thoreau abandons when he goes into the woods is an oppressor that makes a coward out of any man, a coward who fears for his life and yet puts it in the hands of others without a second thought. The social man is a monster that lurks the shadows of his own cage. His exorcism is nature, his release is freedom, and that is precisely what man wishes to destroy, not out of ignorance of his diabolical nature but because of it.
I have learned this truth in the same way that mankind discovered fire; through an observation of a dangerous phenomenon that could not be explained, but existed, a phenomenon that is destruction in its boldest purest form. What pitted man against nature? Was it a Shakespearean dilemma that has long since outlived its origin? I had no answer. I stepped away then, away from humanity and nature, to understand the source of such hate. When I found the answer, I could not believe it. It is an answer that still troubles me today, and it is the reason why I never address people, but only individuals. The social side of man trails every individual as a shadow, and looms over him as a master puppeteer, out of sight, yet in complete control. As Amy Tan explains her essay Mother Tongue, she behaves differently based on whom she’s with. She willingly limits herself, censoring her own existence according to what others expect of her. It is that censorship, the willingness to bend one’s preferences and ideals to what is expected, that drives men to ruin in their society; it is the source of the quiet desperation that Thoreau observed in the mass of men. It is so ubiquitous that it is frightening; a nightmare that disguises itself as harmless. It would be, if it stopped itself as that. But when the question of “What is expected?” becomes more important than “What needs to be done?”, when duty overrides convictions, when man finds himself drowning in what is expected of him by other men, he is broken. He no longer trusts himself for an opinion and instead seeks it from others, enslaved by his fellow men; he exposes them to the same indignity he faces. It is there that evil capitalizes, when men no longer depend on themselves, they find themselves depending on others. History has shown what that leads to: war, genocide, terrorism, racism, sexism, hate crimes, the list is endless. Mankind’s worst crime so far, however, has been its destruction of nature.
Nature is the antithesis of mankind’s social nature, it rejects mankind’s pathetic desire to avoid responsibility, and it denies any expectations and operates by no rules. In wilderness, man stands alone, dependent only on his mind and body, and only by exposing himself to nature, does man understand that the two are inseparable. When experiencing nature, when walking among the edges of cliffs, knowing that a misstep is death, that relationship of cause and effect is different by the logic of duty and convictions. The bond between man and nature is not “you can’t”, but “you can”. In nature, when your life is threatened, you have the power to do everything you can to fight for it. That is a long way off from society, where upon conviction by one’s fellow men, one no longer has any freedom of choice. Lastly, nature teaches every man the value of his life, by letting man fight for it. It forces men to stake their lives on their judgments without hiding in the shadows of other men. That responsibility, right or wrong, life or death, is the wisdom that nature offers to mankind. Can one even compare it to man’s trivial ponderings of what is expected of him? Does mankind not seem cowardly in comparison? To me it does.
Thoreau immersed himself in nature to free himself from other men, to experience life as he was born to live it. As a reward, he gained an insight to another existence, an existence that other men curse, destroy, and resentfully hope for, every day of their miserable lives. The resentment of other men towards nature, their society, and lastly, themselves, could not reach the hermit that Thoreau became. For choosing to live independently, Thoreau was rewarded by becoming one of America’s greatest writers. Would we have known him otherwise?