With Thoreau in the Air in Front of Me

BlueRidgeParkwayHumpbackRocksLoop108537Here is a post about a few ideas I’ve keep close at hand for the last twenty-five years. They are Henry Thoreau’s ideas. I first discovered them when I was living in Virginia in a tiny house off the Blue Ridge Parkway. I was just out of college in those days, I was somewhat happy, and mostly what I did was read. I had discovered ideas. The big ones. Like Living and Dying and God and History and Capitalism.  Every day I went after these ideas. I was convinced that I could eventually read myself to the end of them, which would be the same as starting over. And it was going to happen. I was going to herd all the principle ideas into one big room, listen, and squirrel away all I learned. Then I would get on with things. I would go forth.

One early summer morning in 1990, I drove up to the Parkway to a place where hikers picked up the AT. I parked, got out, found the trail, and started in. In my heart I carried my happiness, in my mind my curiosity, in my pocket my book. In the air directly in front of me I had my ideas. I walked and walked that morning due south until, unexpectedly, I turned up at a side trail I knew to be a back way up to Humpback Rocks, a greenstone outcrop on Humpback Mountain. So I went that way. You can see a long way in each direction from Humpback Rocks, and I remember I looked in those directions for a long time. But then I settled down into the rocks and sun and took up my book. It was Thoreau’s Walden, c. 1848. And in due course I encountered this passage:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.

I stood up immediately upon reading this. “Leapt up” would better describe it. And then I was almost running. By the time I reached the AT,  I was running–across a field to a worm fence, along the fence to a dirt road, down the road to the Parkway–where I stopped finally and reached around and shoved my Walden back into my hip pocket. Then I waited, just stood there on the side of Parkway like one lost, the cars slowing as they passed me. And here’s why: Because already one of Thoreau’s sentences was inching my way, gaining on my heart, my mind, my psyche, my air. I could sense its progress all across my skin. It was taking up  a lot of room…

I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived

…and I wasn’t sure, actually, if I had enough room.

I am walking again. North. It is evening, now, almost dusk. There are no cars, so I walk directly on the Parkway. From the occasional scenic turnouts I can see Charlottesville and various smaller towns. All those lives out there. Maybe here and there a few are living who live deliberately. Maybe a few living who have put to rout all that was not life.

Later I am still walking. It is dark now and I passed my car knowingly. Thoreau is in the air in front of me. I am wondering if I am living deep and sucking all the marrow out of life.  I think I know why but I’m not sure how. I am wondering what the marrow tastes like.


15 responses to “With Thoreau in the Air in Front of Me

  1. Great post. Awesome post. Thanks for sharing that experience. Are you living deliberately now? I hope so. I’d like to think I am.

  2. yes – for me those days were 1966 (hot town summer in the city) in New York City, specifically East Harlem and East 100th Street – for the entire year. My years of reading (mostly) came 1969 – 1971 after I stopped going full-time to graduate school (theological seminary) and instead was working, still in New York City, as a nurse’s aide in a psychiatric hospital – as alternative service (the Draft, Selective Service System) 24 months. Then, one year when it came out first, I read Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, also in Virginia, also (the year) right out of college graduation. Exciting to live through and especially now to recall. What came to me out of Thoreau is that one does not have to have title to property to “own” it (of all that I survey). What a wonderful writing (and, yes, glad for “short”).

  3. Seeking Joyful Simplicity

    I too felt the pull of Thoreau…first in high school, then again in my twenties…each time his words touch me in a new way. I have carried them with me through this life, and looking back, I can see how I continue to spiral in and out, between two ways of living…the pull of our culture, and the pull of my own nature, often at odds, competing for my attention and energy.

    I am committing myself to living deep once again, and I am pulling those closest to me along. The trail of my one life is not always clear – sometimes I cannot see what is around the bend – but I keep moving, climbing, and have faith that this journey is quite possibly more important and meaningful than any destination.

  4. Being awake to one’s life (task).
    Thank you for this lovely post.
    I will read Walden again, one must read Thoreau regularly, it would be good to read it again now that I have dug my own tiny pond.

  5. Maisondjereibi. Thanks. I was just viewing the bagel video you put up. Liked it a lot. And yes, a Thoreauvian full-body scrub every now and then. Indeed.

  6. I’ve listened in to you over on Bill’s blog. It’s good to have you share your time here, too.
    “Short.” i love the short

  7. “In the air directly in front of me I had my ideas.”

    This post is written beautifully, perfectly. Thank you.

  8. Thanks Tres. And yes, I’m trying to keep the faith.

  9. Great post. I think Walden is one of those “lifetime” books – one you can keep coming back to at different stages of your life, finding something new each time.

  10. Walden is one of those books that reveals that, though we may march to the beat of a different drum, there are others out there who understand and can articulate what we feel. <3

  11. This is really wonderful writing. Wonderful capture. You get the transmission. Feel the feelings.
    I read that book many times. I heard that passage preached about in churches in Boston. I took it all and did the best thing I thought I could do with it. Some people name their children after striking jungle birds whose feathers adorned the headdresses of people who sucked the marrow out of life. Some people name their kids after books that move their heart so much, books like that one. So that no matter what happens there is that name and one imagines the spark of curiosity to read what you’re named after. And then, who knows, but he might choose to read it up on Humpback mountain. At least i can say that I’ve done my best to increase those odds. Even if I die tomorrow. What carries on is hope.

  12. I have climbed to Humpback Rock a few times. I did it to enjoy the view, or once to drink beer with my buddies. I never took Mr. Thoreau with me, and that is my loss. I read him during those days, but only because it was assigned to me. It took me another couple of decades to begin trying to understand what it might mean to live deliberately. I understood what it meant to live in quiet desperation much sooner than that.

    I really enjoyed this post. There have been times when I felt that not-life was putting me to rout. Maybe I’m getting the upper hand now. At least I’m trying. And at least I think I’m beginning to understand what is at stake.


  13. You often mention those 20+ years in Florida in your posts. But never in the context of Thoreau. Know that I have come to really appreciate the new life you and your wife have created in VA. It is a beautiful thing.

  14. Pingback: where have I been ? an early spring diary | maison djeribi

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