Category Archives: Walden

Interview with a pilgrim

by Natasha Shabat

For the past 16 months, I’ve been video-interviewing visitors to Walden Pond. Approaching random strangers at the pond requires going out of my comfort zone. Normally I photograph nature at the pond and post my photos on Facebook — on my own page, on the Thoreau Society group page, on other Concord-related pages — and print them on greeting cards. And, with the encouragement of some Thoreauvian friends, I created a Facebook blog called “Walden Pond People” and turned my camera toward people, talking with them about why they were visiting the pond.

Come summer of 2016 and the Annual Gathering of the Thoreau Society (AG16), I invited attendees to meet me at Walden Pond, Monday morning after the Gathering, to be interviewed at Thoreau’s Cove. I chose this rendezvous point since it’s easy to find, and it’s quieter near the western end of the pond.

Meanwhile, thanks to my Walden Pond photos on the Thoreau Society Facebook group, I had befriended Punit, a man from India, who had been in the U.S. for less than two years and was starting to explore the country.

“Walden Pond is one of my dream places to visit,” Punit told me last April.

In July, Punit traveled to New England to attend AG16. He had never been to Boston, Concord, or Walden Pond and attended AG presentations over the weekend, including mine on “Walden Pond People.” He waited to make his pilgrimage to the pond for when we met at Thoreau’s Cove for his “Walden Pond People” interview.

“I wanted to read more about philosophy. I picked up Gandhi, because of the impact he made on the destiny of India, the future of India, so I wanted to know more about him. When I read his autobiography there was something on ‘Civil Disobedience,’ which I later came to know was inspired by Thoreau’s essay. Another reason why I was attracted to Thoreau’s writings is because one of my friends recommended Walden to me. There were a lot of things which were telling me ‘Hey, go read Thoreau!’ So, first I got my book. I just bought it and put it on the shelf. I didn’t do anything with it!”

When Punit described his path toward Thoreau, he reminded me of my own experience. I, too, had bought a copy of Walden, put it on the shelf, and proceeded to not read it. I simply continued going to Walden Pond to swim, kayak and read and write, as I’d already been doing for a couple of decades.

Punit photo 1

“Yeah, it was a fun way to read a book. I’ve never done anything like that with any other book.”

Punit continued, “But my friends influenced me. They started reading Walden before I did. Then there were three of us reading this book at the same time. There are certain things in the book which are difficult to understand. So what we would do is, we would discuss these with each other through email, or by phone, or during the in-person meetings. Yeah, it was a fun way to read a book. I’ve never done anything like that with any other book. It was a really interesting way to study these ideas. ‘What does this guy even want to say in these lines?’”

As Punit, I was influenced by others finally to take my book off the shelf. In my case it was a bunch of Thoreauvians presenting at AG11, which I had spontaneously attended. There at the Masonic Temple in Concord I was surrounded by people who knew Walden and had plenty to say about it. I was intrigued enough finally to read Walden for my first time. I read it in small bites, chewing on Thoreau’s words, while sitting in my kayak on Walden Pond. I did this over the next six weeks, until I turned the last page on September 1, 2011.

“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.” — Walden, “Reading”

Punit: “I think of Walden, and Thoreau’s writing in general, I think of them as something which is connecting the dots. Think of civilizations which existed in a different time. On a scale of time. Think of Chinese civilization, Indian, or Hindu civilizations, or American, or European civilization. So Thoreau’s trying to connect the dots. As if he were saying ‘Hey! There really isn’t much difference between these different civilizations. The core philosophy remains the same.’”

Punit photo 2

“Think of civilizations on a scale of time.”

After I finished reading Walden that summer of 2011, I, too, observed some dot-connecting, but of another sort: I was overcome by the parallels between Thoreau’s masterpiece and the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. (More on this another time.)

Punit: “That core philosophy is one of the reasons that Thoreau got inspired by Eastern philosophy, even though he lived so much later afterward. That’s just amazing for me! And since I’m from India, Hindu philosophy especially attracted me to Walden. I think it’s really important to figure out what you want to do in life. This is one of those books which actually helped me to figure that out.

Punit photo 3

“I really like the site of his cabin.”

“Walden Pond is exactly what I was thinking of, how I imagined it to be: a simple place, just trees, pond, that’s it. It’s very peaceful, very nice, very green. Just the kind of place you want to be in when you want to think about the higher purpose of life, bigger things in life. Well, the cabin actually looks smaller than what I thought, so I’m wondering how Thoreau lived in such a small cabin. I would find it difficult. . . .  he was here for a grander purpose, so it probably suited his purposes here.

“I really like the site of his cabin. I think he probably must have walked around the pond a lot of times. Probably there is some specific reason why he chose this as his site. I brought my camera – that’s really important, because I wanted to capture at least a part of what Thoreau felt. And I would love to visit this place again.”

I was impressed with Punit. Imagine living in India, learning about Thoreau as a result of studying Gandhi — and then, eventually, actually coming here to Concord, hoping to see what Thoreau saw and feel what Thoreau felt. Punit had graciously awarded me the privilege of accompanying him on his first-ever pilgrimage to the place where Thoreau wrote Walden. I felt honored.

You can find my video interview with Punit here.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, The Roost, Thoreau Bicentennial, Walden

To Begin at the End

“Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” Thoreau, Walden

February is a stirring month. Or, more accurately, a month of stirrings. Eyes closed, face to the sun, tucked into a sheltered tree trunk or backed by a building’s corner-nook, I find a blissed-out few minutes, where the blush of warmth spreads over me, along the folds of my scarf, even, finally, to my feet. Heat is the seed of dreams. And mine are of summer and its elastic days.

Yes, I/we bow to the intervals of onslaught, the storm also stirring to our southwest. But already, it’s clear the warm will win, already it’s clear that the future is light. So much to do- for that I am thankful.

Gratitude is much on my mind today, and part of that thankfulness goes to you, a reader, on occasion, or in sequence, of this blog’s skein of posts. Over these 4+ years and 100,000+ words, I have written for you. And in doing so, again and again I’ve encountered the serendipity of learning more as I write – more about what I see and find daily, more about what lies in the folds of the world, more about Henry Thoreau, whose spirit and wide, wild intelligence stays with me like a third parent’s presence.

A familiar moment.

A familiar moment.

I send on these thanks now, because my current writing work suggests that I stop writing here on the Roost and focus on the book I’m completing. It’s about search and rescue in NH’s White Mountains (working title – On the Edge Of Elsewhere – Searchers and Rescuers in the White Mountains, University Press of New England, spring ‘18), specifically about the people who do this saving work. And so it’s about mountain altruism, a spirit and practice that runs directly counter to our always-problems of greed and selfishness. It is hopeful work; they are hopeful people. Even in the face of difficulty and tragedy. And yes, Henry Thoreau’s a presence there too: his 1858 wanderings on Mt. Washington appear as a primer on how not to get lost, or stay found.

During my time as a teacher, when my students and I reached the end of reading Walden, with its sunlit image of a morning star, I always asked them what they made of it. By then they were well attuned to the sun’s central presence and morning’s promise, and so, quick to note both. But we often lingered as you do when reaching the door of a life-room, and often I got a version of this: “You know,” said any number of them, “Thoreau’s hope is that this book, our reading, is a beginning, not an end. If the book’s had effect, we’re about to begin.”

Part of the pleasure of writing to and for you has been this feeling of starting afresh, of beginning again and again. Part of the pleasure of saying thank you lies in a sense of its being another beginning.

I hope, if an occasional post here has had effect, it too has offered a start. Thanks for reading toward each beginning; surely, there is “more day to dawn.”

Sandy

Scene from a November visit - choosing.

Scene from a November visit – choosing.

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Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote, Walden

Hearing Drums – NMP 1/20/17

The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity. They seem as solitary, and the letter in which they are printed as rare and curious, as ever. Thoreau, Reading, Walden.

For weeks, I’ve heard the pounding. Sometimes it’s the sudden pick-up of my heart, when a new vulgarity arrives from our president-(sort of)elect; other times, it’s the full-throated narcissism of another me-ist intent on unmooring us from any collective will to do good. Such drums have kept me awake at night, distracted me from the day’s work. Even when I walk to the woods, as I do daily, their thrumming sometimes insists.

When in search of larger wisdom, Henry Thoreau, it seems to me, turned often to the ancient Greeks, famously keeping, for example, a copy of The Iliad by his bed while at the pond. When it comes to apprehending the pulse of human behavior, they’ve not yet been surpassed. And in this loud run-up to Friday’s inauguration (I note the word “augur” embedded), I’ve found myself returned to the strangeness of a play I’ve read many times, Euripides’, The Bakkhai.

The_bakkhai-210

“No more drums,” cries Pentheus, the newly-crowned, 17-year-old king of Thebes, in this ancient play about madness. Here, the king (inexperienced and untested) gets a visit from Dionysos, himself a new god and intent on gaining followers, but one who already knows the power of impulse in human affairs. Dionysos assumes the disguise of a 17-year-old priest, and so joins Pentheus in a late-adolescent contest for control. It is an unequal match-up, young authoritarian versus god of impulse, and everyone but Pentheus can see that the priest is something else, something otherworldly. This, the people of Thebes can see, will not end well. For their king, and so, for them.

And it doesn’t, as Dionysos chooses the particularly cruel avenue of Pentheus’ desires – scarcely understood by the king – as a way to lure him into a trap, where he is torn limb from limb by a pack of women, led by his mother. Pentheus is such a hothead, so intent on being (becoming) “the man” that one has to work at finding sympathy for him. Still, to be shredded by mother…well, at least a tear or two there, if not a primary fear. And Dionysos is implacable force, intent on being worshipped; little else matters, including his own followers, who have left their homes for the promise of joy and a better life, and now find themselves stranded in a foreign land.

It has taken me some time to sort all these drums and drummings, but now I see that Euripides has fashioned a play – his last, some think – that cautions against ungoverned impulse (within and without), and it has returned to my mind because we seem to be entering an era where such impulse is the loudest of tweets, a form that is all impulse. The president-elect (sort of) seems a joining of both 17-year-olds in The Bakkhai, a colossal neediness for control and regard.

The play does not end well for Thebes either. Shorn of its governing force by Pentheus’s death, it is open to the rest of the world’s ill will and predation. And Dionysos, intent on himself, is ready to move on – where can I go next to spread the joy of me, and get worship in return?

Henry Thoreau used to listen to celebrations of independence and self in Concord village at a distance; from Walden, the volleys of expressive cannons sounded like “pop” guns, or toys. Thoreau also revered the Greeks, though I’ve not found indication that he read The Bakkhai, even as I suspect he must have. But I wonder if any metaphorical pond lies at enough distance from today’s distant tweets and the roar of self-worship? Or, if, unlike the Thebans, it’s time to plunge in and roar back at this odd amalgam, this president of impulse?

Reader’s Note: This play repays reading many times over, and Robert Bagg’s translation is very fine. When I checked a while ago, it was out of print, but I have found it in used bookstores. Also, new translations continue to appear; it is truly a timeless, or well timed play.

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote, Walden