Ok, ok, back to the absurdities of modern civilization for the rest of this belch. Can you read that scribbling above? I am Clueless, of course, so I don't know how to blow that up a bit so it is easier to read. [But I did tidy it up with Photoshop, so I'm not ready for the woods just yet.]
Meanwhile, back to this friendly and meaty work. The book is at once thought provoking and soothing, and I recommend reading it while the new President tries to cope with the most incomprehensible mess since the Great Depression. The catastrophe that is What Bush and Reagan Hath Wrought makes me want very much to go back in time. Before credit default swaps. [when I first heard of these, a couple years ago, I thought, 'You mean people are betting on whether or not loans default? That's not very nice.'] Before collateralized debt obligations. Before deregulation of everything from Wall Street to the FCC rules. Before the North American Free Trade Agreement? Before plastic was invented? All the way back to whale oil?
Well, no. But reading about how Thoreau thought about his surroundings during turbulent times does help me feel better. Going through the arc of his life in this book is delightfully instructive -- mainly for me, in thinking what we can think or accomplish if we can just try to be thoughtful. But not if we can't.
What makes "The Thoreau..." so accessable is that even I, who knew very little about the man, and who cannot remember being forced long ago to read "Walden" or "Civil Disobedience," can follow along with Sullivan and learn about how Thoreau's life developed-- by examining his relationship with his community, his search for expression, his [yes] love of nature and walking, and how he felt that every individual has got to listen to his/her conscience.
Icky and ethic-y, you might think? No, no, no! This book sings with enthusiasm about Thoreau's [and consequently our] changing world. Sullivan has an emotional involvement with Thoreau and the issues that swirled around him as he struggled to find his writer's voice. He starts at the beginning of Thoreau's intellectual development, at Harvard, and ties his identity to a raptured reading of Virgil's journals, the Georgics. Now wait. I am not afraid! Sullivan doesn't go off onto some rarified plane on the writings of the ancients--he succinctly 'splains, in terms any goof like me can understand, what those books are and signify, and of course what they meant to Thoreau. But Sullivan doesn't dwell there, he integrates this information into what sort of writer and thinker Thoreau later became because this Harvard student met these books so early. Oh, yes, and that weird movement schoolkids scorn-- Transcendentalism -- is in this mix too, as it needs be, but that isn't scary either. So relax, and keep reading, as I did. This isn't a book to be exclusively debated at faculty parties...it's for them, yeah, but mostly for the rest of us.
Back to me wishing I could go back, go back...was there a simpler time? Nah. We all know this. How to think about the times is what is important to our individual sanity and our collective civilization, I'd say. And while the author is showing us, with many enjoyable, apt, lyrical quotes from Thoreau's notebooks, how our First Environmentalist felt about grappling with the world, as well as with nature, Sullivan's helping us sort just such issues out for ourselves, too.
No, no, no, this isn't a self-help book! But reading about Thoreau's thoughts and actions regarding slavery, the change in farming and industry, the influx of new ethnic groups, financial panics and other difficulties, illness and death, new modes of transportation and communication, the obligation of taxes, and, seeing that despite all this turmoil, he's gaping at the the Beauty Of It All anyhow...well, you gotta love the guy!
As I read to the end of the book, I felt that I was passing through Thoreau's life and thoughts, and on into our own time. Sullivan doesn't just dump our woody bard back into his relegated hut, but helps us experience what it means to deal with those philosophies in modern reality. A great way to demonstrate that is Sullivan's story of his visit to modern-day Walden Pond. And I think the best part of that visit boils down to his recounting his walk from Concord center to the Pond, including being stuck on a highway median, with scary traffic whizzing by. This blast of modern life on the way to the past means...wait, the past is
in modern life, isn't it, and yet we need not reject modern life because of that past. Hmmmm. The railroad tracks were worth Thoreau's scrutiny, and he saw beauty there. He knew it was the future calling, but he saw beauty there, because--well--because it was there. My favorite quote on this theme Sullivan pulls from the beginning of "Walden" : "In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line."
I've also thought before about nature vs. man, and whether there really is any divide between them. Just as we can't completely separate from our community in terms of moral obligations, we can't separate from nature, either. Of course, humans are ruining the earth. Sometimes it makes me so despairing I want to throw myself [or Monsanto, etc] off a cliff. But one needs to fight the urge to oblivion. My sis and I are helping fight off a shopping mall. It ain't much, but we had to do it. But really, I'd just rather run out to the garden and forget all this unpleasantness. Out there, as I bend over my flowers [yes, folks, this is a gardening blog], I strain to hear the goldfinches' wings singing as they fly by overhead. There is nothing more heartening. Then, of course, down in the road, the road I too travelled on to get here, a loud semi tractor-trailer throws on its brakes because the driver's seen the speed limit sign at the village's edge. I've learned this: there's the sound that the bird makes, and yes, there is also the sound that the humans make. I can't blot out the truck in order to only hear the goldfinch, at least not where I garden. While there's little song in the braking of a massive lorry, I must admit that it is of me. But I can still hear the goldfinch if I try.
"The Thoreau You Don't Know," by Robert Sullivan, Collins publishers, coming in April. [Full disclosure: Bob's been to my house for coffee.]