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Nature never lost a day—nor a moment–As the planet in its orbit & around its axis—so do the seasons– –so does time revolve with a rapidity inconceivable.

Thoreau, September 13, 1852,Journal 5, p. 343

Daniel Peck's Thoreau's Morning Work (1990) is the most extended and careful reading of the place of time, history, and memory in Thoreau's oeuvre.[4] One of the key distinctions Peck makes is how Thoreau relates time and history:

[H]istory obstructs an original relation to the universe by supplanting the eternal with the merely transient. At various points throughout A Week he demotes history (usually in favor of “myth”), because what he wants is not a relation to time, which is limited, but to timelessness. (Ibid., p. 17)

I agree with Peck that Thoreau subordinates history to time. In its preoccupation with history, “A Week could not open itself to the living instant of the present, the nick of time” (ibid., p. 36).Walden's power lies in part in turning time's linear progression into a cycle, where time has no beginning and no end. It has been well recognized that Walden follows a seasonal time line, and much of Thoreau's Journal reports the cycles of seasons; but Peck has suggested a more profound reordering of Thoreau's notions of time based on how one might interpret the famous Journal entry of April 18, 1852: “For the first time I perceive this spring that the year is a circle–I see distinctly the spring arc thus far. It is drawn with a firm line” (Journal 4, 1992, p. 468). One school of thought, the literalists, reads this entry as simply

an observation that spring had arrived. So Richard Lebeaux writes, “more likely, he was indicating that this was the first time this spring that he had seen the year as a circle” (1984, p. 159). Robert Sattelmeyer concurs: “For a naturalist to observe for the first time at age thirtyfive that the year is a circle is equivalent to a hydrologist's discovery that water runs downhill” (1990, p. 64). In general, these critics see nature's seasonal time as metaphors of life's changes which thus served Thoreau as an appropriate correspondence to his personal time, a relationship he energetically sought to capture. On this reading, the year's cycle is an important literary vehicle, representing a powerful transcendental correspondence, and a critical catalyst for Thoreau's completion of Walden. Peck assumes another stance altogether, one which I find compelling and more interesting as it leads to a deeper interpretation:

That he should at this late date have reacted profoundly to his perception of an ageold truth, the cyclical nature of seasonal change, may be difficult to comprehend.

Yet this, I believe, was an entirely authentic discovery for Thoreau— indeed, the most important and determinative in his imaginative life. To understand its full importance, we need to place strong emphasis on his use of the word see in the entry's second sentence: “I see distinctly the spring arc thus far.” What Thoreau announces here is that he has, for the first time, apprehended the temporal flow of nature's change in clearly spatial terms; he has set temporality on a plane, on an “arc,” along whose rim rides the flow of time. In this way, time is “contained” and given a boundary, one that coincides with consciousness itself. The “line” that describes the circle, “drawn” by the divine artist from whom all time flows, is “firm.” Unlike the porous, multiple figures of Emerson's essay “Circles” (1841), expanding ever outward “wheel without wheel” (Collected Works, 2:180 [1983d, p. 404]), Thoreau's circle is unitary. Like Walden Pond, it characteristically looks inward from its perimeter toward its own deep and complex interior….

… When time is conceptualized as a circle, memory and anticipation come together as a single timeless dimension of experience. (1990, pp. 46–47)

Peck observes that much of Thoreau's effort to define a microcosm whose unity would mirror the cosmos was stabilized by this apprehension of the circle of time.[5] To capture time, Thoreau would have to live in an everpresent present. As he moves along an arc of time, only the present exists. He, of all people, admits to being surprised by the passage of seasons, which reflects both his excitement and the novelty of experience as well as the freshness of nature's everchanging visage. So as the seasons shift, Thoreau urges us

to marvel at nature's rhythms, but at the same time he advises that the quintessential character of this flux is only experienced in the present and that accordingly the present qua presence must be savored and “held.”

This is June, the month of grass and leaves…. Already the aspens are trembling again, and a new summer is offered me. I feel a little fluttered in my thoughts, as I might be too late. Each season is but an infinitesimal point. It no sooner comes than it is gone. It has no duration. It simply gives a tone and hue to my thought…. Our thoughts and sentiments answer to revolutions of the seasons, as two cogwheels fit into each other. We are conversant with only one point of contact at a time, from which we receive a prompting and impulse and instantly pass to a new season or point of contact. (June 6, 1857,Journal, [1906] 1962, 9:406–7)

Peck calls the arc image the “spatialization of time” and pursues this matter as an epistemological problem. I would not disagree, but will beat another path. I believe time in this formulation assumes a moral character in at least two ways: The first concerns Thoreau's constant reiteration of using time wisely, of not working for false ends, whether frankly materialistic, or more subtly in answer to social pressures. But there is a deeper existential sense of morality here, and again it builds from an Augustinian construction of how we perceive time.[6] So, having introduced the notion of the everpresent present in the previous section, let us follow its metaphysical implications.

In his philosophical discussion of consciousness and self, Augustine dwells at length on that aspect of soul which serves as its keystone: memory. More than a repository of images of recollected experience, memory is the seat of self-transcendence, despite being exactly that part of the soul where the individual is most deeply his or her individual self (Augustine, Confessions 10.8.15). But with memory comes paradox: its only temporal location is the present. When we are not thinking about something, we are not remembering it: only when we think of it is it present before us. Memory then is what gives the soul some purchase on consciousness, and on reality. But by existing, by definition, only in the present, memory encounters other complications, because of the persistent elusiveness of time, which itself is properly said to exist in the present. But what does this mean?

Not even one day is ever entirely present. All the hours of the day add up to twenty-four. The first of them has others in the future, the last has them in the past…. A single hour is itself constituted of fugitive moments. If we can think of some bit of time which cannot be divided up into even the smallest instantaneous moments, that alone is what we should call “the present.” And this time flies so quickly from the

future into the past that it is an interval with no duration. Any duration is divisible into past and future. The present occupies no space. (Ibid. 11.15.23)

As discussed, Thoreau would spatialize time in a powerful metaphor, but the essential Augustinian insight was uncontested. Human consciousness and human selfhood, argues Augustine, are caught in an endless linear succession of infinitesimally small present moments: it is in this atomized dimension that consciousness exists, “distended in time.” This distention constitutes the great measure of difference and distance between human modes of consciousness and God's, for whom in eternity all time, instantaneously and without mediation, is present. Humans, mediating time through memory, live trapped in the relentless succession of present moments. The present is itself never securely present, because each moment runs immediately into the next.

How can human consciousness escape this entrapment in time? For Augustine the fourth-century Catholic bishop, the answer is eschatological, and austerely theistic: At the End, at the final redemption, God will bring his saints to rest in Him, so that they will have an unmediated apprehension of the divine: in eternity, they will have escaped the multiplicity and distention of life in time which is the consequence of Adam's fall (11.29. 39). In this life, only in mystical experience—rare, fleeting, and temporary—can the mind glimpse this future reality (9.10.24–25), which Augustine designates as redemption. After all, only God sees nature as whole, in all perspectives and in all times. Augustine recognized that time could not, in fact, be captured, for only in redemption would human time turn into salvaged eternity. Thoreau the nineteenth-century naturalist, on the other hand, does strive to achieve this transcendence, this suppression of time's successiveness, but in this life, “in the bloom of the present moment” (Walden, 1971, p. 111). Thoreau thus sought no eschatological redemption, but he too recognized that nature, from the divine vantage, experiences no change. So in his study of nature, he is thrown back on a kind of personal redemption of his own sovereign consciousness. This leads us to an important characteristic of Thoreau's metaphysics.

The critical difference with Augustine is that Thoreau attempts to capture time in the present, in this world, in nature. So while Augustine entrusts himself to God's grace, Thoreau, selfreliant, pursues time— nature—on his own. This is a useful contrast, inasmuch as we perceive Thoreau's spirituality as independent of theism and, more to the point, as radically selfreliant. In claiming that “all the change is in me” (Walden, 1971, p. 193),

Thoreau not only affirms the centrality of his own personhood but adopts a position which is reasserted in every facet of his project. In seeking to capture time by some resolution of nature's apparent change and the discovery of its permanence within himself, Thoreau must bridge a philosophical gulf separating himself from the world. The metaphysical question of reality's standing is articulated by Thoreau in a Kantian voice: “We think that that is which appears to be” (ibid., p. 96). And Thoreau, after accepting his crucial role of mediating reality, is both baffled and awed by the order of nature's presence: “Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world?” (ibid., p. 225). A rich voice beckons, resonant with the metaphysical wonder of being. Returning to the Journal “arc” passage, we see the deep connection of Thoreau's vision of time (the arc) and his ability to see the order of nature:

It [the arc] is drawn with a firm line. Every incident is a parable of the great teacher. The cranberries washed up in the meadows & into the road on the causeways now yields a pleasant acid.

Why should just these sights & sounds accompany our life? Why should I hear the chattering of blackbirds—why smell the skunk each year? I would fain explore the mysterious relation between myself & these things. I would at least know what these things unavoidably are– –make a chart of our life—know how its shores trend—that butterflies reappear & when—know why just this circle of creatures completes the world. (April 18, 1852,Journal 4, 1992, p. 468)

Gazing at the intricate pattern of nature, Thoreau perceives and appreciates those changes and occurrences that lead him to ponder his own cognitive faculty. The world as the object of primary interest recedes, giving way to the self's own need to be scrutinized. While metaphysics frames the issue, the epistemological project becomes the means of navigating those deep waters: the inexorable flux of nature might be known, and perhaps his life could be charted on that grid of change, not only to “capture time” but to order nature.

Thoreau the naturalist, the consummate observer, becomes the reporter of his own thought as he asks: How do we perceive, and what is the perceiving faculty? But let me quickly add that Thoreau was aware, albeit in an era less psychologically selfconscious than our own, that he had access to only part of his mind and soul. Nevertheless he sought insight, and he pursued that truth within himself as best he could and to good purpose: after all, “the unconsciousness of man is the consciousness of God” (A Week, 1980a, p. 329). This construction is readily exposed in the “Thursday” chapter

of a week, where Thoreau provides us with a vivid example of his egocentrism which is extended in the later Journal entry just cited:

Let us wander where we will, the universe is built round about us, and we are central still. If we look into the heavens they are concave…. The sky is curved downward to the earth…. I draw down its skirts. The stars so low there seem loth to depart, but by a circuitous path to be remembering me, and returning on their steps. (A Week, 1980a, p. 331)

In “Friday,” Thoreau describes the shifting perspective of local scenes but asserts, “the universe is a sphere whose center is wherever there is intelligence. The sun is not so central as a man” (ibid., p. 349). And indeed Thoreau in effect creates landscapes. Unlike most travelers, who do not “make objects and events stand around them as the centre” (ibid., p. 326), “Thoreau in a very real sense makes the heavenly spheres revolve around him, he and his earth are more important” (Teurk 1975, p. 45). In the private Journal entry cited above, Thoreau went one step further.

To search for some order, rhythm, placement of the seasons and creatures, is an expected activity of a Romantic naturalist, but then Thoreau makes an extraordinary statement: “Can I not by expectation affect the revolutions of nature—make a day to bring forth something new?” (April 18, 1852,Journal 4, 1992, p. 468; emphasis added). This is remarkable metaphysics: he seems to be moving from an observer to an actor. Thoreau sees God's presence (“every incident is a parable of the great teacher”), but he further ponders not only His presence but Being itself. Asking the ancient metaphysical question, Why is there this very world—why indeed is there existence and why is that existence coupled to an individual life, namely Thoreau's? To observe that the quality of that relationship is “mysterious” is commonplace; to opine that he might “affect the revolutions of nature” is bewildering. Could Thoreau be suggesting that if he could effect a perfect union of his intelligence with nature, then his imagination might share some correspondence with divine Intelligence? Certainly, other critics have noted such aspirations for union (e.g., Kopp 1963; Baym 1966; Lyons 1967; Tuerk 1975, pp. 63 ff.), but I want to suggest an extension of that notion. If Thoreau were in such harmony with nature as to anticipate change, in such close identification as to effect union and thus affect change, has he not indeed become a Mover, or at least striven to be? A transcendental agency may be his goal. We cannot be certain from this passage, but it seems a small step to go from ordering the cosmos, constructing landscapes, measuring time, and finding union with nature to invoking transcendental agency. How far, indeed, did his radicalism take him?

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