“…the thonder gan romblen in the Heven with that gristly steven, that Chaucer tells of – (the gods must be proud with such forked flashes and such artillery to rout a poor unarmed fisherman…” Thoreau, Journal, August 23rd 1845
Is there a better summer-storm line than Chaucer’s above? Thonder really does romble. Anyway, I’ve returned to my reading of Henry Thoreau’s first summer at Walden and its resonances with our current summer. Aging August brings me to Thoreau’s thunder-precipitated meeting with John Field, the central episode of what would become the Baker Farm chapter of his book.
Thoreau observes no niceties when describing Field (“An Honest hard working – but shiftless man plainly was John Field) and his wife (with round greasy face and bare breast – still thinking to improve her condition one day) and “many children from the broad faced boy that ran by his father’s side to escape the rain to the wrinkled & Sybil like – crone-like infant, not knowing whether to take the part of age or infancy…” Even as they give him shelter.
In exchange, however, Thoreau does offer them advice, amplified by the time he writes the episode into the published version of Walden: “I tried to help him with my experience, telling him that he was one of my nearest neighbors, and that I too, who came a-fishing here, and looked like a loafer, was getting my living like himself; that I lived in a tight light and clean house, which hardly cost more than the annual rent to such a ruin as his commonly amounts to…”
Here, after all, is one of the desperate masses for whom Thoreau intends his life and book as example; here is a test case: “If he and his family would live simply, they might all go a huckle-berrying…” But the test does not go well: “John heaved a sigh at this, and his wife stared with arms akimbo…”
The thundershower ends and Thoreau sets off, retreats, really: “As I was leaving the Irishman’s roof after the rain, bending my steps again to the pond, my haste to catch pickerel, wading in retired meadows, in sloughs and bog-holes, in forlorn and savage places, appeared for an instant trivial to me who had been sent to school and college…”
Here is crisis, I think, of a sort familiar to us all. Just what am I doing with whatever I’ve been given (it is, we recall from Walden’s first chapter, “difficult to begin without borrowing,”) the tools of school in this instance? All this walking and mucking about, he seems to say, to what purpose?
Thoreau’s answer is lyrical and famous. And, for me, only partially convincing. Still, it is hard not to feel the momentum of that answer; it gathers you in: “but as I ran down the hill toward the reddening west, with the rainbow over my shoulder, and some faint tinkling sound borne to my ear through the cleansed air, from I know not what quarter, my Good Genius seemed to say, – Go fish and hunt far and wide day by day, – farther and wider, – and rest thee by many brooks and heart-sides without misgiving…Grow wild according to thy nature.”
The biblical allusions and language underscore the sacred nature of this answer conjured by “my Good Genius.” The “faint tinkling sounds” seem transcendent chimes.
Still, I wonder what you make of this meeting in the Baker Farm chapter and how its questions fit in your lives?
Other note, related (perhaps) in the way it appeared to me when I was not “at work”: a hummingbird moth, humming and hovering in the bee balm – it looked like an infant hummingbird, a third the size of the usual, except…that it had antennae over half an inch long. Antennae, I thought and wondered? It gave the “bird” a goofy sort of Saturday Night Live retro look. Still, it hovered over the flowers gracefully, dipped its long “nose” in tastefully. Clearly a “bird” with flair…then, later after a search of images, a bug (which put me in mind of “the strong and beautiful bug” that appears at Walden’s end). “What beautiful and winged life.”
Later, two pileated woodpeckers (a pair?) only 10 feet away (briefly, of course, as they flew up and off issuing their wild laughter).