On the cold, dark mornings of this winter, having gotten my daughter out of bed for school and myself dressed for work, I have set aside 10-15 minutes with a cup of coffee for myself and reading one of the oldest books in my personal library, The Portable Thoreau from 1977.
I bought this book during my senior year of high school. At the time, no philosopher spoke to me in such a familiar, agreeable voice about the wonder, peace, and rich experience that is to be found in nature as Henry David Thoreau.
The book, like most that I own, is written in, highlighted, and underlined from repeat readings. So now, with a few exceptions, I browsed through these yellowed pages, meeting old friends each morning, reminiscing of past readings and times, while touching the intimate truths to be found here over the course of these past months in the predawn of winter before the work day began.
“In the winter, I stop short in the path to admire how the trees grow up without forethought, regardless of the time and circumstances. They do not wait as man does, but now is the golden age of the sapling. Earth, air, sun, and rain are occasion enough: they were no better in primeval centuries. The ‘winter of their discontent’ never comes. Witness the buds of the native poplar standing gaily out to the frost on the sides of its bare switches. They express a naked confidence.” (page 51)
“In winter we lead a more inward life. Our hearts are warm and cheery, like cottages under drifts, whose windows and doors are half concealed, but from whose chimneys the smoke cheerfully ascends. The imprisoning drifts increase the sense of comfort which the house affords, and in the coldest days we are content to sit over the hearth and see the sky through the chimney-top, enjoying the quiet and serene life that may be had in a warm corner by the chimney-side, or feeling our pulse listening to the low of cattle in the street, or the sound of the flail in distant barns all the long afternoon.” (page 74)
Thoreau knew the close connectivity between simplicity and nature. But he was also very much the social critic.
“The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves in a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.” (page 112)
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” (page 263)
“…a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” (page 335)
Nature is not only a refuge for Thoreau. It is a teacher and motivator.
“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in the details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essentials 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.” (page 343)
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.” (page 351)
“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal – that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little stardust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.” (page 463)
Thoreau had a gift for not only capturing the metaphysical reality of nature but the splendid, singular moment as well.
“We had a remarkable sunset one day last November. I was walking in a meadow, the source of a small brook, when the sun at last, just before sitting, after a cold, gray day, reached the clear stratum in the horizon, and the softest, brightest morning sunlight fell on the dry grass and the stems of the trees in the opposite horizon and on the leaves of the shrub oaks on the hillside, while our shadows stretched long over the meadow eastward, as if we were the motes in its beams. It was such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before, and the air also was warm and serene that nothing was wanting to make a paradise of that meadow. When we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever, an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there, it was more glorious still.” (page 629)
I am that child. Thoreau understood the spiritual quality of Nature. This is something I have felt all my life. I have taken countless long hikes, listened to distant sounds, silently watched the clouds, known the warm sun on cold, clear days, and the comfort of shade in the summer heat. I have swam in cold mountain streams, heard the hiss of hardwood on open fires flickering at night, and contemplated frogs croaking along wet creeks after sundown.
It was for these reasons I chose to live in the country, to experience what nature gives, just as Thoreau did. In this respect I have not changed. Time has not made me cynical in this particular way. I have not grown hard and unfeeling where this is concerned. Nature is, as always, a place where I find my Being contented, awake, not rational but sensing in perpetual appreciation.
Thoreau taught me early on a possible framework for articulating and understanding my intimate experience. Thank you Henry.
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