Today is Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday – happy birthday, buddy! A few quick words:
My relationship with Thoreau goes back to 11th grade (gulp, almost twenty years ago!) when I first read Walden. That year in high school was the American Literature year, so we were getting all sorts of great stuff to read, literature that would be the basis of my American literature obsession. We also had a teacher who knew how to dig deep into texts. His was the only classroom in my high school to be set up in a “circle the chairs” fashion (as much as you could with deskchairs). I remember reading Walden and being completely hooked. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was my first introduction to philosophy, to thinking deeply about life and existence and time spent, to contemplating what it means to be human and what the environment around us is for. It helped that our teacher had us read Mary Oliver poems alongside Thoreau’s work, and pointed us towards this understanding that “everything is everything else, / one long muscle” (from “Pink Moon – The Pond”). It was my introduction to Transcendentalism, and a spirituality different from my Protestant upbringing, earthy and open-eyed. I think Thoreau was also my first literary crush.
We took a field trip to Concord that school year, to Walden Pond, where we followed the trail to the far shore to where his house had been. My intention was to bring some Walden water back with me to Upstate New York, and I emptied an Arizona iced tea bottle and went down to the water’s edge near where his cabin was, sharing the same piece of shore with him, and filled it up. There was some algae in there, and a little hydra doing cartwheels. I then proceeded to drop $100 in the gift shop, and my friend pointed out on the busride back the irony of having a t-shirt that read “Simplify, simplify.”
That, I think, was the first trip when I stood in the places where works of literature that have affected me were written. As a writer, there’s something about being in the same place, looking out at the same view through the window, standing on the same ground where this author friend wrote these words that have come across time to me…
I haven’t read Walden in its entirety since then, I don’t think, but I still own my copy from high school, with all of my notes and pictures and underlines. Last fall I went out to Walden Pond to visit, as it had been some time, and I brought my copy of Walden with me. I stood there near the spot where his house was, reading passages to myself about his time here, seeing what my 11th grade self had underlined in those passages, what has resonated then and what resonated now. I went back down to the water, “sky water,” where I had filled that little bottle years ago. I made my way around the far side of the pond, seeing the train tracks he mentions in Walden, finally able to place them. Though I haven’t read a lot of his work since I was much younger, Thoreau still stays with me.
A lot of people criticize him for freeloading off of Emerson, for not being original, for being too much of a dreamer. But I am glad he did his experiment, am glad that he wrote down his thoughts for posterity, am glad that he considered the world around him in different ways, am glad that he was passionate about the environment around him, am glad that he was able to take those two years to devote to his thoughts and his bean field, am glad that he wrote a book that has influenced me – and many, many others – in tangible, meaningful ways. He wasn’t just another one of the “mass of men lead[ing] lives of quiet desperation,” he voiced his thoughts as a writer and acted out the philosophies running around Concord and Boston at the time. He tried. He may have thought he failed in his lifetime, but he tried and, as time has shown, he ultimately succeeded.