Thoreau and the mall? No not that mall…

Thoreau and the Mall

Thoreau and the Mall

If you’re a regular reader of our Facebook page, you know that Whole Earth starts every day with a quote. Last year’s 365 quotes were just a drop in the bucket compared to the number of quotes we collected but that failed to make the grade for “publication.” And in gathering this mountain of quotes, we’ve learned several lessons.

Perhaps the most important one is that any quote from Mark Twain must be verified. It seems that our great American writer has been credited with many a quote that he never actually set down on paper. There are often clues that something is amiss – usually a colloquial phrase or a word used before its time. So when we read this quote from Henry David Thoreau, it looked like another example of misattribution.

“When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us if we walked only in a garden or a mall?”

Wait, what? A mall? Thoreau was blessed with foresight, but did he really foresee the great American shopping mall and its early morning mall walkers? Surely this was an “updated” or even a spurious quote. A quick internet search revealed that the quote is genuine. It’s from his famous essay “Walking” published in The Atlantic Monthly on June 1, 1862. So what was a mall to Thoreau?

According to Webster’s Second Unabridged, mall refers to Pall Mall, a game and a place. The game was an ancestor of croquet, played on long grass alleys with large hoops, wooden balls and mallets. In 17th century London, the King and his court played Pall Mall in St. James’ Park. As the game’s popularity waned the Pall Mall alley was repurposed as a tree-lined public promenade, but the name Pall Mall or the Mall stuck. So Thoreau’s mall is a shaded public walk.

What would become of us if we walked only in a garden or a mall? Thoreau believed we would lose our connection to the Wild. He saw walking as a holy act, a communion with the Wild, which enriched our humanity by returning us to our true home within the natural world. It was easy for Thoreau to find the Wild. It was just down the road and over a fence or two. For us, it’s more difficult. But we should not be deterred from following Thoreau’s advice and cultivating our connection with the Wild by walking in wild places whenever we can.