Henry David Thoreau and the Spirit of 2014

December 13th, 2013 · No Comments

by Jane St. Clair

What I love about Thoreau is that he made every moment of his short life count for something. Mostly what he did was perambulate –a wonderful word that means to walk and think at the same time. And when you’re Henry David Thoreau, perambulating counts for something.

When he was 28 years old, he left the civilized world to live full-time in the woods at Walden Pond (actually, he wasn’t far from civilization –he could walk into town whenever he wanted). Forest Path
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front 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.

I really love his word “deliberately.” Thoreau absorbed everything he saw in a deliberate way… whether it was the beauty of a large landscape (sadly, he never came out West to see the really big landscapes) Landscape in Arizona

Or a small detail of nature like the bark of a tree… Tree Bark Close Up
Thoreau wouldn’t have fit in 2014 with its multitasking and electronic connections for he preferred to do one thing at a time. He would have marveled at TV, video games and roller coasters because he didn’t require much stimulation to get turned on.

Pretty Arizona Bird
I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.

Thoreau philosophized about whatever he saw in nature. He’d see a lake and a fish, for example, and come up with a line like: Forest Waterfall
Many go fishing without knowing it is fish they are after.

Sometimes he’d get so high in nature that he’d reach mystical states, so that he understood, like all awakened souls, that: “Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake…In dreams we never deceive ourselves, nor are deceived.”

Thoreau was the first to simplify his life. He would see the point of having shelter, but not of owning a house. He would see the point of covering yourself against the wind and rain, but not of wearing fancy clothes. Henry_David_Thoreau1 I say beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. …. Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them.

When Thoreau was twenty-nine, he got arrested for not paying taxes because he thought the money went to an unjust war. Ralph Waldo Emerson visited him in jail and asked him something like “What’s a nice guy like you doing in prison?” Thoreau famously replied, “Why aren’t you here too?” His most influential writing is “On Civil Disobedience” which remains the classic guide to standing up to authority. It’s a great piece, but it’s not my favorite Thoreau.

My favorite is “The Battle of the Ants.” I can picture him laying on his stomach, just watching the little fellows for days on end, and then writingAnt Hill with red Ants
an essay that compares ant wars to Aeneas. How cool is that?

You could point out that Thoreau was a rich boy whose dad owned a pencil factory, who went to Harvard, and who had wealthy influential friends –and that all those things gave him the courage to escape to the woods. You could call him a non-conformist or kook, but he knew that about himself.
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.

I think he knew he was a rich kook but luckily, he didn’t care.

Beautiful Moody Leaves
In every moment of his life Henry David Thoreau lived from his heart. He achieved what psychologists call self-actualization and what philosophers call authenticity. He and St. Francis would have understood one another. Both spent their lives in nature and both lived lives of deliberate authenticity. To perambulate –to walk and to think— it sounds so simple for the new year of 2014, and yet erhaps that’s what it’s all about.

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