Category Archives: Literature

In Celebration of “the Citizenry of All Things within One World”

Earth Day 1856

I could have chosen randomly
leafing through their pages
pausing here say or

there – so rich
are their records that
even the page-skipper-

bird that I am soon finds
a twig a branch a point
from which to fly

and I can be sure
of a song recorded
somewhere in italics -

chirr whee – to denote
what’s heard
day after day as

they set out to find themselves.

Who then can resist “sailing
in the rain” on April 22, 1856
or sailing with today’s rain coming

on, or the rippling east wind
and finding that even Henry
tried as he held the tiller

to hold too an umbrella
to keep himself dry? Or
knowing that a sudden

“seizure of happiness”
can come on at walk’s end
on this quietest of mornings?

Two Voices: Henry Thoreau and Mary Oliver

Here then, in celebration of this 22nd, are short excerpts from two voices that I turn to when I want to hear from and of the earth, which is another way of saying every day.

Soon after I turned about in Fair Haven Pond, it began to rain hard. The wind was but little south of east and therefore not very favorable for my voyage. I raised my sail and, cowering under my umbrella in the stern, wearing the umbrella like a cap and holding the handle between my knees, I steered and paddled almost perfectly sheltered from the heavy rain…From time to time, from under my umbrella, I could see the ducks spinning away from me, like great bees…But though my progress was slow and laborious, and at length I began to get a little wet, I enjoyed the adventure because it combined to some extent the advantages of being at home in my chamber and abroad in the storm at the same time.
- Henry Thoreau, Journal, April 22, 1856

Rain comes on

Rain comes on

Once, years ago, I emerged from the woods in the early morning at the end of a walk and – it was the most casual of moments – as I stepped from under the trees into the mild, pouring-down sunlight I experienced a sudden impact, a seizure of happiness. It was not the drowning sort of happiness, rather the floating sort. I made no struggle toward it; it was given. Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished. Any important difference between myself and all other things vanished. I knew that I belonged to the world and felt comfortably my own containment in the totality. I did not feel that I understood any mystery, not at all; rather that I could be happy and feel blessed within the perplexity – the summer morning, its gentleness, the sense of the great work being done though the grass where I stood scarcely trembled. As I say, it was the most casual of moments, not mystical as the word is usually meant, for there was no vision, or anything extraordinary at all, but only a sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world: leaves, dust, thrushes and finches, men and women. And yet it is a moment I have never forgotten, and upon which I have based many decisions in the years since.
- Mary Oliver, from the essay “The Perfect Days” in the book Long Life.

End-of-walk flower

End-of-walk flower

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Leaving “Walden” Behind

By Corinne H. Smith

“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.” ~ Henry Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden

On Friday morning, I zipped over to an adjacent town just before 9 a.m. I wanted to hit a public library book sale in its first minutes, before I had to go to work.

I don’t “need” more books, mind you. My bedside stack of to-be-reads stands more than two feet tall. I buy one or two more from online sources at least once a month. And I work part-time at a used bookstore, for heavens sakes. Still, I had to go to this sale to make sure that I wasn’t missing out on some other crucial titles. I knew I had only 15 or 20 minutes to waste – uh, I mean spend — there.

I pulled into the parking lot just as the doors opened. A few dozen early birds hurried in ahead of me. As I walked into the large room, I saw that the volunteers had marked the tables well. The LITERATURE and NONFICTION signs caught my eye first, and I decided to save these sections for last. I started instead with FICTION and MYSTERY. I began the usual cock-headed zombie walk of the experienced book sale customer.

This was an average-sized sale, with many more hardbacks than paperbacks. I soon saw familiar books. Ones I managed and distributed as a long-time librarian. Ones I once owned and have since given up. Others – both read and unread — that still sit on my shelves at home. It’s like Old Home Week when I go to one of these sales. I had to smile at some of the titles I saw, remembering. I couldn’t dawdle, though. And I kept bumping into people going the other way.

I used to devour mysteries like potato chips. But I’m not always in the mood for them. More often I move toward books about nature, writing, nature writing, and personal motivation. I made short work of MYSTERY here.

I picked up James Michener’s “The Novel” and carried it along as I kept looking. I soon realized that I didn’t want to own this book; and if I wanted to read a copy, I could always borrow it. Had I read it before? I thought I had. I may have even owned a paperback copy of it, once. After a few minutes, I returned Mr. Michener to an open slot on the FICTION table.

I headed toward LITERATURE. This was the smallest section of the sale, and the pickings here were slim. Nearly every book was recognizable as a classic: American, English, even some from old Greek storytellers, like Homer. Not many selections appealed to me. I rounded the corner to scrutinize the other side of the table. Well, what do you know? Here was a copy of Walden. Hello, old friend. Hello, Henry. I may have even gasped when the one-word title caught my eye.

It was the Great Illustrated Classics edition, first printed in 1946. I’ve seen it on many library shelves over the years. Now here this one sat, right next to Catcher in the Rye, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Great Gatsby, and biographies of Shakespeare and Mark Twain.

It wasn’t a library discard. It was fresh and unscathed. The hinges held perfectly, almost as if they were brand new. I opened it up and looked for a past owner’s name. I didn’t see one. I did see the price mark of four dollars. I put it back. I stared at it for at least a minute. Should I, or shouldn’t I?

waldenatsale

I didn’t “need” this “Walden.” I already have a few key editions that I like. And of course, this wasn’t my favorite version of all time. That’s the 1970s paperback that I read in my senior year of high school (See my blog post, “MY Walden,” http://thoreaufarm.org/2013/08/my-walden/, for this story.) After a minute of contemplation, I sighed and turned away, empty handed.

Running out of time, I speed-sauntered around the rest of NONFICTION and BIOGRAPHY. I glanced quickly through SELF-HELP. In the end, I took three books to the checkout clerks: A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean (which I read in the 1980s but never owned); In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan (which I hadn’t gotten to yet, though I’ve read a few of Pollan’s other books); and an original hardcover of Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. I’ve read all of Gladwell’s books by borrowing them from libraries. I knew I had since bought a used paperback of one of them, and I couldn’t remember which one it was. I decided to take the risk on this Blink. It was in excellent condition.

And what of that “Walden”? I decided to leave it behind. I hoped it would find another home with another devoted reader. Perhaps it was fated to make a difference in someone else’s life. How could I stand in its way?

[Many thanks to Jeannette Weitzel, who served as photographer, by request and at the spur of the moment. And FYI: I now own two copies of Blink.]

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Spring’s Songs – Jonathan Franzen and Henry Thoreau and Birds

A purple finch showed up in our yard yesterday, just hours ahead of the last (I hope) snowfall. And my daily footwork was again suffused with bluebird song. These birds then triggered a rereading of an essay that had caught my eye but then slipped into the welter of partially-read pieces.

Purple Finch (carpodacus Purpureus)

You, if a reader of this blog, have grown used to our stepping onto the springboard of Thoreau’s journal writings; from there, we often dive into something daily, some moment of the local world. Today we climb a little higher, then drop a little farther from the platform of Jonathan Franzen’s recent essay, Carbon Capture, ( http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/04/06/carbon-capture)  in the April 6th New Yorker. From (and in) it, we consider the vast challenge of climate change and the sliver of effect we call personal response. Franzen’s piece, the best response to this calamity that I’ve read, brings us back to Henry Thoreau – not by specific mention, but by its suggestion that local attention and conserving work can be redemptive, can be a daily way forward in a difficult time.

In struggling to come to personal terms with climate change and its vast pronouncement, Franzen writes of birds, of local study and care that echoes Thoreau’s understanding that, when it came to universal concerns and understanding, he had “traveled a good deal in Concord.” Franzen’s central thought is direct: climate change is real and unstoppable; its scale so dwarfs a person’s efforts as to negate them, and so, even as large environmental organizations and figures recommend combating it, focus on climate change draws a person away from work where she or he can have effect, can live a life – working for conservation of habitat for birds and other animals, for example.

As he considers himself and us, Franzen identifies two central strains of thought that divide us: the Puritan, guilty-as-charged school and the positive, life-affirming Franciscan school. In shifting his focus from guilt-inducing efforts to have personal effect on climate change to life-affirming work for bird habitats, Franzen chooses life and whatever measure of joy it may contain. His implied question is a simple one: do you want to live a guilt-ridden, powerless life or a commitment-suffused one?

Franzen is not naive. He knows that climate change will alter habitats, will affect every thing. But he points out that global scale trouble and guilt finally overwhelm and paralyze. If, every time you have an effect – which is of course, every minute – you feel guilty about it, you step finally away from such wearying awareness. If instead, you feel you are working at least some of the time for some small sector of life, local habitat, for example, you can be buoyed by small victories, lifted by your embrace of the local.

Thoreau, of course, knew the lure and redemption of the local. His journal is a record of engagement and, yes, love, of where he walked and what he found.

Journal, April 9th, 1856: 7 A.M. – To Trillium Woods…The air is full of birds, and as I go down the causeway, I distinguish the seringo note. You have only to come forth each morning to be surely advertised of each newcomer into these broad meadows. Many a larger animal might be concealed, but a cunning ear detects the arrival of each new species of bird. These birds give evidence that they prefer the fields of New England to all other climes, deserting for them the warm and fertile south. Here is their paradise. It is here they express the most happiness by song and action.

I have taken a nuanced, developed essay and simplified it (without too much damage, I hope). It is worth reading in its fullness. Just as the birds singing in today’s new snow remind that today is there to live in its fullness.

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