It’s Juneteenth, our government is willfully tearing children from parents, and I’m thinking of Henry David Thoreau, as I often have since reading Laura Walls’ splendid biography.
Since last October, I’ve taken up the habit of reading a page a day from his journals. It shocked me, at first, how much I enjoyed Thoreau’s company, as I had pegged him as a fussy nature-lover (I consider myself an easygoing indoorsman). He is, in many ways, just that, but so much more.
I find him completely relatable: He’s overeducated, underemployed, loves plants, is upset about politics, and lives with his parents. (Pretty sure I could write a whole sitcom reimagining him as a millennial in contemporary America.)
On my birthday, I turned to the June 16, 1854 entry, and found the raw material for what would become “Slavery in Massachussetts,” a speech he’d give a few weeks later on July 4, standing under a “black-draped, upside down American flag.” Towards the end of the speech, in an echo of his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson (“We do not breath well. There is infamy in the air…[it] robs the landscape of beauty…”), he summarizes his despair:
Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.
But then, he turns back towards nature, to contemplate the water-lily. Here’s Laura Walls:
In an extraordinary final turn, he willed himself toward hope: “But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity.” Pure to the eye, sweet to the scent, yet rooted in “the slime and muck of earth,” the lily became his emblem for “the purity and courage” that may yet—that must yet—be born of “the sloth and vice of man, the decay of humanity” In offering his audience this American lotus flower, the sacred Buddhist emblem of enlightenment he had found lighting his path of Concord, Thoreau was offering them the core of his own being and belief, and the story of his own redemption.
It reminds me of something Brian Eno says: “Beautiful things grow out of shit.”
Beautiful things grow out of shit. Nobody ever believes that. Everyone thinks that Beethoven had his string quartets completely in his head—they somehow appeared there and formed in his head—and all he had to do was write them down and they would be manifest to the world. But what I think is so interesting, and would really be a lesson that everybody should learn, is that things come out of nothing. Things evolve out of nothing. You know, the tiniest seed in the right situation turns into the most beautiful forest. And then the most promising seed in the wrong situation turns into nothing. I think this would be important for people to understand, because it gives people confidence in their own lives to know that’s how things work.
If you walk around with the idea that there are some people who are so gifted—they have these wonderful things in their head but and you’re not one of them, you’re just sort of a normal person, you could never do anything like that—then you live a different kind of life. You could have another kind of life where you could say, well, I know that things come from nothing very much, start from unpromising beginnings, and I’m an unpromising beginning, and I could start something.
This is an unpromising beginning. What can I start? What seeds can I plant in this muck?