Henry David Thoreau: Nature Mystic:
The Rev.Peter E. Lanzillotta,Ph.D.
Thoreau once remarked, “My life is like a stroll along the beach.” But any of us who are acquainted with his life would see it as a collage of diverse landscapes. Importantly, each scene is firmly rooted in nature, and each holding to natural principles and laws as their guiding wisdom. Thoreau’s life portrays a wisdom or a way of knowing that is simple and visceral-a way that transcends intellectual analysis and all of its complexities, to reveal basic human truths and their deeper realities.
Most of us know Henry David Thoreau as the American author, naturalist, and social iconoclast. His most popular work, Walden, has been required reading in high schools everywhere, and most of the people familiar with American history and culture connect him to the glory years of American Literature before and during the Civil War. But there is a pity in that: to call him only a writer of personal and earthly adventures is to limit him unmercifully. He was a man of letters to be sure, but even more, he was a man of the soil and the soul. (my future book or workbook will be called: “Tilling the Soul” combining gardening advice with insights from Luther Burbank, John Muir, Ansel Adams and other nature mystics and teachers…. )
Thoreau’s words and observations about nature and life are timeless. When he speaks to us about natural beauty, social and material excesses, the responsibilities of conscience and civic duty, these themes are as vital a concern today as there were in the 1800″s in New England, probably more so.
He asks us to live deliberately, in a purposeful, beneficial relationship to the whole of life. He recommends that we acknowledge the essential unity and majesty of the Creation, while also contemplating carefully each day’s involvement and requirements of living out what one believes is right and true.
He believed that “the heavens were only as high as our aspirations,” and that “There is just as much beauty visible to us in a landscape or in people as we are prepared to appreciate, and not a grain more. We cannot see anything [wholly or completely] until we are possessed with the true idea of it, [that is], until we take it into our heads and [into our hearts],
and then we can hardly see anything else.”
Henry David Thoreau was the second son and the third child of a pencil maker who made his mark by quickly setting his priorities for his life- standards and ethical positions that soon separated him from the mainstream of life in and around the town of Concord. Thoreau attended Harvard, studied for the ministry, but found no direction there, and after graduating without distinction, he knew that he would never fit in socially. He became determined to find or to forge an alternative lifestyle that matched his keen and often ascerbic view of society. Consequently, he developed a disdain for the social niceties of his day, and looked with suspicion on anyone who flaunted their status or rank. Deliberately, he chose to distance himself from the absorbing, soul emptying worlds of business and politics. After a short stint as a school teacher, this nonconforming clergyman went on to invent a better pencil, and after that, Thoreau chose a more introspective life of writing and nature studies. (By the way, he only made ONE superior pencil, and then stopped… he did not want to be burdened or trapped by the worlds of industry, sullied by commerce, and “the profit motive.”
How then, did he support himself??? He earned his necessary moneys through his remarkable gift for measurement and math. He was soon known as the best surveyor and land assessor in his county. Never lacking for work, Thoreau was fortunate enough to choose when he would work or to work only when his personal need required it. This skill of his brought him some fame and renown.
His skill was this: He could sight measure 16 rods (880 yards) better than a whole crew with chains and sticks. When it came to building his cabin at Walden, he dug a six foot by seven foot root cellar in two hours, and quickly mastered almost any manual skill he attempted to learn!
Even so, our liberal religious movement does not remember him for his manual skills or his mathematical abilities. The Thoreau we know and admire was a man of principle who consciously chose not to conform to his contemporary society and all of its shallow codes and contradictory rules. Instead, he opted for spending his time in the company of Concord’s flora and wildlife.
Now, many would regard Thoreau as a loner, a misfit, and a voluntary outcast from society. The truth is that Thoreau loved people as individuals, but held a great dislike for what social conventions and societal expectations can and often do to a person. So it was, that he chose the refreshing non-threatening environs of natural solitude over the melee and confusion, the demands and the exhaustion, we call modern society. For him, the hollow superficialities and the teeming social prejudices he saw operating all around him, were almost too much to bear. Unless the social interaction was meaningful, such as to share in the quest for beauty or truth or unless the meeting was for the more noble purpose of addressing a moral wrong or social injustice of his day such as slavery, Thoreau had been known to prefer the company of the oaks and the owls as his nightly companions.
As a young man, Thoreau decided to remain unattached to either people or things. He made no room in his life for the usual routines or indulgences. He neither drank liquor, coffee nor did he ever smoke. He did not eat meat, and he showed little interest in women. He rarely attended church, refused to pay taxes, and never voted.
Frankly, he sounds a little dull!
Even though his only marriage was to his ideals, his impact on our American society has been a noble and unmistakable one.
Thoreau gave little thought to money, and saw the pursuit of wealth as being the cause of many of his society’s woes. He felt that wealth is better measured by free time than money. He once remarked, “A man’s solitude is not measured by the distance of miles one lives from his neighbor, essentially [one’s wealth and ones] solitude is determined by what they think about when they are alone.” When he was asked if his lifestyle was lonesome, he responded, “How could I be alone? Is not our planet part of the whole Milky Way?” Clearly, Thoreau was a man who picked his friends sparingly and his social appearances carefully. As for the trappings and pleasures of his contemporary society, he states, “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of modern life are not only dispensable, but are [or act as] a positive hindrance to the elevation of humanity.”
R.W.Emerson, Thoreau’s early tutor and the principal person who encouraged Thoreau’s literary career, observed this about his young friend: “[Henry] declined to give up on his larger ambitions of knowledge and action for some small craft or a mere profession. He aimed at a much higher calling-the art of living well.” “No truer American ever lived,” Emerson continues,
“He chose to keep his solitary freedoms over the disappointment of family and friends. He struggled to secure his own independence, and expected everyone to do the same, as their duty. Never idle or indulgent, with hardy work habits, he secured his life, his freedom, and his personal conscience.”
We admire Thoreau, even to this day, for this model of American “rugged individualism,” and for his absolute allegiance to the truth. His actions were intentional, and far-reaching in their scope and in their influence over time and culture.
For example, his views on civil disobedience deeply and dramatically influenced the thoughts and actions of both Gandhi and M.L. King. His was a deliberate lifestyle, one that was freely chosen and held to be self responsible. In Emerson’s words, Thoreau lived out a life that could be called “sincerity itself.” (Stories: Thoreau in Jail, visited by Emerson; The Bhagavad Gita, not the Bible, and Gandhi carried Civil Disobedience with him and M.L. King read it during his time in the Birmingham jail… )
His value for religious liberalism today extends and deepens to his ability to perceive the Divine in nature as an intricate, indispensable part of the whole. He could be called the first spirit-filled environmentalist. In the Oriental philosophies such as Zen, the aim of the spiritual life is to live “at one” with the natural world around you. Henry David Thoreau did this better than any other American. When I read about his complete love and respect for the woods and streams, and his devotion to what the earth and the animals can teach us, I was enthralled to think that anyone could attain such empathy, such a “connected-ness” to it all. (Story: Sprained ankle-Arnica flowers) He knew the rivers around Concord like his own blood, the leaves were his skin, and the rocks and ridges were his bones and sinews. Concord’s wood was an entire world in one place, and his intimacy with nature blessed him and the journal entries he left for us preserved the beauty, poetry and inspiration that is the soul of life on earth in a way that no dry natural science texts could never convey.
In many ways, Thoreau can be seen as the American or as the Unitarian Saint Francis; someone who was dedicated to revealing the spiritual realities that can be found in nature and in life. In that regard, he was wary of what the contemporary media or the press had to offer. …
He advised, “Read not the Times, instead learn to read the eternities.” [For the news distresses or oppresses us] Blessed are those who don’t read newspapers, for they will read nature, and through nature, will find God.” …
To me, Henry David Thoreau deserves the title of being one of our liberal saints, or as the tradition recalls them, one of the New England divines, who formulated our religious principles and beliefs. While he would reject such a label, I feel that it would suit him well. The attitudes he expressed through his writings are important to the development of a Unitarian social conscience, and his desire to create an approach that is willing to witness, and then to risk, for the sake of justice-making serves as our shining example. Although he thought little of churches and even less of the clergy of his day, his life’s work acts as a testament to the virtue of following one’s own conscience over any hasty consensus, and always choosing morality and ethics over expediency and convenience. His was a heart response to life; a empathic response that was stripped to the essentials. Thoreau’s chief concerns were for the freedom of personal morality over and above religious convention, for the human soul must be loosened from the bondage of dogmatic obligation and be allowed to rise to new levels of conscience and conviction. His goal was humanity’s release from society, and the renewed dedication to how the true and essential interdependence of humanity and nature can teach eternal, spiritual, and necessary ethical lessons.
If we could capture the what Thoreau meant when he recommended that we live deliberately, to live a whole life, we could summarize by listing these 6 chief ideas or lasting ideals:
There are three qualities for our daily lives- They are the quality of our Time; our Solitude; our Simplicity; Then he recommends that we look at Nature as a reflection of the Divine; The fifth and sixth ideas are our prophetic responsibilities- having and maintaining a moral conscience; and when necessary, civil disobedience.
These foundational ideals, were his ethical compass which pointed, directed and guided his every step.
From his legacy, modern open minded people are called into the process of questioning the motives, moods, and mindsets that currently direct our social and personal choices, and reinforce the need to be active agents in responding to both problems and potentials of our current society.
Many open minded people tend or at least desire to see themselves as fulfilling Thoreau’s maxims and moral guidelines. Many of us see and feel ourselves to be removed and distant from the narrow social norms. We gladly identify with his words about being “different drummers,” and to some extent, it is true.
Each time we take a risk for conscience or for truth’s sake, we are acknowledging his example for us. Whenever we are willing to take a stand for environmental protection, or for balancing the scales of oppression with justice, we are walking in his shoes.
Despite all the idiosyncrasies of his character, it is in the nobility of his life choices, and the values they represent, that we are issued a challenge and given an inspiring example. Many literature professors, naturalists, and students of political ethics, urge their students to read and reread Thoreau every few years. It is my hope that we, as religious liberals, those who most directly inherited his legacy of reverent contemplation and responsible action, will heed this advice, keep it in our minds, our hearts, our steps… and then lead the way.
So Be it. Namaste. Amen
Pastoral Reflection: Media and our Minds
“We should be careful, Thoreau once warned, “to treat our minds as innocent and ingenuous children whose guardians we are- and to be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust upon their attention…
Every thought that passes through the mind helps to wear and tear it… to deepen its ruts, which, as in the streets of Pompeii, evince how much it has been used. How many things there are concerning which we might well deliberate whether we had better known them.”
Recently, there has been much made of how the media, and the freedom of speech and expression impacts the lives of children and adults. Some examples are: flag exhibits, hate radio, lack of enough children’s TV programming vs. violent video games, the availability of bomb construction via the Internet, the lack of civility in culture, and the coarseness of everyday advertising and language. These and other issues ask us to examine and evaluate just what kinds of communication are best to allow or what kinds of language, ideas, and expression can serve to create or destroy the social dialogue and direct the moral compass that best guides our society. Thoreau would weigh into this discussion on the side of prudence, and recommend engaging in dialogue that inspires, and does not demean human dignity or cheapen self-worth. He states, “As you see, so at length, will you say.
” Do our perceptions dictate our reality? If so, then what are we feeding to one another in our homes, churches, schools, etc., that encourages virtue and values, altruism, idealism, and the willingness “to love your neighbor as yourself?” While the freedoms to say and do are vitally important, has this generation confused the implied responsibilities for those freedoms with the opportunities for amoral license? Ask yourself to ponder this question, and reflect on Thoreau’s words for us today.
A Few Selected Thoughts
I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he had imagined, he will meet with a success
unexpected in common hours.
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 conscious endeavor. It is something to be to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful, but it is more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which we morally can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.
Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.
Wherever a man separates from the multitude and goes his own way, there is a fork in the road, though the travelers along the highway see only a gap in the paling.
Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
If you have tried to build castles in that air, your work need not be lost – that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
Men profess to be lovers of music, but for the most part they give no evidence of it in their opinions and lives that they have heard it. It would not leave them narrow-minded and bigoted.
Anyone in a free society where the laws are unjust has an obligation to break the law. —
Henry David Thoreau