|The Deliberate Life: Thoreau at Walden
by Stevan Alburty
© 1998 by Stevan Alburty
|When the great Spanish conqueror, Hernando Cortes, landed on the shores of the
Aztec empire, he set fire to his ships to prevent his men from prematurely returning home.
Gangly, powerless thirteen-year-old boys reading history tend to relish the despotic,
barbaric gesture and so I adopted Cortes as my boyhood hero for an entire summer.
The alfalfa field that surrounded our farm, a field I was forbidden to enter because of my allergies, made a suitably impassable Atlantic Ocean. On alternating days, I was either Cortes, the savage leader, about to set a fiery torch to his fleet, or one of his trembling crew, aching for the land and loved ones he would never see again.
By fall, I was in the seventh grade and was selected to collect the lunch money in home room because of my math skills. This honor resulted in my occasionally being stopped in the hallway by larger classmates and placed inside a locker.
Unskilled and uninterested in sports, I volunteered for the only other team in school which enabled me to wear a uniform: Crossing Patrol. Strapped into a yellow slicker by a white belt and sash, I made a conspicuous target for both traffic and toughs.
This, then, is the context in which I first heard Mrs. Dean read selections from Walden in English class that autumn, and may explain the eagerness with which I abandoned Cortes for Henry David Thoreau.
Let my less sophisticated classmates read their juvenilia filled with continent-conquerors, plucky girl nurses and tireless Huskies yanking their masters across the Yukon. Here was a fellow outcast who had quite simply raised his hand, left the room and declared a recess from the world.
Late last autumn, on a commonplace morning in Manhattan, I took the subway to work, said good morning to the receptionist, found my boss and quit.
This was not a pre-meditated act. I had not been scheming for months to find the most dramatic way to throw a 17-year career down the toilet. But as Snoopy once observed, there are just some days when you wake up and know you've got to bite somebody on the leg before the day is out, or you'll go crazy.
There is a school of thought that says if everyone on the planet has suddenly turned irritating and idiotic, the problem is not with them, it's with you. This, as all sensible people know, is sheer nonsense. As if regenerated during the night via alien pods, my co-workers had all become aggravating and incompetent, while I, of course, had evolved into a higher lifeform.
The clearly logical course of action was to temporarily separate myself from society. A caribou, slackened in its pace by infirmity, will cauterize itself from the herd so as to not impede the progress of its fellow caribou in their migration. The nobility of that metaphor alternated with a sentiment less lyrical, but infinitely more pragmatic - a straggling caribou had better find a way to get its rump in gear or it will quickly become lunch.
A few years earlier, while on a vacation in Maine, I had purchased a paperback edition of Walden. Like Moby Dick and War and Peace, Walden belongs to that pantheon of universally famous books which no human being has ever actually completed. Being a bibliophile, I knew that owning a book was the next-best thing to reading it. I found just carrying Walden in a backpack while hiking through the outlet stores of Maine to be intensely satisfying.
But now, at the age of 43, I was in existential trouble. The moment for courage had arrived. I needed to face the greatest challenge of my life like a man: the time had come to read Walden. And rather than read this pastoral paean while sitting in a bathrobe drinking coffee in a comfortable apartment in the canyons of Manhattan, I needed to read Walden where it had been written. If the trees had shared their secrets with Thoreau, perhaps they would be just as gracious to me.
And so, with Henry David Thoreau as my traveling companion, I sped northward from New York to Walden Pond, sixteen miles west of Boston, near the neatly manicured village of Concord, Massachusetts.
At the age of sixteen, David Henry Thoreau inverted the order of his first and middle name. This may or may not have been his parent's first indication he was going to be trouble.
It would be mythologically convenient if his family had been poor, like Lincoln's. Having overwhelming odds against which one can rise is a conventional variable in the formula of folklore. "Struggle" and "humble" are a biographer's salt and pepper.
Nor did his parents possess fabulous wealth from which Henry could revolt. His father manufactured pencils and made a decent living at it. When he had to, and when he needed cash, Henry helped.
There may have been something in the soil; rebellion had long been Concord's cash crop. To Thoreau and his contemporaries, the American Revolution was not a historical abstract, but a personal, local reminiscence of their grandparents' parents. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson's "shot heard round the world" had been fired just north of the village's square only 70 years earlier.
Shortly after graduation from Harvard, Thoreau took a job as a teacher in Concord. These were in the carefree, halcyon days of our American educational system when no self-respecting teacher ended a day without having taken a cane to at least one student.
A school administrator audited Henry's class one day and took him to task for not beating his students more often. Thoreau stomped back to his classroom, selected six students at random, whipped them all soundly and then resigned, never to return. He would manage to elude steady employment for most of his adult life.
Demonizing mankind's economic serfdom became his favorite recreation. By his reckoning, all forms of commerce, trade, industry and business were venal corruptions, indenturing mankind to servitude and sorrow. "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes," he warned.
In 1837, he built a small cabin with his own hands on a hill overlooking Walden Pond and began one of the greatest social experiments in American history. He spent the next 26 months living alone in his cabin, seeing if it was possible to live a life reduced to its barest essentials.
When he wasn't standing in a snowdrift watching an owl sleep, floating on the pond in a punt playing the flute or sitting by a fire whipping up yet another batch of cornmeal mush, he scribbled furiously in his journal.
This journal was his great life work. At his death, it filled thirty-nine notebooks with over two million words. This is an achievement virtually inconceivable to a modern society in which filling out a change of address card qualifies as "correspondence." When his experiment at the pond was over, he picked through the journal for scraps and fragments and quilted them together into his one great book, Walden.
Although its narrative rarely
saunters beyond the woods and waters of this sixty-one acre pond, it is perhaps the
greatest travel essay ever written. In an age when expeditions were still being launched
to measure California, Thoreau probed a continent so dark it has yet to be mapped.
"It is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals,"
he wrote, "than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of
one's being alone." _____
I had come to Walden Pond at the conclusion of autumn, that homely intermission between seasons when the exhausted trees have surrendered their leaves to the wind, but the first snow has yet to fall and hide the landscape's wretchedness. The weather had separated the dabblers from the disciples; only a few visitors were present, each absorbed in their contemplations as if silently reciting Walden like a rosary.
It is always prudent to be cautious when observing the juxtaposition of newly unemployed, middle-aged men and large bodies of water. I sat by the edge of the pond, its surface and history too pristine to be contaminated by the disposal of the jilted flotsam of life. The absence of a high precipice or temperatures sufficiently frigid to ensure the rapid onset of hypothermia were an impediment to any acts of desperation. I ate a ham sandwich.
The pond was deeded to Massachusetts in 1922 by the descendants of the poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had owned most of the lots and loaned one of them to Thoreau for his cabin. And so Walden Pond is now a ward of the state, which compassionately limits the number of cars admitted to the parking facilities to a maximum of 1,000.
On summer days, the periphery of the pond takes on all the frenzy of a chautauqua. Tour buses stuffed with senior citizens park to take advantage of the scenery and the restrooms, or simply idle momentarily for a photo opportunity before continuing their sprint through the plentiful historical sites of the Concord-Lexington dyad. Sunbathers and picnickers jostle for a few feet of solitude on the pond's tiny, eastern beach. The narrow footpath which forms a wobbly halo around the pond quickly congests with pilgrims.
For the two years and two months he lived at Walden Pond, Thoreau strictly limited his contact with the comforts of society. In the clearest articulation of his intent, he wrote that he "wished to live deliberately, to front 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."
Had not lived. Couples
strolling past me whispered to each other, heads bent in conspiracy: "That man
sitting there on the shore looks like someone who has not lived." An old woman
wearing a tight perm and a man's parka stepped out of a tour bus to take a snapshot of the
water and One Who Had Not Lived. I had spent the last seventeen years of my life working
for an advertising agency. In the public's estimation of the ethics of professions,
advertising ranks a hairline above politics and the sale of used cars. Sitting in the
Walden Pond parking lot was a four-wheel-drive car payment, which in five hours could have
me back with in the confines of my 25-year adjustable-rate mortgage. Waiting for me in my
mailbox would be letters from my good friends, Mastercard and Visa.
I had spent the last seventeen years of my life working for an advertising agency. In the public's estimation of the ethics of professions, advertising ranks a hairline above politics and the sale of used cars. Sitting in the Walden Pond parking lot was a four-wheel-drive car payment, which in five hours could have me back with in the confines of my 25-year adjustable-rate mortgage. Waiting for me in my mailbox would be letters from my good friends, Mastercard and Visa.
I was not even sure I was all that successful at having a mid-life crisis. I had no lover or children to abandon. My cat had died two years previously, so it was too late to neglect her.
I finished my sandwich. A loon dipped majestically over the pond, then dodged towards the clouds, its laughter echoing off the water like taunts in a hallway of lockers.
I needed to see his house.
Henry would be sitting on a stump in front of his cabin, waiting for me. He'd be tending his cook-fire and adding a little more water to the mush in expectation of my arrival. I'd gag down a bowl while he explained what I needed to do to get my life back on track.
Americans prefer their myths in the jumbo-economy size and so the Thoreau of Walden legend was a "hermit," not simply reclusive - a misanthrope of Howard Hughesian proportions, subsisting off roots and rainwater and communing solely with the fowl and furry creatures.
In fact, he often followed the railroad tracks into Concord to dine with friends and frequently entertained guests in his log room. Yet the person whose company he found most agreeable was Henry David Thoreau. Society was "commonly cheap" and hardly tolerable. Etiquette and politeness had surely been invented, he mused, to keep us all from killing each other.
He joyously reduced his needs to basic matters of sustenance and shelter. He eliminated tea, coffee, butter and milk from his diet. If he did not eat them, he reasoned, he would not have to work for them. He shunned red meat, objecting to the consumption of animals not on moralistic grounds, but because (ever the practical housekeeper) he felt it simply wasn't clean. "A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth." He was also convinced its digestion interfered with his imagination.
Body cleansed, mind sharp, and purpose focused, he wastes no time in Walden. In the ninth paragraph, he delivers a sharp blow to the sternum, taking the reader's breath away with ferocious honesty: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." We are all miserable, he reminds us, because our jobs are vacuous, our consumption mindless, our entertainments petty. And now that he has us lying breathless on the ground, he lifts us up and shows us a rainbow rising eastward over the woods which promises us all a fair evening: only after we have simplified our lives and stripped down to our existential skivvies, he cautions, can we once again begin to dress ourselves in the unaffected garments which offer comfort instead of adornment, which have purpose, and which finally, basically matter.
I needed to touch the house, to rub my palms against its walls like a talisman. I obeyed small, intermittent markers that pointed the way to "Thoreau Cabin Site."
The house was not there.
It had not been there for over 140 years. Thoreau dismantled his cabin at the end of his experiment and carted the pieces away, using the roofing to shelter pigs in a sty.
Rising from the earth like a submerged four-poster, heavy cement obelisks marked the site where the house once stood. The land surrounding the site was picked clean of stones and pebbles; visitors had scavenged them to make their contributions to a memorial cairn which rests nearby. I could find nothing to place upon the stone mound, but did not want to leave without playing my role in the ritual. I placed a single walnut leaf on top of the mound and knew that it would blow away as soon as my back was turned. No one would know that I had been there. Except Henry.
It suddenly became important for me to find some structure, some object, that had been his. I needed to know how he had lived, as if there were more to learn than his words and the water could teach.
In Concord, the homes of the famous and deceased have been reincarnated as "attractions." On weekends, when tourists are in season, the village bustles like a theme park, or a realtor's Open House gone mad.
This birthplace of an egalitarian, democratic society displays some affectations that let slip its aristocratic pedigree. Homes have names here.
On Lexington Road, patient husbands and sons follow their women through the endless rooms of "Orchard House," where Louisa May Alcott and her sisters lived the vigorous childhood she would later chronicle in Little Women.
On Monument Street, visitors who come to stroll across the North Bridge, site of the first battle of the American Revolution, discover it is almost in the backyard of "The Old Manse." Thoreau once planted a garden here as a honeymoon gift to a new tenant, the author Nathaniel Hawthorne and his new bride, Sophia.
The grandest home of all belonged to the most patrician member of Concord society, Ralph Waldo Emerson. A highly successful essayist, philosopher and poet, Emerson reigned over Concord's intellectual society as if it were his personal Senate. In tourism, as in retailing, location is everything. Emerson's home, being across the street from the Concord Museum, is almost an enjambment to it and therefore benefits from the tourist run-off.
Yet despite this cavalcade of illustrious architecture, none of the houses Thoreau occupied in his lifetime either still exist or are open to the public.
On a narrow rural road passing through the last remaining Concord farmland, the owners of a modest, modern ranch-style duplex have begrudgingly erected a small plaque on the hem of their lawn, quickly advising all those who see it in time to slow down that on this site Thoreau's birthplace once stood.
A quarter-mile further east, his boyhood home sags from disrepair and dissection. Over the years, the current resident has raised occasional cash by selling off random shingles to collectors and academics. An overturned tricycle and the sparse lawn on which it rests are turning brown together; the shell of a truck, gutted for parts, will never again leave the dirt driveway under its own power.
Near the center of Concord, the house in which Thoreau and his parents lived most of their lives is now owned by a wealthy decorator from Boston and has been carefully restored, yet is closed to tours. In this house, in the 1840s, a typical parlor evening among the Concord cognoscenti might have found Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne mixing metaphors and metaphysics with the feminist Margaret Fuller and ex-pastor George Ripley, who had been forced to abandon his experimental cooperative, Brook Farm, when its central building was consumed by fire.
It is the biological imperative of children to mutiny against the confinements of the previous generation and these were the progeny of Puritans. Their intellects simply itched. Not content with enjoying the luxurious inheritance of a new political order, these combustible Americans sought to conceive a new social canon as well.
They despised artifice in art, morality, politics and religion. They took the "individual" as their idol, worshipped rugged self-reliance and cast out materialism at a time when greed sometimes expressed itself through the transportation and sale of human beings.
All forms of organization and structure made Thoreau ill-at-ease, but he raised no significant objection when the group began to refer to itself as "Transcendentalists." Attempts to assign a definition to that title proved conveniently ephemeral. The best Emerson could do was mutter genially about "a feeling of the infinite."
Devotees to this new philosophy stressed the supremacy of insight over reason. This apparitional intuition, they declared, could only be perceived, not deduced, and was best attained through the personal experience of mankind's connection to all living things, even the elements themselves. In their writings, in honor of its place in their pantheon, "Nature" became a proper noun. Hungry for his own immersion in Nature, Thoreau sought solitude, wisdom and purification in the waters of Walden.
In contemplating Thoreau's life, we wistfully covet the determination of a human being doing precisely what he wants to do without compromise or apology. Here in the forge of Yankee self-reliance is a man who thumbed the quintessential New England nose at the world - "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer." By working six weeks a year at surveying or making pencils, he was able to have his freedom for the entire rest of the year to pursue whatever his intellect fancied.
In these post-Woodstock years, it is difficult to realize how radical the concept of "doing your own thing" was to Thoreau's time. The very word "individualism" did not even enter our language until the 1820s.
Thoreau was frustrated throughout his life by his lack of commercial success as a writer. Only two books bear his name. The first, "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," was published at his own expense and out of the 1,000 volumes printed, 200 were sold, 75 copies were given away and, after four years of storage, the remainder returned to Thoreau. "I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes," he joked, "over seven hundred of which I wrote myself."
Walden fared only slightly better. In Thoreau's lifetime, a scant 2,000 copies were sold. At a public reading in Boston, a snowstorm hampered attendance such that Thoreau had to summon reluctant volunteers from a nearby reading room. The inductees soon returned to shuffling their newspapers or quickly fell asleep.
The power of Thoreau's writing was not nuclear. It rippled quietly through history, inspiring great bravery with its pacific words. Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King both cited Thoreau's influence on their own philosophies and deeds.
Walden is not an easy reading assignment. Accustomed now to the bite-sized, easily-digestible revelations of The Celestine Prophecy and Shirley MacLaine, the gait and density of Thoreau's style requires extraordinary patience. In the end, it is that measured, unhurried pace which tests whether Thoreau's message of simplicity has been successfully absorbed.
Today's consumers of fast-fiction demand frequent infusions of plot. "Ok, so Thoreau is all alone in his cabin. How soon does Kathy Bates show up at the door holding an ax?" The reader who is unwilling or unable to thrill to Thoreau's play-by-play description of a war he witnesses between opposing armies of red and black ants needs to go back to Chapter One or abandon all hope of redemption.
This writer who is so inexorably linked with "the rough life" and the great outdoors was plagued by bouts of bronchitis and narcolepsy. In the Spring of 1862, illness visited him for the last time and he died the morning of May 6. History sits anxiously beside authors' deathbeds, waiting to capture their last words in the expectation they will deliver a Great and Final Truth to hand down to future generations. Thoreau, whose breastpockets always budged with field notes scribbled on scraps of paper, appropriately left this world leaving more fragments.- In his last utterance, only the words "moose" and "Indian" were clearly audible.
He is buried with his family in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, just east of the Concord village center on Belknap Street. Emerson rests nearby, as does Hawthorne and the Alcott family.
Unlike many of the social reformers of his day, many of whom were personal friends, Thoreau did not want to be seen as formulating a specific process or program. In fact, he did not recommend that anyone live as he did, but instead challenged each to find their own personal salvation.
I returned to the pond and sat by its shore to read, confident that Henry would not begrudge me my blanket and Thermos. In sharpening the tale of his experiences, Thoreau condensed the two years and two months he lived here into a single cycle of the seasons. And now I enjoyed an entire autumn, winter, spring and summer in a few days as I read through Walden by the shore of the pond itself, occasionally stretching my legs to see something Thoreau himself had just described, and retiring at night to the questionable comforts of a cheap motel nearby to write in my own journal.
Navigating the gentle currents of Walden, brought me at last to the moving conclusion of its final chapter. Thoreau quietly reveals what he learned from his journey to nowhere:
"If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."
I had heard Mrs. Dean read that same passage aloud in English class three decades ago. The whole sentence had been too big for me to grab on to, but I held on tight to the words "dream" and "success" as they swept through the room and tried to escape out the open classroom window into the autumn afternoon.
Now, sitting on Walden's shore in a new autumn, I realized that I had become nothing I had ever wanted to be. Somewhere along the line, I had let go of Henry's words.
When I was in junior high, I had envisioned myself becoming a world-famous pathologist. I wasn't quite clear on what a pathologist did, but they got to wear white coats and have hushed, meaningful consultations about people's diseases, all of which were wonderfully gruesome and terminal. I later discovered that being a pathologist required performing an occasional autopsy. I hastily decided to become a star of musical comedies. Either that, or I was going to be a ship's captain.
As I closed the book, Henry came and sat quietly beside me. I turned to ask him one last question, but he was staring straight out over the pond, watching the quicksilver water now burning red with the end of day. He said nothing, nor needed to.
When I had come to the pond, I was as old as I had ever been. I was now as young as I would ever be.
I stood and watched the last shards of sunlight rush westward. I returned to my car, pulled out onto the highway and began to follow the ribbon of pavement which led everywhere.
I advanced confidently in the direction of my dreams.
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