Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Eco-Tourist, English Heritage, and Arthurian Legend: Walking with Thoreau

Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Eco-Tourist, English Heritage, and Arthurian Legend: Walking with Thoreau

Article excerpt

This article examines natural sites connected to Arthurian legend in the context of their construction as tourist sites and their designation as ecologically significant. Reading these sites through the works of Henry David Thoreau, it connects his strategic medievalism to a modern, nostalgic tendency to locate nature' in the past, paradoxically existing once (the vanished wilderness) and future (the restored wetland). (KCK)

The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory-precession of simulacra-that engenders the territory.

-Jean Baudrillard, The Precession of Simulacra'

I wish to speak a word 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 ... in Wildness is the preservation of the world.

-Henry David Thoreau, 'Walking '

Notice, [Thoreau] used 'Wildness,' with a capital 'W,' and not 'wilderness' as he is ofien misquoted. 'Wildness' has that extra whump to it, which transcends it into a meaning completely different from 'wilderness. '

-Asheesh Pittie, Indian Birds

I live close enough to Waiden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts to swim and kayak there several times a week in the summer. I see hundreds of tourists from all over the world on pilgrimage, hiking to the granite posts that mark the spot where Henry David Thoreau's cabin once stood or to the replica built conveniently close to the parking lot. The tourists stumble by, cursing themselves for not knowing that they could have brought bathing suits. The visitor from Nebraska or France or India will attempt to tune out the boom boxes and the shrill of children emanating from the beach. She or he will try to blot out the public bathrooms and the concrete wall that runs from the beach to the boat ramp. The visitor stands, arms akimbo, surveying the green woods and the bowl of aquamarine water that Thoreau called 'blue- eyed Waiden.' I imagine the tourist imagining that surely this, this play of leaf, light, and water, must be what Thoreau saw when he went to the woods because he wanted to live deliberately (see Figure 1).

However, in the nineteenth century, the Waiden Woods was a source of timber for the residents of Concord-Ralph Waldo Emerson among them. Much of what Thoreau saw every day included tracts of clear-cut forest (see Figure 2). In fact, Thoreau planted his famous bean field in a deforested area, clearing away much of the succession growth of'cinquefoil, blackberries... sweet wild fruits and pleasant flowers' to do so.1 What we see today at Waiden Pond is a succession forest (the bean field is gone) paid for by millions of restoration dollars. Many of the plant species-such as the lilies and orchids that Thoreau kept such meticulous track of in his journal-are rarely seen or have disappeared. W. Barksdale Maynard says: 'In general, Thoreau is straightforward about how scruffy Waiden Pond was; it is actually our preexisting expectations that cause readers to paint the pond rosy.'2 The past that one desires to step into, as the tourist cliché goes, often turns out to be an ahistorical fantasy-as 'nature' itself can be.

The belief that a given landscape in its current state is untouched and unspoiled by human hands, a piece of the past miraculously persisting into the present, is hardly unique to Waiden Pond. Similar pockets of wild nature have been revitalized (a much more accurate word than 'preserved' or 'restored') all over the world. Such natural sites have garnered their pilgrims over the years, not only because of their beauty but also, often, because of their association with a historical figure like Thoreau-and sometimes with a legendary figure, like King Arthur. Thoreau made Waiden Pond, otherwise just another glacial kettle hole in New England, special. And in Britain, the development of Arthurian legend made just about every fifth hill, valley, body of water, rock formation, and unusual topographical feature in the United Kingdom, from Arthur's Seat and Inglewood Forest to Merlin's Cave, special. …

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