If you want to feel angsty, we’re at a point in history when you can take your pick of disastrous circumstances to fret over or worse, devote a complete work of fiction to. Since Thoreau and Me was written before the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems a little displacing to read something that doesn’t include that pesky virus in its examination of the possibility of an end to everything. But maybe it provides some nostalgia by leaving it out, helping us remember that there was a time when climate change was the sole top contender for everyone’s natural boogeyman. Nowadays it seems like climate change would have trouble getting arrested.
Don’t worry, it’s still around and it’s still terrifying and Cedric Taling’s Thoreau and Me takes a whimsical and strangely upbeat approach to examining its place in our collective psyche as a looming finality.
Thoreau and Me focuses on Parisian painter Cedric, who is dissatisfied with the state of the world and the state of his life. Not his whole life — he has an awesome wife and two daughters, but he’s definitely lacking in his ability to view the wider reality of life with anything but tension, and he’s distressed at his role in what’s wrong with everything. At a gallery opening one night, the ghost or spirit or imaginary manifestation of Henry David Thoreau latches on to him and begins a series of conversations that examines the circumstances of humanity’s upcoming demise and compares it to Thoreau’s personal experience embracing the revelations of nature in a world that is long gone.
While climate change is certainly a modern terror, Thoreau is able to frame as the end result of a longer process than Cedric considered it. Focusing on consumerism spark of the environmental death knell everyone is hearing, Cedric and Thoreau talk about how the consumption of goods really only leads to the consumption of more goods, with the psychological effect that the goods become things that the human cannot live without, and so the pursuit of money becomes the central goal of the human life rather than appreciating that life and the natural world that surrounds it.
In one telling scene, a dinner party debate over what can be done about climate change turns into a frank confessional from all the participants about how they fail to do the things that they think need to be done, and that their failure is fueled by their personal and business consumerist habits that they’ve allowed to transform from desires into necessities. From there Cedric becomes more determined to correct his family’s personal course and along with his wife, works to pursue a dream of a self-sustaining house in the woods. Along the way, though, Cedric has to face up to his own panic, which causes some missteps.
It’s never explicitly proclaimed in Thoreau and Me, but it becomes keenly apparent that the glorious experience that Thoreau talks about to Cedric is unattainable in the 21st Century. We have created our own psychological clutter and that has manifested through mass production in such a way that it has changed our physical surroundings and stolen the possibilities of Thoreau’s world away from us. Contemplation is harder to seize, communion with nature harder to achieve in a pure form, and a dream-like Cedric’s involves lots of money that many of us don’t have, as well as the good fortune be able to grab some of that ever-dwindling natural space that’s available. And let’s not even get into a debate if land property should be included as part of consumption that’s killing everything.
These matters are a hitch in Thoreau and Me, but only a slight one since it presents as a rumination and a fable, and perhaps the real Cedric doesn’t have the means for such a dream house in the woods, I don’t know. He has enough passion for the ideas he’s presenting here, the conversations that don’t let him off the hook and the dream that he dramatizes in the story, and it comes through in his lush, colorful presentation of both Cedric’s delusional relationship with his hero and the majesty of the world they inhabit. The heart is in the right place and so many of us are so imperfect at doing what we think is crucial that the fact he’s committed these concepts to book form and encouraged contemplation allows me to cut him some slack here.