From Thoreau’s diary, Sept. 18, 1859:
Filed under: Thoreau
On this day 164 years ago, my ol’ pal Henry David Thoreau wrote about finding a tortoise nest with a new hatchling:
Think what is a summer to them! June, July, and August, — the livelong summer, — what are they with their heats and fevers but sufficient to hatch a tortoise in. Be not in haste; mind your private affairs. Consider the turtle. Perchance you have worried yourself, despaired of the world, meditated the end of life, and all things seemed rushing to destruction; but nature has steadily and serenely advanced with a turtle’s pace. Has not the tortoise also learned the true value of time?
I love reading Thoreau in late August. Even though my summer is much longer than his was, he helps me cool down, zoom out, and embrace the season.
“No other male American writer has been so discredited for enjoying a meal with loved ones or for not doing his own laundry.“
—Laura Dassow Walls, Henry David Thoreau: A Life
“Thoreau” was trending on Twitter yesterday, not because anyone was actually reading him or grappling with his ideas, but because his “mom did his laundry” and “brought him sandwiches” at Walden.
There have been many takedowns of Thoreau and many defenses of him. (I recommend this essay and Laura Walls’ wonderful bio.) But “over the question of the laundry,” Rebecca Solnit wrote an attempt to “exonerate” him in 2013. (The essay, much like this blog post, was provoked by getting mad at something someone said on social media. It was published in Orion under the title “Mysteries of Thoreau, Unsolved.” Poke around a little online and you’ll find it. It’s funny and good.) The essay begins:
There is one writer in all literature whose laundry arrangements have been excoriated again and again, and it is not Virginia Woolf, who almost certainly never did her own washing, or James Baldwin, or the rest of the global pantheon. The laundry of the poets remains a closed topic, from the tubercular John Keats (blood-spotted handkerchiefs) to Pablo Neruda (lots of rumpled sheets). Only Henry David Thoreau has been tried in the popular imagination and found wanting for his cleaning arrangements, though the true nature of those arrangements are not so clear.
She goes on to list “a long parade of people who pretended to care who did Thoreau’s laundry as a way of not having to care about Thoreau,” even though it is unclear, even amongst Thoreau scholars, who actually did do Thoreau’s laundry.
Do we care who did the chores in any other creative household on earth? Did Dante ever take out the slops? Do we love housework that much? Or do we hate it that much? This fixation on the laundry is related to the larger question of whether artists should be good people as well as good artists, and probably the short answer is that everyone should be a good person, but a lot of artists were only good artists (and quite a lot more were only bad artists). Whether or not they were good people, the good artists gave us something.
“None of us is pure,” she writes, “and purity is a dreary pursuit best left to Puritans.”
Solnit points out that unlike other lit’ry men looking for a woman to look after them, Thoreau never married and “did little to make work for women.” In fact, though we obsess over his two years at Walden, Thoreau was an integral part of his household throughout his life, both supporting his family and gaining support from them. (Which is, you know, the whole damned point of a family.)
It’s also the case that the abolitionist women in Thoreau’s life did a whole lot of influencing on him. “The Thoreau women took in the filthy laundry of the whole nation, stained with slavery, and pressured Thoreau and Emerson to hang it out in public, as they obediently did.”
“This,” Solnit writes, “is the washing that really mattered.”
“The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there.”
—Henry David Thoreau
Debbie Millman told me she asked Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth what it was like to be the biggest rock star in the world.
He said when you get to the top of the mountain it’s cold and you’re alone and the only way back is down.
(As sage an answer as that is, one of the weakest chapters in DLR’s otherwise excellent Crazy From The Heat is the one about mountain climbing.)
I’m not a mountain climber and I never will be, but yesterday in Edinburgh I climbed up an extinct volcano called Arthur’s Seat. (Robert Louis Stevenson described it as “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design.”)
There are a bunch of ways to get up up the hill, some more popular than others. The whole time I was hiking, I would stop, turn around, and admire the view. As I got higher and less-winded, I kept thinking, “This seems good enough. Do I really need to get to the top?”
When I got to the top, my suspicion was correct: The view, while majestic and panoramic, wasn’t really any more interesting than many of the other spots going up the hill. And, worse than that, it was crowded. There were people everywhere scrambling up the rocks to get selfies.
I stood there maybe 5 minutes then climbed back down to a more deserted grassy area and had a picnic with a seagull as a companion.
I thought about that photo of climbers waiting in line to get to the top of Mount Everest:
It’s an obvious metaphor, but people kill themselves for the view on the top of the mountain.
(I hate lines and nothing would turn me into an angry ghost more than dying while waiting in one.)
I walked down an easy grassy slope to the east and walked past the Dunsapie Loch, which looked, from the angle on foot, like it continued out to the sea:
A little further, I found a path by a stone wall that took me all the way through a wooded area back to Queens Road. I was alone the whole walk.
I came across these beautiful foxgloves:
And I felt happy.
Later, I walked through town and along the Water of Leith a few miles to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art. It was even better than climbing up the crags.
No more climbing mountains for me. There are more interesting views in the foothills.
If you pop over to Keri Smith’s website for her book The Wander Society, you’ll find printable PDFs of “The Wander Society Pocket Library,” handy little pocket zines you can print out and stick in your pocket before you go sauntering around.
They’re all worth reading, but my favorite, no surprise, is HDT’s “Walking” (1862):
If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man—then you are ready for a walk.
It’s chased nicely by Morley, who says, “I can be as solitary in a city street as ever Thoreau was in Walden.” (1920, from Travels in Philadelphia.)
“The Art of Idleness” (1926) is excerpted from the recently reissued The Gentle Art of Tramping.
Virginia Woolf, by the way, was a fan of Thoreau, and wrote this about him in 1917, on his 100th birthday:
Few people, it is safe to say, take such an interest in themselves as Thoreau took in himself; for if we are gifted with an intense egoism we do our best to suffocate it in order to live on decent terms with our neighbours. We are not sufficiently sure of ourselves to break completely with the established order. This was Thoreau’s adventure; his books are the record of that experiment and its results. He did everything he could to intensify his own understanding of himself, to foster whatever was peculiar, to isolate himself from contact with any force that might interfere with his immensely valuable gift of personality. It was his sacred duty, not to himself alone but to the world; and a man is scarcely an egoist who is an egoist on so grand a scale. When we read “Walden,” the record of his two years in the woods, we have a sense of beholding life through a very powerful magnifying glass.
Filed under: walking
Lots of over-the-shoulder art direction from my kindergartener on this one.
It’s funny, when you’re reading Thoreau’s summer journal, how often he tries to capture the sound of the toads and the frogs. They “stutter,” “croak,” “purr,” “peep,” “pipe,” “snore,” “trill,” and even “trump.”
The sound of frogs represented to Thoreau the “mid-summer’s dream.”
May 25, 1851: “I hear the dreaming of the frogs. So it seems to me, and so significantly passes my life away. It is like the dreaming of frogs on a summer evening.”
May 3, 1852: “The dream of the frog sounds best at a distance — most dreamy.”
May 7, 1852: He wonders if uncovering the scientific truth of something takes away its poetry:
I fear the dream of the toads will not sound so musical now that I know whence it proceeds. But I will not fear to know. They will awaken new and more glorious music for me as I advance, still farther in the horizon, not to be traced to toads and frogs in slimy pools.
He writes that perhaps the different seasons are best represented by “the notes of reptiles,” who express “the very feelings of the earth.”
People made fun of him for how much he listened to the frogs and toads.
On March 28, 1853, he writes of overhearing his Aunt Maria complaining about him not taking time to read a book she recommended to him: “Think of it! He stood half an hour to-day to hear the frogs croak, and he wouldn’t read the life of Chalmers.”
In a 1928 book, Memories of a Sculptor’s Wife, a Concord farmer is quoted laughing about “David Henry” (his actual name — he switched the order), “That darned fool had been standin’— the livelong day — a-studyin’ —the habits—of the bull-frog!” (Reminds me of Abraham Lincoln’s cousin, who was quoted as saying, “Lincoln was lazy — a very lazy man. He was always reading — scribbling — writing — ciphering — writing poetry…”)
No matter to David Henry. June 7th, 1858, he goes down to the river just to listen:
The Polar Vortex is about to blow in up here on the lake, and I’m thinking of Thoreau, with his frozen ink and breaking up the water in his pail with a hammer. “Pity those who have not thick mittens,” he wrote in his journal. I’m up here in the attic with my fingerless gloves and the space heater, scratching away like Bob Cratchit…
“Ideas,—are they the fishes of thought?”
—Henry David Thoreau, January 26, 1852
“Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure.They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.”
—David Lynch, Catching The Big Fish
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) July 9, 2016
“You got to think lucky. If you fall into a mud hole, check your back pocket. You might have caught a fish.”
“Look at your fish.”
Nestled amongst hundreds of stunning shots of the aurora borealis taken by Finnish photographer Jani Ylinampa is a series of four photos of Kotisaari, showing the island from a drone’s point of view for each of the four seasons (clockwise from upper left): spring, summer, autumn, and winter.
I came across this image last week and I keep thinking about it. There’s something so magical about seeing the same view in each season. (This is what Thoreau was recording so diligently in his journals.) The Kotisaari photos remind me of Paul Octavious’s Same Hill Different Day:
Of course, this kind of project requires that you live somewhere with actual seasons. Here’s Paul on living in Chicago:
I live near Lake Michigan… it’s like living by an ocean. Also, having all four seasons is inspirational because I can do a photo project and see it evolve throughout the year. Going outside to a hill, or a tree, or taking one subject and revisiting it multiple times inspires me to see how I can photograph it differently each time.
Now I’m reminded of Kurt Vonnegut claiming in Palm Sunday that there are actually six seasons in the Northeast: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Locking, Winter, and Unlocking.
Regardless of how many seasons there are wherever you live, one should heed Thoreau: “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.”
“I love the winter, with its imprisonment and its cold, for it compels the prisoner to try new fields and resources.”
—Thoreau, journal, Dec. 5, 1856
Photo taken on Lake Erie yesterday.
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