Walkway over the dunes at a beach

What Is My Authentic Self?

By David Gessner

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Walks and Talks with Dave (and Henry): Lectures and Prompts from the Carolina Coast

Like many teachers, I have recently converted my classes to online teaching. The class I was teaching this term, Writing from Place in the Age of Climate Change, had an apocalyptic flavor even before the virus hit. In fairness to my beleaguered undergrads, I have decided to downplay the whole end-of-the-world theme for the rest of the term. Instead I have gone for walks and paddles in nature near my home in North Carolina and the following talks take place while along the Cape Fear River, standing on a dock jutting out into the Intracoastal Waterway, and paddling down Hewletts Creek (also known to TV viewers as Dawson’s Creek.)  

When I look back at these talks—it would be a stretch to call them lectures—my first thought is, “I wish I’d combed my hair.” But I’m going to leave the tapes as they are, rough and unedited, in hopes that they prove to be a way to reach out during this time of isolation.

Something unexpected happened during these walks. I found that I was not alone. More and more, a man named Henry David Thoreau kept muscling his way into the short films I was taking with my iPhone. This was not supposed to be a course on Thoreau, but he insisted.  

Sixteen years ago, though it seems just a blink, I was walking at Walden Pond with my infant daughter on my shoulders, when we came upon the site of Thoreau’s cabin and I said to her: “That’s where the man lived who ruined your father’s life.”

Ruined in a good way mostly, I think. Reading Walden in high school led to a massive reprioritizing of my life. Over the years I have argued plenty with Henry David, finding him to be limited, prudish, and at times dull. But I keep coming back to him, keep finding new lessons in his writing.

Never have I come back as hard as right now. It turns out that the original social distancer has some things to say about residing in place.  

As you will see, I get some of my Thoreau facts wrong. The cabin was in fact 10’ x 15’. His mother’s house was a stop on the underground railroad, but his cabin in the woods was not, though he did hide escaped slaves there more than once. I will let these mistakes, like my unbrushed hair, stand.

For the moment this is a one-way conversation—me talking at you. But I hope that changes. One ritual that Thoreau did not practice at Walden was cocktail hour. “Water is the only drink for the wise man,” he wrote. Perhaps. But perhaps in the future we can all raise a virtual drink, water or otherwise, and toast to a time that is beyond this one. A better, simpler future.

Prompt: What Is My Authentic Self?



David GessnerDavid Gessner is the author of 11 books that blend a love of nature, humor, memoir, and environmentalism, including the forthcoming Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness and the New York Times-bestselling All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West. Gessner currently serves as chair of the Creative Writing Department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where he is also the founder and editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Ecotone. Gessner lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with his wife, the novelist Nina de Gramont, and their daughter Hadley.
Read David Gessner’s Letter to America in Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, published by Terrain.org and Trinity University Press.

Header photo by Tama66, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of David Gessner by Debi Lorenc.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.