Saturday, September 1, 2007

Henry David Thoreau, a Visionary.

Saying of the week: "In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high." -- Lewis Mumford.

In my readings this week, I came across an old friend, a book I'd read and cherished many years ago: Walden's Pond. In light of Global Warming, it has become clear to me that Henry David Thoreau looked into the future and saw the twenty-first century as clearly as black thunder clouds drifting across a cobalt blue sky. He heard the rumble of the Industrial Revolution in the distance long before the storm actually broke, and he saw how the land pioneer and the industrial pioneer would transform American Society. A true visionary, he saw the industrial cities, the slums, great bodies of depauperate immigrants, and the rape of both the earth and society through greed.
At the time Conestoga wagons began plodding over the Alleghenies, when the country was on the move and consumed with material conquest, Thoreau stayed put and deliberately remained poor. He practiced civil disobedience as a principle, in protest against the Mexican War, the Fugitive Slave Law, and slavery itself. He saw his fellow man as someone who clutches at everything but holds nothing fast, because he soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications. Thoreau did just the opposite. He wanted more than anything to live fully. He prized each minute for what it brought, and nothing brought more joy than a spring day by Walden Pond. He was not willing to work any harder than necessary to feed himself and keep warm, because work took him away from life.
He scoffed at people who slaved day in and day out all their lives to erect a fancy house, dress in gaudy clothing, send their children to the most expensive schools so that they too would become enslaved. He was penniless, however, he considered himself a rich man indeed. He had the wealth of the earth at his fingertips, the riches that each moment brings.
Thoreau went to Walden Pond as an experiment, and what he discovered was that people are so eager to gather ostentatious comforts that they fail to profit by civilization itself: that people are not enriched by comforts, but because life turns into a rat race of one-upmanship, they are rather pauperized by them. "There is not one of my readers," he exclaimed, "who has yet lived a whole human life." Thoreau believed that simplification led to a higher civilization.
Is that not the kind of attitude needed today? One that is based on the premise of leaving the smallest footprint possible, to enjoy life moment by moment, nurturing the earth and being happy with less material possession? Has twenty-room houses, flat-screen TVs, and five car families truly enriched our lives, considering the cost of the lifetime of drudgery to attain it and the polluting of the earth to maintain it?
In his great experiment at Walden Pond, Thoreau "learned this, at least . . . that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in the common hours. . . . In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."

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