by Evan Edwards

Henry_David_ThoreauIn September of 1851, a word enters the journal of Henry David Thoreau: perambulation. An inveterate enthusiast of walking, as well as a voracious collector of words, such a sudden introduction of this peculiar peripatetic term, which is an antiquated relative of the more familiar ‘ambulation,' or ‘to amble,' (from the Latin Ambulare, ‘to walk') should stand out to us as readers. He writes that “[o]n Monday, the 15th, I am going to perambulate the bounds of the town,” and later, “Sept. 17. Perambulated the Lincoln Line,” and “Sept. 18. Perambulated Bedford line.” This word begins to cross Thoreau's mind more and more steadily for the better part of a month until, in October, he gives up ‘perambulating,' and instead uses a near synonym, ‘surveying,' (which, like perambulating, has to do, at least on the surface, with the work he was doing at the time) to describe his activities. He then rarely returns to ‘perambulation' for the rest of his life. At least in word.

Instead, in October, he begins to speak exclusively of ‘surveying,' ‘walking,' or elsewhere, ‘skating to,' and then, as he enters the late 1850s, in the last half-decade of his life, he all but ceases to lead journal entries with a description of his own activity at all, perambulation or otherwise, referring instead to the conditions of the environment and then, occasionally, drifting into descriptions of his own mind and body. Although the term does not seem to return, it tells us worlds about Thoreau's philosophical position.

In order to understand the significance of the brief intrusion of this term, we should keep two things in mind: first, the time at which he was writing these entries; and second, the difference between ambulating and perambulating. Attending to these two points should help us not only understand Thoreau, but also something about our own relationship to nature.

In 1850, Thoreau encountered the work of Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt's Kosmos, which just began to come out in English translation in the late 1840s, is a wide-reaching tome that seeks to divine the basic principles that underlie all physical processes in the universe, from the movements of the celestial bodies all the way down to the lives of small beetles and micro-organisms, floating idly on the wind. In Kosmos, we find a vision of the universe akin to that of Pythagoras, the Greek polymath, who viewed all of reality as a harmoniously ordered, self-regulating whole, each part balancing the other, every piece of the physical universe having an influence, however so slight, on the workings of the rest of creation. In Humboldt's work we find a reanimation of this word, updated with all the accuracy of modern science to specify just how the world works together as a self-generative and self-regulating whole.

In Humboldt's earlier work, Views of Nature, he shows this interrelatedness of nature, in a kind of proto-ecology, by recounting brief moments of his great South American adventure. He takes each “view” as a fractal vision of the whole: the dense interrelatedness of each biome he investigates stands in for the less apparent connections that bind together all of the natural world. Humboldt seems to suggest that if we cast our gaze upon the geological, biological, and cultural world around us, we ought to discern the same degree of causal interrelatedness that one would find in any part of the world.

In the early 1850s, Thoreau took this suggestion to its uttermost conclusions. He'd always been a kind of a homebody, spending two years in the backyard of his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and rarely spending any time outside of the same township in which he was born and raised. In his journals throughout the 1850s, we see an intense commitment to understanding these tight-knit webs of life that made up the woods around Concord, Massachusetts. He notes which flora and fauna make their appearance or pass away on each day of the year and finds, in these regular comings and goings, the extensive conditions which caused the appearance of each. This allowed him to discover, by slow degrees, the significance that each of these conditions had for every aspect of the web of life in the environs of Concord.

In short, where Humboldt observed and catalogued the most significant players in the biospheres he visited in the Southern continent, Thoreau was obsessively concerned to leave not a single stone unturned, insect unseen, squirrel unpursued, or seed uncatalogued, in the ten miles or so around his home. From this small plot of unremarkable land in the backwoods of Massachusetts (albeit one that, as Thoreau thought, was as a university to which other parts of the world provided only preparatory education: “Paris could only be a school in which to learn to live here, a stepping-stone to Concord, as school in which to fit for this university” [Journal entry, March 11, 1856]), Thoreau sought an Archimedean point from which to view the cosmos. It is this assiduous attention to place, to the land in his own environs, that makes his reference to perambulation so significant.

We should note two things about what perambulation actually means, in order to make this point more clearly. The historical use of the word, as Thoreau notes in his journal, meant “[going] round the towns of [the] state every three years” and marking out the “bounds [of properties] by a heap of stones.” He also describes it this way: “[A] sort of reconnaissance of [the town's] frontiers authorized by the central government of the town” which brings “the surveyor in contact with whatever wild inhabitant or wildness its territory embraces.” (Journal entry, September 12, 1851) In Samuel Johnson's dictionary, to which Thoreau referred, the entry for perambulation reads: “to walk through; to survey, by passing through; to visit the boundaries of the parish.” (Johnson, 533) In other words, it means to sketch out the boundaries of a place, but not just through the abstract process of marking out lines on a map. Rather, it requires the perambulator to walk through the land, to be within it, and to put foot to mud across the hills and dells that are to be sketched out. The prefix per- indicates the site specific nature of perambulation, its through-ness, and the embeddedness in the landscape that it implies, as opposed to the general wanderings of walking, ambling, hiking, etc.

Thoreau, as always, plunges deeply into this word, and thinks its application not just in the rude, economic sense that he believes the town selectmen have in mind. That is, not just as a way of butchering the land, cutting it up into pieces to be used for private consumption and profit, but as a mode of walking. In his essay, “Walking,” he presents an understanding of walking that exists on at least two registers: first, walking means literally the act of locomoting by foot, which is important for coming into contact with things at a reasonable pace. It seems that for Thoreau, this contact is necessary for encountering the world on its terms, rather than our own. Second, walking, sauntering, refers to the act of moving among ideas, perspectives, and practices freely, without remaining bound to any particular epistemological position, or doctrinal axiomatics. Both senses have a similar goal, however, insofar as they seek to amble toward what Thoreau calls ‘the Holy Land,' or the place of truth. Perambulation takes this logic one step further.


While perambulating can be understood as an old English rite of subdividing and privatizing the land, reducing it to property, it can also point to two more Thoreauvian senses. First, perambulation can point to the way that walking always occurs within a place. One cannot simply say, for example, “I perambulated yesterday,” but must attach this verb to a direct object, i.e. “I perambulated the parks yesterday.” Just as a verb can't function structurally without a subject, implied or explicit, perambulation cannot exist without a specific place to which it refers. This calls our attention to place, by attaching the subject, and the action, necessarily to the space in which they occur.

Secondly, perambulation can point to the way that as we move through thought, metaphorically, we don't just wander, but always wander through. Thoreau suggests that perambulation is a mode of thought appropriate to poets. He writes: “the poet must keep himself unstained and aloof. Let him perambulate the bounds of Imagination's provinces, the realms of faery, and not the insignificant boundaries of towns.” (Journal Entry, September 20th, 1851) This recalls his anecdote about Wordsworth, in “Walking,” where he writes that “when a traveller asked Wordsworth's servant to show him her master's study, she answered ‘Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.'” It is not stasis but motion that produces the greatest works of science and art, as a recent rash of studies have shown by demonstrating the correlation between walking and creativity. On a metaphorical level, it is through the critical and vital movement of thought that new and more vibrant perspectives on reality are produced. But, as Thoreau's perambulation suggests, critique, philosophy, science, etc. all move through established terrain on their way to new ideas. As Newton wrote in his famous letter to Hooke, “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We might rephrase his insight thus: “if we have walked a mote closer to the Holy Land, it is by perambulating the lands from which we came.”

But hardly anyone uses this term anymore. A quick Google ngram search shows that both ‘perambulate' and ‘perambulation' have been on a steady decline in use since the mid-19th century, with a corresponding increase in the more site-generic ‘ambulate' and ‘ambulation.' See the chart below:

There are a number of factors that might explain these trends. It could be that perambulation is a word with stronger roots in British English than that of American English, and in the 20th century, it is the English of American market economies that has spread more thoroughly over the globe. It may have to do with the way that boundaries are marked today. With satellite imaging and ready access to any cartographic representation one could possibly dream of, the need to walk the perimeter of a town, or settle border disputes, is much less pressing. It could be that in the 20th century, border disputes are less prevalent than in the 19th, and that the ritual of walking boundaries in a political capacity is likewise less necessary. It could be that with the rise of technological transportation (railways, cars, planes, even bikes, &c.), we walk less as a species, and therefore have less need for words that describe it. It could be that a general shift in language from the organic to the virtual, as Robert MacFarlane has pointed out, has shifted our lexicon steadily away from the various actions of the body and place. All of these, and more that I can't possibly imagine, are probably contributing factors, and all point to an underlying difference between our time and that of Thoreau.

In an age of extreme acceleration, of our bodies through space as well as of technological advancement, transportation and movement seem to be increasingly oriented toward the elimination of space. Karl Marx anticipated this trend in his Grundrisse when he identified the way that capitalist modes of production necessitate “the annihilation of space by time.” (Marx, 459) For Marx, this means that in order to increase efficiency, and therefore to maximize profit and minimize labor costs, capital requires that we fundamentally reorganize and reconceptualize space to fit our accelerating sense of time. Think of the way, for example, that cell phones work. In order to make our communications more efficient, cellular devices eliminate the need for us to be in proximity to communicate. A similar phenomenon can be discerned in superhighway construction and airplane transportation, insofar as the space through which, or over which, we travel is all but eliminated to connect point A to point B more effectively. The construction of consumer goods, which required an enormous amount of space to produce in the 19th century, has been reduced, thanks to the ability for robotics to operate in more constricted spaces, and so on. Space, then, becomes secondary to time, or, is “annihilated” by it.

Perambulation has no place in this spaceless world. When we travel, we hardly travel through a place now; at least, only in word, not in deed. This seems not unrelated to the way that our language has lost much of its capacity to speak of the specificities of place in the last two hundred years, as Robert MacFarlane has so convincingly shown. An increase in interest with place, and with the art of walking, in the last few decades, shows perhaps a push back against this trend, but it doesn't seem that footfalls have much power in the face of technology. Perhaps not. But if we begin perambulating, rather than just moving, perhaps our feet might carry a little more weight.


I'll leave the last word to John Muir, who in his essay on the Yellowstone National Park had this to say, bemoaning the then rapid speed of forty miles per day:

“Few tourists…will see the Excelsior [geyser] in action, or a thousand other interesting features of the park that lie beyond the wagon-roads and the hotels. The regular trips – from three to five days—are too short. Nothing can be done well at a speed of forty miles a day. The multitude of mixed, novel impressions rapidly piled on one another make only a dreamy, bewildering, swirling blur, most of which is unrememberable. Far more time should be taken. Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grass and gentians of glacier meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of Nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees… As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but Nature's sources never fail.”