Such is the Reading of Walden

Originally published on Random Acts of Writing, September 2011

The copyright date on my hardcover copy of Henry David Thoerau’s Walden is 1950. I am sure it was my father’s — his handwriting so distinct, I can recognize it even in the precise, straight underlines of text he chose to highlight.

We find common ground in these, though separated now by half a century and heaven. So many parallels of thought — and aspiration. So many ideas we found worth marking, as if his pen strokes and my echoed dog-eared folds somehow solidify and validate the original thought, and our bond.

And so it is in this way that I have shared my days with Henry David and my father, also Henry, since July, when I first pulled the worn copy of Walden from my bookshelf.

It has been no easy task, this reading of Walden. It does not meet the standards of 21st century timekeeping; there are no sound bites or “click here for more” appendages. You must slow your pace, rein in your thoughts, stretch your attention span until you can feel the heat of unused muscles.

Perhaps that is why it has taken me close to three months to find my way to the last page of the book. “I must finish Walden,” I have said for weeks, as if it was some drudgery. But when I did finish, last night at nine, I could feel the longing well up in me at once, like saying goodbye to a dear friend after a long visit.

If I had snap shots from that visit, they would look like this:

From the chapter ECONOMY

“From the cave we have advanced to roofs of palm leaves, of bark and boughs, of linen woven and stretched, of grass and straw, of boards and shingles, of stones and tiles. At last, we know not what it is to live in the open air, and our lives are domestic in more senses than we think. From the hearth the field is a great distance. It would be well, perhaps, if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies, if the poet did not speak so much from under a roof, or the saint dwell there so long. Birds do not sing in caves, nor do doves cherish their innocence in dovecots.”

From the chapter WHERE I LIVED

“Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous. If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. If we respected only what is inevitable and has a right to be, music and poetry would resound along the streets. When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality.”

From the chapter THE VILLAGE

“In our most trivial walks, we are constantly, though unconsciously, steering like pilots by certain well-known beacons and headlands, and if we go beyond our usual course we still carry in our minds the bearing of some neighboring cape; and not till we are completely lost, or turned round — for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost — do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as be awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction. Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

From the chapter HIGHER LAWS

“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 star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.”

From the chapter THE POND IN WINTER

“After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what- how- when- where? But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight. The snow lying deep on the earth dotted with young pines, and the very slope of the hill on which my house is placed, seemed to say, Forward! Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask. She has long ago taken her resolution.”

From the chapter SPRING

“A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in winter while it is already spring.”

From the CONCLUSION

“My neighbors tell me of their adventures with famous gentlemen and ladies, what notabilities they met at the dinner-table; but I am no more interested in such things than in the contents of the Daily Times. The interest and the conversation are about costume and manners chiefly; but a goose is a goose still, dress it as you will. They tell me of California and Texas, of England and the Indies, of the Hon. Mr.- – of Georgia or of Massachusetts, all transient and fleeting phenomena, till I am ready to leap from their court-yard like the Mameluke bey. I delight to come to my bearings — not walk in procession with pomp and parade, in a conspicuous place, but to walk even with the Builder of the universe, if I may — not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by.”

I cannot tell you how many hours I have spent with Thoreau since July. Whether wandering his woods in pilgrimage, or carefully reading his faceted prose, or walking with him on my own path considering his grand effort.

I do know that I have laughed with him, out loud; and marveled daily at the parallels of his world and ours; and shared his wisdom with friends; and sat with him in silence; and teared up at the beauty of his observations and reflections.

Such is the reading of Walden.


Photo ©2011 by Jen Payne, Walden Pond, July 2011.

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