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GRILLONS par Cynthia Atkins

The sound of chirping birds. The rustle of leaves lifted by the wind. A feather caught in the reeds. These are the kinds of small details in nature Henry David Thoreau spent countless hours examining and recapturing in Walden, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod, and many personal journals and letters. And they’re the kind of details Ben Shattuck, author of Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, admires in the famous writer’s work. To read Thoreau is to immerse oneself in the natural world around us: to observe and deliberate on the mathematical whorls of a snail shell, the layers of bark on a tree old enough to witness multiple generations, or the individual water droplets in a cloud. This level of full immersion into nature is the experience Shattuck seeks to recapture in his own glorious, spiritual journey, one that is uniquely his and not simply an attempted clone of Walden. 


The small nuances of nature comprise the prose in Thoreau’s most famous work, Walden. Published in 1854, Walden is Thoreau’s manifesto on living harmoniously with nature, an idea that still holds relevance today. The simplicity in the world around us, however, oftentimes gets lost in a sea of technology, deadlines, and fast-paced living; it’s easy to forget to pay attention to the small but significant details. But Shattuck likes to remind us that these details still there, everywhere around us, and still worth experiencing. Because in this contemplation of the natural world lies the key to understanding the human one.


In his debut book, Shattuck sets out to figuratively and literally retrace the steps of Henry David Thoreau: starting from Cape Cod and the Southshore of Massachusetts, all the way to the deep woods and mountains of Maine, Ben winds his way through these and other famous paths once taken by America’s most well-known transcendentalist author. In doing so, Shattuck interweaves Thoreau’s passages and journal entries into the sights he observes. Part essayic collection, and part dissertation, think of Shattuck’s Six Walks as Julie & Julia, except it’s Ben and Henry. But rather than trying to replicate Thoreau’s Walden experiment, Shattuck succeeds in delivering an entirely original piece. 


The genesis of Six Walks came to Ben in the same way many of us get our sparks of ideas: while standing in the shower, lost in thought and searching for a means of moving past a recent heartbreak. The idea to follow Thoreau’s footsteps became a way “out of the doubt, fear, shame, and sadness that had arranged a constellation of grief around me,” as he writes. “In the beginning, I walked for distraction, to give myself an assignment, to escape the weight of my days,” Shattuck details. He further states how “Years later, I was still reading Henry David Thoreau, and I found myself still wanting to follow him.” And so, he sets off on a series of six walks, each one its own corporeal endeavor.


Along the paths he ambles, Shattuck encounters an array of idiosyncratic characters—a butterfly enthusiast; a young child marveling at a porcupine; an older couple who invite Shattuck into their home after his anticlimactic visit to a cabin where Thoreau once slept doesn’t provide the “sudden power” he anticipated—and absorbs even the minutest of details from remarking on bioluminescent plankton to pondering the thoughts of a frog, all of which are detailed in Six Walks’ picturesque narratives—divided into preludes and sections—and masterful, supplemental pencil sketches. Ben is also an artist, by the way. And his expert skills are on full display in the book’s many sketches—a field of marigolds, a lighthouse, a single stone resting on a beach—providing beautiful visual components to accompany the equally well-crafted words.


Continuously returning to Thoreau’s long-ago written words, Shattuck ties Thoreau’s thoughts on the appreciation nature, society’s failings, love, and loss, while offering his own insightful, elegant musings on the topics. Shattuck proves, again and again, the kairotic relevance of Thoreau—even in a modern, pandemic-ridden world. He expertly intertwines Thoreau’s passages with his own, reaching back and forth between the two, exhibiting the congruity of modern life and centuries-old observations and meditations. On a more personal level, Shattuck even connects Thoreau’s remarks on walking to the paths, both taken and not taken, of his ancestors.


Throughout the narrative, Shattuck often stops to dwell on the intricacies of life: the liminal spaces we find ourselves in as we search for meaning; the deep, forging bonds of friendship; the healing power of moving through grief and heartbreak. Whatever the topic is, Shattuck finds ways to tie it in with Thoreau’s writings.

While an admirer of Thoreau, Shattuck is also mindful of examining some of Thoreau’s more problematic aspects, such as his racist remarks regarding Indigenous peoples. Rather than glossing over instances of racism in Thoreau’s The Maine Woods, which Shattuck claims “would be whitewashing and, more importantly…not seeing how racism informs and shackles a person’s actions despite their political beliefs,” Shattuck chooses to confront them head-on, seeking to understand the irony racist, stereotypical language  and otherwise progressive Thoreau uses juxtaposed against elegant descriptions of the land on which Indigenous peoples lived. 

Six Walks is lyrical and cerebral, full of prosaic passages and, of course, Thoreau-esque evocations. Shattuck offers glimpses of our human desire for “an unprovable yet physical space filled with phenomena that are definitively unearthly,” and shares personal anecdotes on coping with Lyme disease, the trauma of witnessing a drowning as a young teen, and even a tryst with some MDMA (an attempt to “feel some of the transcendence in nature that Henry felt;” Henry had, after all, experimented with some ether himself), as well as a partial finger amputation—the result of an accident involving a boat and a patch of slippery ice. 


Inter-spliced throughout the prose are bits of humor; Shattuck even details the time he was once mistaken for a Thoreau re-enactor at Walden, the unintentional side effect of having “given up shaving and getting haircuts under the dulling effects [of] bad health” (referring to a long struggle with Lyme disease).

 He also, of course, expresses his deep love for his wife, actress Jenny Slate. All of it—the personal stories, the vivid descriptions of nature, the devotion to Jenny and the occasional awkward encounter with fans—is connected to Thoreau in one rich and immense extended metaphor exploring what it means to be human in a natural world that existed long before us and, God willing, will continue to exist long after us.


In our own ways, perhaps we would benefit from exploring the paths available to us. Whether to walk physically, or walk figuratively through the words of writers like Shattuck and Thoreau, we can find something about ourselves, our own individual lives and worlds, and look for ways to connect our own world with the worlds of others; carve our own stories into the world and let them be discovered and pondered over long after we are gone. Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau will inspire you to contemplate your own existence, your own tethering to a world which, as Thoreau wrote, “is but a canvas to our imagination.” In our own imaginations, we possess the ability to paint our own canvas of the world whether through art, poetry, music, or whatever means of creativity we choose.. Whatever the medium, many a blank canvas awaits what our imaginations can bring to them. 


Thoreau described the purpose of his Walden experiment thusly: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and now, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” These words still hold meaning today, as Shattuck shows us in his own experiment. Despite his desire to retrace the famous footsteps of Thoreau, Shattuck’s Six Walks is, while an homage to Thoreau, its own work of art that transcends a mere replica of Walden; rather, it exists as its own example of excellent, expert natural history writing that can sit alongside the works of Thoreau and not just mirror them. Six Walks is an elegant example of simply existing, both in the world and in one’s own thoughts. It’s an ode to the human condition that reminds us that we, too, should wish to live deliberately.


Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, by Ben Shattuck, Tin House, 2022.


Cynthia Atkins est l'auteur deLes temps de Psyché, en cas de divulgation complète(CW Livres),Nature morte avec Dieu(Saint Julian Press 2020).  Son travail a été publié dans de nombreuses revues, dont Alaska Quarterly Review, BOMB, Cleaver Magazine, Diode, Florida Review, Green Mountains Review, Rust + Moth, North American Review, Seneca Review, Thrush, Tinderbox, et Verse Quotidien. Elle était auparavant directrice adjointe de la Poetry Society of America et a enseigné l'anglais et l'écriture créative, plus récemment au Blue Ridge Community College, où elle a organisé une série de lecture trimestrielle, Lit-Salon. Elle est rédactrice en chef des interviews pour American Microreviews and Interviews.  Atkins a obtenu son MFA de l'Université de Columbia et a obtenu des bourses et des prix de la Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Writer's Voice , et Writers@Work. Atkins vit sur la rivière Maury du comté de Rockbridge, en Virginie, avec l'artiste Phillip Welch et leur famille. 

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Ben is a Pushcart Prize recipient, 2019, and was awarded the PEN America Best Debut Short Story Prize,  2017. He is the Director of the Cuttyhunk Island Writers' Residency, and the Director and Curator of the Dedee Shattuck Gallery. His book, Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, is available now from Tin House.

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