|Henry David Thoreau|
Spring is coming on, for the most part earlier than usual. It is startling to see daffodils not just sending up shoots, but in full bloom. Having just finished reading The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration by Jake Bittle, I look down at them and wonder what kind of world my grandchildren will live in and what nature - anywhere - will look like. Bill McKibben's The End of Nature came out 44 years ago and we are still pretending everything is fine.
From The Great Displacement (which was just published; god, I love our library system), I turned to Solid Seasons: The Friendship of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson by Jeffrey S. Cramer. Earlier this year I tried diligently to read Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert Richardson, and was taken with the subject, but the tiny type (9 or maybe 10 point) did me in. Richardson was known for the format of his major biographies: 100 chapters, all relatively short (5 pages was a long one), but I could not get through the typeset. All the same, I was fascinated with what I read, and expostulated to Warren and others that I could not believe that NO ONE in my early years (high school) ever exposed me to Emerson.
One cannot read or write about Emerson without reading or writing about Thoreau. And vice versa. I am far more familiar with Thoreau than Emerson. Emerson used to be a standard feature in traditional high school literature curriculum but he had all but disappeared from it by 1970.
Thoreau was never in the high school curriculum, but many youth, and I was one of them, found our way to him all the same.
I was in high school when I first discovered his "different drummer" quote, and being deeply taken with a drummer who truly listened to and followed his own internal beat, I embraced those words. I wrote that quote in LARGE letters with a permanent marker on the back of the large scrapbook in which I was assembling my photographs. I had that scrapbook for years, carrying it across the country and back more than once.
Note: That different drummer and I took over three decades to finally get on the same beat, so to speak, but here we are. And yes, Warren still follows the beat of that different drummer.
In read Jeffrey Cramer's author bio on the dust jacket, I caught a reference to his being a historical consultant on a short film, Walden, which was produced in 2017 for the 200th anniversary of Thoreau's birth. So while I ate lunch that day, I tracked the film down on Vimeo.
I watched it.
I watched it with Warren.
I will watch it again.
There were moments in that film when I could murmur along to the quotes, all from Walden, and come darn close to getting them right. The film reminded me of why I was so taken with Thoreau the first time I read that book.
E. B. White revered Thoreau and Walden, and referenced both more than once in his essays and other writings. He called May 6, the day Thoreau died, "the saddest day of the year," and meant it. White admired Thoreau's vision of the meaning of human existence. (Andy White, like my husband, also moved to the beat of a different drummer.) I
Several years ago, I gave my most recently owned copy of Walden to my stepson David after he expressed an interest in reading it. I don't know if he ever did read it or even if he still has the book.
That is not important because immediately after finishing the movie, I went online to ThriftBooks and found a paperback edition from the 150th anniversary of the publication of Walden (1845). I ordered it on the spot. (Realize I rarely buy books anymore.) John Updike wrote the introduction to this edition. I have always admired Updike's writings on literature, so that was just an additional bonus.
I can't wait for it to arrive.
What Thoreau always reminded me (and I have drifted far from remembering the lesson more times than I wish to acknowledge) was to pay attention to the natural world. Don't get so caught up in the hustle of modern society (for him, the Industrial Revolution) that you lose sight of what really counts.
Thoreau took to the woods because he "wished to live deliberately." He saw his retreat as an opportunity "to learn the essential facts of life" from the woods rather than, on his deathbed, "discover that [he] had not lived at all." He left the woods for a reason equally compelling: it seemed to him that he "had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one."
Thoreau died a few months before turning 45. Of death, Thoreau wrote, "Live your life, do your work, take your hat." (The conciseness of that summation makes me smile.) It was his mentor and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson (who lived another 20 years, almost reaching the age of 80), who captured the essence of the spread of life: "Our fear of death is like our fear that summer will be short. But when we have had our swing of pleasure, our fill of fruit, and our swelter of heat, we say we have had our day."
"We have had our day."
Even without the cancer of 18+ years, let alone the new diagnosis, I have no illusions about my being in the autumn of my days. Like Thoreau, I have left lives - careers, communities, focuses - because I had others to live. And like Emerson, I can truly say I have had my day.
And am grateful for it.