Here 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.