“Arrivèd there, the little house they fill,
Ne looke for entertainment where none was;
Rest is their feast, and all things at their will:
The noblest mind the best contentment has.”
—Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene
Henry David Thoreau carefully inscribed this quote onto a yellow walnut leaf during a summer day in 1845. These verses would become the motto of Thoreau’s humble cabin near Walden Pond, a shallow body of water located only a short distance from the town of Concord, Massachusetts. He found a sort of solace in this idyllic landscape; here was an atmosphere of tranquility that, at least temporarily, purged the pain and strife of the human condition. Absorbed into the forest’s flora and fauna, Thoreau would restore his soul; certainly, rest was his feast.
A little more than 160 years later, a scruffy hipster named Justin Vernon would embark on a similar search for peace in the woods. It was 2005: His band, DeYarmond Edison, barely survived the long haul from Eau Claire, Wisconsin to Raleigh, North Carolina before finally cutting ties with each other. It was clear that everyone’s interests were diverging; a series of artistic conflicts had corroded close friendships as the demands of adulthood started to tarnish adolescent hopes and dreams. Justin became sick; a nasty bout of mononucleosis and a liver infection completely derailed his life. He lost a considerable amount of money playing poker. He separated from his longtime girlfriend, Christy Smith. Songwriting, his former craft, suddenly felt like an impossible chore. There was no mistake that Justin’s spirit had been depleted over the course of a year.
Desperate to escape this downward spiral, Justin tossed recording equipment into the back of his car and drove for eighteen hours into the dark night. He arrived at his father’s hunting cabin in Medford, Wisconsin the next day. Although he had planned to keep this retreat short, he stayed in the cabin for three months, hunting his food, facing a wild bear, and enduring the worst weeks of a brutal winter. According to The Daily Telegraph, Justin saw this time as “an opportunity to escape the trap of society, to not pay bills, to play music and live really cheaply,” much like Thoreau over a century ago. This wintry excursion also replenished Justin’s creativity. He periodically would work on songs during overwhelming bursts of inspiration, telling Slate, “I would work for 14 hours a day and start to feel a little insane.” The result of this extremely productive isolation was an entirely new project—Bon Iver, the phonetic notation for “good winter” in French (Brøvig-Hanssen 125). Using the material that Justin developed in the hunting cabin, Bon Iver recorded and released For Emma, Forever Ago, a critically acclaimed album that Darcie Stevens of The Austin Chronicle called “the paradigm of uninhibited closure, a gentle touch on a sad day.”
In a poetic sense, Thoreau and Bon Iver are spiritual twins traversing space and time. Filled with lush acoustics and natural imagery, the pristine folk album perfectly resonates with the Transcendentalist’s most important themes: “We hear nature as culture, or nature as a means of getting in touch with one’s authentic self” (Brøvig-Hanssen 125). Indeed, just as Walden Pond represented a particular place of mind for Thoreau, Justin likewise found an abstraction in the character of Emma while dwelling in the woods. He confessed to The New Yorker, “Emma isn’t a person. Emma is a place that you get stuck in. Emma’s a pain that you can’t erase.” Taking this interpretation a step further, Walden and For Emma together unfold as clear “variations on the romantic theme of coming closer to the essential aspects of life by leaving the ‘inauthentic,’ superfluous lifestyle of civilization behind” (Brøvig-Hanssen 125). For example, the gracefully layered falsettos that dominate the title track “For Emma” echo the delicate language that Thoreau employs in Walden to capture nature’s beauty: “As the sun arose, I saw it throwing off its nightly clothing of mist, and here and there, by degrees, its soft ripples or its smooth reflecting surface was revealed, while the mists, like ghosts, were stealthily withdrawing in every direction into the woods.” Such comparisons feel almost patent, perhaps explaining their popularity with music critics.
But, more significantly, neither Thoreau nor Justin returned to their cabins once they left. At the conclusion of Walden, Thoreau observes, “So the seasons went rolling on into summer, as one rambles into higher and higher grass.” Similarly, Justin closed the chapter of his life spent in solitude; rather than replicating the folky sensibilities of For Emma, he proceeded to experiment aesthetically as Bon Iver evolved, collaborating with musically eclectic artists, including Kanye West. In the way that Thoreau would change later in life, the man behind Bon Iver refused to limit himself to a single niche, either: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
Brøvig-Hanssen, Ragnhild, and Anne Danielsen. Digital Signatures: the Impact of Digitization on Popular Music Sound. The MIT Press, 2016.