Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Happy Birthday, Henry

Today was the birthday of Henry David Thoreau. He famously wrote,
     Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after.

That may be the only thing many fishers know of his writing. If so, that's a shame. This man is a kindred spirit. I waded into my copy of his writings to find some quotes, and found an old friend, one I have neglected for too long. When I was a young man I recognized in Thoreau someone who had done what I wished to do: find the simple truth of life by walking unencumbered into the natural world, and by entering unafraid the landscape of thought. Now, well on my own journey, I recognize many of the life places he describes--like the joy of a thunderstorm beating on the roof, the pleasure of the company of a good book, or the peace of a calm, blue pond under a summer sky--and his reflections on his experience illuminate my own.

Thoreau is most famous for Walden, an account of his time spent living alone in a cabin he built in the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts. To me he sums up his reasons for doing so when he writes about his sudden awareness of the many birds all around his cabin, not because he had caged them, but because he had caged himself in the midst of them.

In Walden, he closes the second section, titled "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," with this:

     Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.

Then, in section five, "Solitude," he writes:

     I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls. Let me suggest a few comparisons, that some one may convey an idea of my situation. I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud, or than Walden Pond itself. What company has that lonely lake, I pray? And yet it has not the blue devils, but the blue angels in it, in the azure tint of its waters. The sun is alone, except in thick weather, when there sometimes appears to be two, but one is a mock sun. God is alone--but the devil, he is far from being alone; he sees a great deal of company; he is legion. I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or a sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a humblebee. I am no more lonely than the Mill Brook, or a weathercock, or the north star, or the south wind, or an April shower, or a January thaw, or the first spider in a new house.

A lesser-known work, but one that may appeal to anyone who has loved rivers, is A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. It's an account of a week-long float, rowing, drifting, camping, and reflecting on the rivers and the land, and the people whose lives have been shaped by them throughout history. Here's a quote from the opening paragraphs of "Saturday:"

     Our boat, which had cost us a week's labor in the spring, was in form like a fisherman's dory, fifteen feet long by three and a half in breadth at the widest part, painted green below, with a border of blue, with reference to the two elements in which it was to spend its existence. It had been loaded the evening before at our door, half a mile from the river, with potatoes and melons, from a patch which we had cultivated, and a few utensils; and was provided with wheels in order to be rolled around falls, as well as with two sets of oars, and several slender poles for shoving in shallow places, and also two masts, one of which served as a tent pole at night; for a buffalo skin was to be our bed, and a tent of cotton cloth our roof. It was strongly built, but heavy, and hardly of better model than usual. If rightly made, a boat would be a sort of amphibious animal, a creature of two elements, related by one half its structure to some swift and shapely fish, and by the other to some strong-winged and graceful bird. The fish shows where there should be the greatest breadth of beam and depth in the hold; its fins direct where to set the oars, and the tail gives some hint for the form and position of the rudder. The bird shows how to rig and trim the sails, and what form to give the prow, that it may balance the boat and divide the air and water best. These hints we had but partially obeyed. But the eyes, though they are no sailors, will never be satisfied with any model, however fashionable, which does not answer all the requisitions of art. However, as art is all of a ship but the wood, and yet the wood alone will rudely serve the purpose of a ship, so our boat, being of wood, gladly availed itself of the old law that the heavier shall float the lighter, and though a dull water-fowl, proved a sufficient buoy for our purpose.

Go fishing in the works of Thoreau. You will find much worth catching.

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