Honoring Thoreau on His 201st Birthday
Many readers know that I refer to Henry David Thoreau as my "dead soulmate." He came in to the world two hundred and one years ago today, making it forever a better place. I have been a disciple of Thoreau for a long time now. Shortly after I moved to Maine in 2000, I picked up a copy of The Maine Woods and gained an even deeper appreciation for my new home, its history, and what the sheer wildness of this place does to the human soul. I have no good/bad judgment on what it does, by the way. For some people, it feels remote, under-populated, provincial in the small towns and villages, and swamping in the size of its so-called empty territories (which are not actually empty at all, just ask the wildlife). For others it's a place of healing through nature, astonishing beauty, cut to the chase no bullshit truth, and a testing ground for self discovery. For me, it's all of these things. One of my favorite passages from The Maine Woods comes from Thoreau's experience climbing Katahdin. It reads as follows: "Think of our life in nature, - daily to be shown matter, to come into contact with it, - rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?" And that, ladies and gentlemen, sums up life in Maine. If you've never had that feeling of sheer mind exploding existential wonder - who am I and where is this place? - please contact me. I'll recommend some very fine mountain tops in Maine. I might even cheat a little and send you further over our western border in to New Hampshire's Presidential Range too. Ironically, I thought of Thoreau this morning as I took in the scene of my neighbor Becca's field, which was hayed just yesterday. The hay is still on the ground and I expect the baler to show up any day now to gather it in to those big, fragrant bales that will become bedding, feed, garden mulching, and who knows what else for countless living things. Thoreau loved wildness. Just about a month or so ago I shot a video of this field burgeoning with fresh, colorful lupines, yellow and white daisies, and Indian paintbrushes. Ducks with their babies were living on the pond. My young Collie, Wyeth, and I were delirious with the lushness of it and I think my viewers could hear that in my voice. The field was wild. Not The Maine Woods wild with its roaming moose and potentially killer river rapids, but wild nonetheless. Today's view of the field was decidedly domesticated. I thought of all of Thoreau's remarks in Walden about the domestication of land and, more pointedly, the domestication of mankind. And yet, I also see a beauty of its own in this cut down field; it's given its all and will now become a sustaining resource for others. My memory of it in full bloom juxtaposed against today's scene is a fairly direct lesson in impermanence. That's not a bad thing. If I could have Thoreau over for tea, I'd ask him about this line of thought. For me, the haying of this field is the cracking of the doorway to fall. I know it's only mid July, but July is a dearth month here in Maine, a month when beekeepers have to keep a sharp eye on their hives. The big spring pollen and nectar flow is over and not much is happening until later in the summer and early fall to keep their little charges in food. It's the temporary dearth before the big dearth of late fall and winter. This is the time of year I notice my young apples forming on their ancient trees and start to imagine the smell of them cooking down in to sauces and pie filling. My goldenchain tree's yellow blossoms have turned to tight, brown seed pods in anticipation of next spring. The hot, muggy days are interspersed with dry, cool ones. Fall is my best season, and it's coming, which brings me to the life metaphor that inspired this post. I turned fifty three last month. It is not spring in my life anymore. In fact, it's barely summer. Maybe it's July, but it's probably more like August, and only if I'm lucky. Like Becca's field, I've given a bit of myself so that others may thrive and I've been privileged and honored to have that opportunity in this life. I regret nothing in my life as a mother, wife, or friend. But I do have regrets on the career side of my life, and they have nothing to do with having been a stay at home mom for ten years or putting my sons first; that was worth every moment. They have, instead, everything to do with not following my passions. I've written about this before, and will not belabor it, but on this, Thoreau's birthday, it warrants consideration again, not only for me, but for anyone who isn't quite living the life they have imagined. Or, as Thoreau put it in one of his most famous quotes (seen on tee shirts, tote bags, and tattoos the world over): "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you've imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler." Or maybe he truly got down to business in Walden in this single sentence: "Simplify, simplify." If I ever got a tattoo (no...really...that's not happening...but if), it would probably just be that short, two word sentence. I'm simplifying my own working life down to three essential elements: making, writing, teaching. If an opportunity or venture does not clearly fit as one of the essential elements, I will not be doing it.* As I look to people in the creative world who I admire, I see that they know how to delegate to achieve their dreams. They do mostly the work that they love, and, importantly, that no one else can do because the creation is specific to its creator. Simplifying demands the banishment of fear, or perhaps, its management. We may not be able to banish the feeling of fear, but we can certainly greet it and act in spite of it. Fear and love famously (or infamously) do not coexist, and creativity, which in my view is a form of love for this life and our world, is crushed under the weight of fear nearly every time. Thoreau's take on go-big-or-go-home seems to have been expressed in this quote: "I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extravagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limit of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced." Thoreau knew failure and chose anyway not to respond with fear or a quelling of his expression. Thoreau didn't live to see his super-stardom in the literary and philosophical world. When he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1862 it was too early to know that he'd one day be so influential to so many. He didn't even see the end of the Civil War, a conflict whose outcome he cared about so deeply having been himself involved in the Underground Railroad from his home base of Concord, Massachusetts. His book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was an outright commercial failure at the time of its publication, and yet I, and many others, revere that book today. It chronicles Thoreau's time with his brother, John, on the rivers in 1839, before John's tragic death much too young. Perhaps my own experience of losing a brother way too soon endears this book to me. I think I understand a bit of the love, grief, and desire to relive time that may have been at the core of Thoreau's need to write it. Even Walden was only moderately commercially successful in its time and today is still the target of harsh criticism by those (in my humble opinion) who understand neither its author or its context. I want to follow Thoreau the rest of my days, and follow him in his extravagant expression of who he was, not to copy his life or person, but to be inspired by it to find my own best way. The truth Thoreau was convinced of was broader and deeper than even he could express, for all of his eloquence, and yet he conveyed it somehow to those of us with a heart sympathetic to his message. His life story and the writing he left behind provide me with strength as I start to publish my own books in the next few years. I can not hope to be remembered at all two hundred and one years after my birth; I am no Thoreau. However, I can, and you can, take from his life and work the resonant threads and we can all be the better for them. Happy Thoreau's birthday & happy creating. *Footnote: The online shops and the physical studio are not going away, but they are going to be increasingly delegated. If there is one thing I've learned as I've gotten older it's that I can not do everything and I can not be who I am not.
- Elizabeth Miller