Everyone knows Henry David Thoreau for his famous hermitage and journal from Walden Pond. He temporarily relocated to the woods on a lot owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, in whose house Thoreau was living.
Thoreau is the fellow who wrote, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived (Thoreau 1854)." His essay on Civil Disobedience foreshadowed peace and national separatist movements.
Emerson is remembered for his journals, poems, and essays. He is often quoted with, "The only way to have a friend is to be one," and, "A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud (Emerson 1841)." Now, both of these men were friends and writers, both were renowned for their views on individualism, transcendentalism, and appreciation for nature. Both went to Harvard. The natural world was a laboratory from which to draw wisdom for both. Together, their ideas are pillars of the American Identity. They are mentioned so often in tandem, one might think they were completely alike. Not so.
In their time, Emerson was more famous and wealthier. He made his living primarily in lecturing. Sold out wherever he traveled, his opinions and ideas were highly valued. He was the leading pundit of his day. His large house outside of Boston was regularly the site for social gatherings and meals. Indeed, Emerson seemed to thrive around other people. His career path included ministry, literature, and public speaking. For him, ideas germinated and multiplied in the company of others.
Though his family wanted him to enter the legal, clergy, or medical field, Thoreau bounced from job to job. His resumé included working in the family pencil-making business, surveyor, teacher, Emerson's handyman, and finally, writing. Thoreau had only a few close friends and was close to his family. He was known to retreat to the margins at social gatherings. His writings show his preference for sincerity in relationships and a cynical attitude toward small talk. He was a sort of pauper. Emerson wrote, "He chose to be rich by making his wants few, and supplying them himself (Emerson 1862)." He often enjoyed the company of birds and trees more than people.
Emerson was the extrovert, Thoreau the introvert. I empathize and share—and I venture to say many camp professionals as well—a bond with the pair. We believe in the power of personal growth and good character (termed "self-reliance" and "virtue" in the days of Emerson and Thoreau). We believe that time spent in the woods and fresh air have countless benefits, and cannot be replaced by artificial means. In our work, we take on both personalities.
There is the Emerson side of us. We are often called to be at the front of a group, at campfires, training staff, giving a "thought for the day," or playing games. As leaders, it is our duty to be seen, to be a source of wisdom to others, and occasionally to lecture. Repeated leading of an activity can become a routine, and we are prone to "turn on" our perky, outgoing selves on demand. We are well aware of the mysterious energy we gain from being near others, even when we feel tired. So, we relish the chance to join the program, and we encourage quality group time to share ideas.
Then there is the time we spend in solitude at our desks or taking a walk, the Thoreau side. We long for some quiet time among the long hours we work. We need time to plan, to organize, to mentally catch up. If the program requires "turn-it-on" time to be giving and vivacious, there must be time to "turn it off." We lament at times over certain encounters. Sometimes we are fussy curmudgeons. We long for sincerity and meaning among our myriad relationships, most of which are with children and young adults. And like Thoreau, variety in work is preferable. Birdsong is as much music to us as the tenth verse of "Rise and Shine."
The camp world is both loud and quiet. It's reveille and taps. We vacillate between extroversion and introversion. Like grass on the other side of the fence, we miss one when we have the other. That's why we love camp; the scene changes so much. In the thick of things, with songs, skits and schedules, checklists, cheers, clipboards, and counseling, one stimulation after another beckons us at every turn. We retreat to a quiet room or pathway when we get the chance for a moment of calm and relief. And then one day camp is silent, deer show up on the soccer field, and we wince, remembering how children ran across that same grass.
Camp as we know it was not around in the days of Emerson and Thoreau, but the whole concept seems to rest on their principles. Camp is a separate reality, a slice of ideal life in the summer, part hut on Walden Pond, part gathering at the Emerson house. It's a chance to live deeply in the woods. At camp, we can grow in both solitude and community.
Jim Parry is the outdoor education director at Collin County YMCA Adventure Camp in Anna, Texas. He can be reached at JimP@YMCADALLAS.org .
Originally published in the 2007 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.