A crank for all sea­sons

200 years after his birth, the au­thor of Walden is still an ado­les­cant’s most con­ge­nial ally

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - A.K. RI­LEY A.K. Ri­ley works at A Dif­fer­ent Drum­mer Books in Burling­ton, so named in hon­our of Thoreau.

Most thrilling of all is the man’s re­fusal to make nasty con­ces­sions even in the im­por­tant mat­ter of mak­ing a liv­ing.

“Ev­ery man looks at his wood­pile with a kind of af­fec­tion.” Henry David Thoreau, au­thor of “Walden” and “Civil Dis­obe­di­ence,” wrote few more charm­ing sen­tences. A man and his wood­pile sug­gest a life of plea­sur­able striv­ing in a home­spun utopia — or so I imag­ined dur­ing an ado­les­cence given over to the teach­ings of this 19th-cen­tury tran­scen­den­tal hip­pie.

Ear­lier this week, Thoreau turned 200 years old; even at this ad­vanced age, he is still an ado­les­cent’s most con­ge­nial ally. He did not keep pace with his com­pan­ions, dis­trusted the ad­vice of his elders, and de­fended tat­too­ing as “not the hideous cus­tom which it is called.” A chronic sub­ver­sive, he spent two years in a wood­land cabin com­pos­ing reams of el­e­gant dogma: Old deeds for old peo­ple and new deeds for young! Ad­vance con­fi­dently in the di­rec­tion of your dreams! Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.

Thoreau was my hero for years, but after ac­quir­ing a job, a mort­gage, and a habit of wish­ing away the days be­tween week­ends, I re­mem­bered him, if at all, with af­fec­tion­ate con­tempt. But now that I am older than Thoreau was when he died, I find my­self back at the lit­tle cabin, ad­mir­ing its wood­pile. The cabin’s in­tractable ten­ant, re­garded by his neigh­bours in Con­cord as a fail­ure and a crank, has be­come my men­tor in late mid­dle age.

I re­dis­cov­ered Thoreau dur­ing a long, hard cam­paign against the dust in my liv­ing room. Pluck­ing Walden from the shelf in mid-sweep, I opened it at ran­dom and read: “I had three pieces of lime­stone on my desk, but I was ter­ri­fied to find that they re­quired to be dusted daily, when the fur­ni­ture of my mind was all un­dusted still, and I threw them out the win­dow in dis­gust.”

Sud­denly into the room stepped a sadeyed ghost, drub­bing the air with dire warn­ings: You do not have the house, the house has you. What are you now but the tool of your tools, hedged round by ex­cess, whilst your spirit lies smoth­ered in triv­i­al­i­ties. Sim­plify, sim­plify, sim­plify!

I snapped shut the book, snarling: “I’d like to see you sim­plify a life­time of chores. Dur­ing that cabin phase, didn’t you mooch all your meals off Emer­son?” Im­pa­tiently, I waved the ghost away but he set­tled in with a lit­tle hum of in­evitabil­ity.

Thoreau is a crank and a scold but my re­turn to Walden Pond did not find him moul­der­ing away in moth-eaten sen­ti­ment. Few writ­ers are more timely, or so shat­ter­ingly di­rect.

“Whilst civ­i­liza­tion has been im­prov­ing our houses, it has not equally im­proved the men who in­habit them,” he says, then more sternly: “The lux­ury of one class is coun­ter­bal­anced by the in­di­gence of the other.” Thoreau points to the shod­di­ness of our ar­range­ments, de­cry­ing a fre­netic world swarmed by in­su­lar ex­perts: “The labour­ing man has not leisure enough for a true in­tegrity ... He has not time to be any­thing but a ma­chine. How can he re­mem­ber his ig­no­rance — which his growth re­quires — who has so of­ten to use his knowl­edge?”

Most thrilling of all, es­pe­cially in these rest­less, ner­vous, bustling, triv­ial times (Thoreau’s de­scrip­tion of the 19th cen­tury) is the man’s re­fusal to make nasty con­ces­sions even in the im­por­tant mat­ter of mak­ing a liv­ing. He did not ex­pect a wood­pile to gather up it­self, but nei­ther did he waste the best part of his day fetch­ing and chop­ping: “If I should sell my forenoons and af­ter­noons to so­ci­ety, as most ap­pear to do, I am sure that for me there would be noth­ing left worth liv­ing for.” Through­out his life, Thoreau re­mained alert for any signs of in­de­pen­dent thought, a phe­nom­e­non so rare, he said, that he would any day walk 10 miles to see it.

So here I am again at Walden Pond. How brac­ing to have this un­com­pro­mis­ing moral despot as a com­pan­ion in late mid­dle age when com­pro­mises are too eas­ily ex­cused. Life’s a glo­ri­ous dare, says Thoreau; and the rules are fewer and less en­trenched than we be­lieve. He would have us re­nounce false as­sump­tions about how the world ticks. The dan­ger is that we will al­low the world’s in­ces­sant, con­trived de­mands to tick us away into our graves be­fore we are born into our true selves.

At the end of the day, each of us should be able to re­gard our wood­pile with a kind of af­fec­tion.

Some­times the words of this sin­gu­lar young man ring sadly across the years: “The finest qual­i­ties of our na­tures, like the bloom on fruits, can be pre­served only by the most del­i­cate han­dling. Yet we do not treat our­selves nor one an­other thus ten­derly.”

JAMES WALKER, AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A small pump­kin next to the head­stone of 19th-cen­tury writer Henry David Thoreau at Sleepy Hol­low Ceme­tery in Con­cord, Mass.

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