There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book. The book exists for us perchance which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones.
This, I believe, is the third time that Walden has dated a new era in my life. Every time that I read it, I overcome my inertia, shake off my somnolence, and knock the mud off my boots. I am awake. It is time to begin.
Funny, how every time I read Walden I take something new away. As a child, I was overcome by Thoreau’s love of Walden Pond, and his vivid descriptions of the woods around him. In particular, there is a passage in which he describes patterns of bubbles formed in winter when the pond ices over: the attention to detail; the sheer length of the recounting; the fact that he went out to that pond every day for weeks to watch the layers of patterns form and change, fascinated me. I took to obnoxiously carrying around a notebook to transcribe the sights and sounds of the world around me, a backyard naturalist.
The second reading found me a senior in high school, about to embark on a solitary journey, and I was moved by the emphasis on self-reliance and economy. ( If only I had heeded the advice given, as much as I noted the passion in the telling!)
Be Awake. And in so doing, Awaken the Dawn in Others.
The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion; only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
How many of us are sleepwalking through life? How many thoughtless acts do we perform every day? We seem awake, we have so many things to do, we hustle and bustle, we rush from thing to thing.
Pause! Avast! Why so seeming fast, but deadly slow?
But how much of life, of real living, do we put off for another day? What is it that we wait for? Why do we waste so much of our lives on little things, and then bemoan the fact that we have no time for the big things?
Our life is frittered away by detail.
Thoreau took to the woods to isolate himself from the petty concerns of the everyday, to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life“, to “not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” As much as I would love to build a cabin (with my own hands) deep in the wilderness, that option is not open to me. What I can do is to notice the little things, to be watchful, to be awake.
No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert.
In this spirit, during my weekend at the beach, I ousted myself from my bed to see the sun rise over the water. When did you last see the sun rise? It is a spiritual experience. The sky softly lightens with blues and pinks and yellows, and you cannot help but compare it to the paintings of artists who, truly, were awake; for with oils and brushes they were able to convey the promise and wistfulness of a new morning.
Soon, a glimmer, a hint of orange on the horizon, a fiery dance; and now you are transfixed. Sunrise cannot be hurried, it takes seemingly forever, and you are seduced into solitary contemplation, for to leave now is an impossibility, a failure. Waiting, you note the texture of the sand, hear the caterwauling of the sea birds, feel the breeze lift your hair.
Slowly, slowly, the fire creeps up, the brilliance burns your eyes, and now you have become a part of the dance. You have to close your eyes, look away, the blueness of the afterimage swimming on your eyelids, quickly turning again your face to the sun, for to turn away is to miss it, and you are unwilling to miss that glorious moment that you have waited so patiently for, when the full circle is revealed, its entirety finally over the horizon.
This is being awake, this is living. If only we could live and define every moment of our lives so completely.
Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.
To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.
All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere.
If we live our lives as Thoreau does, in a morning atmosphere, we cannot help but see all things in that soft and bewitching morning light, which makes beautiful and magical all things that it touches. And when we see all things and all men in this light, it will be beyond us to consciously do things that might deface or endanger them. So many of the destructive practices that we as human beings practice are simply the result of somnolence and unconscious habit. Being awake, we can search for new ways, forge new paths, find new solutions.
To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.
When we are awake, we awaken others. I do not pretend to understand how this works. Perhaps it is that morning light in our countenance. Perhaps it is because we have suddenly arrived at a certain level of peace, living moment by moment, simultaneously with a sense of “blessed unrest”, a chafing to make a difference: and that which binds us together recognizes it and yearns to replicate it.
This, I believe, is the most honest and effective way to wring passion and change from the world.
I am grateful to Green Bean Dreams for giving me a little push to reread Walden, and a deadline to boot. It took me all month, because I was copying over all the passages that spoke to me; in essence, I would have done well just to replicate every page. Walden is a song, and though I may hum some refrains louder than others, every page contributes to the symphony.
It is difficult in parts, but as Thoreau points out,
Yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tiptoe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.
So it is with life.
I hope that others will read Walden and share how it inspires them; I truly think it is impossible to read it without being inspired, no matter what stage or manner of life you begin from. You will want to pass out copies to your friends, and begin anew, a life of breaking dawn, of triumphant optimism.
I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.
I highly, highly recommend the 150th Anniversary Edition; if Walden is a symphony, the lush photography within this edition is the dance.
Read your fate,
see what is before you,
and walk on into futurity.
And yes, I’m Still a Bookworm!
For June I have optimistically pledged to read the Nature Writings of John Muir, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature- Deficit Disorder.
Any other green bookworms out there?