“Early in the morning, while all things are crisp with frost, men come with fishing-reels and slender lunch, and let down their fine lines through the snowy field to take pickerel and perch; wild men, who instinctively follow other fashions and trust other authorities than their townsmen, and by their goings and comings stitch towns together in parts where else they would be ripped. They sit and eat their luncheon in stout fear-naughts on the dry oak leaves on the shore, as wise in natural lore as the citizen is in artificial.” — Henry David Thoreau, “The Pond in Winter,” Walden
As with the Canadian woodchopper that Henry wrote about in an earlier chapter (see this post) , he is fascinated with — and admires — men of low social standing live close to nature and are “wise in natural lore.” They are not bookish like Henry. Theirs is a world deeds and not of words — they “know and can tell much less than they have done.” They live in a material world and not an abstract one.
“His life itself passes deeper in Nature than the studies of the naturalist penetrate.”
Thoreau is himself a naturalist, of course, and recognizes that in some ways these uneducated men understand nature more deeply than he does. Cocky as he can sometimes be, he recognizes the value of other kinds learning besides books.
His goal seems to be to combine the experiential knowledge of the “wild man” with the learning of the scholar and the aesthetics of a poet.
Here’s a re-run from last year, which I think is apropos considering the current squabble over AP history standards. Many Americans still believe that the purpose of history is to teach patriotism. The best teachers, however, try to instill critical thinking skills and a willingness to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if it ruins your preferred narrative.
But narratives can be tenacious, and it’s possible to cling to one in spite of overwhelming evidence. It’s possible to do so even while acknowledging that evidence. The story of Christopher Columbus shows how:
Replicas of Columbus’s ships at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Via Wikipedia
Columbus Day is a US holiday which is celebrated with annual arguments about the propriety of honoring Christopher Columbus with a holiday. The atrocities that he and his men committed are so well documented that you’d think it would be impossible to defend the man, but people are still doing it. Today’s post isn’t about Columbus so much as it’s about how to defend Columbus (not that I’m defending him). There’s an important lesson here about history and about the way we talk about history.
While in the woods, Thoreau met a French Canadian woodchopper who was a “true Homeric or Paphlagonian man.” (Paphlagonia was an ancient Roman province on the Black Sea.) His name was Alek Therien. Henry does not name him in the book, but describes him at length; he obviously likes and admires the man, and his comments tell us a lot about the characteristics that Henry valued in a person.
“A more simple and natural man it would be hard to find. Vice and disease, which cast such a sombre moral hue over the world, seemed to have hardly any existence for him. He was about twenty-eight years old, and had left Canada and his father’s house a dozen years before to work in the States, and earn money to buy a farm with at last, perhaps in his native country.”
Henry liked him because he was sincere, unpretentious, thought for himself, and lived simply. He was good at what he did but wasn’t obsessed with work. He was friendly and sociable but spent a good deal of time alone. Continue reading →
What kind of world would we be living in today if people had taken Thoreau’s advice 150 years ago?
“To act collectively is according to the spirit of our institutions; and I am confident that, as our circumstances are more flourishing, our means are greater than the nobleman’s. New England can hire all the wise men in the world to come and teach her, and board them round the while, and not be provincial at all. That is the uncommon school we want. Instead of noblemen, let us have noble villages of men. If it is necessary, omit one bridge over the river, go round a little there, and throw one arch at least over the darker gulf of ignorance which surrounds us.” Continue reading →
“It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure — if they are, indeed, so well off — to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden
Technology has enabled an expansion of continuing education in ways that Henry couldn’t even imagine. But what I find interesting here is something that he doesn’t draw attention to, probably because to him it’s so obvious, and in one way or another he’s been talking about it throughout the book: notice that he sees education not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. What else would you do if you had leisure in your old age but keep studying and learning?
This attitude is at odds with our growing perception of education as being strictly job training. Everyone wants the next generation to be qualified for good jobs and to be able to provide for their families. But there’s a world of difference in saying, “I want them to get an education so they can get a good job,” and “I want them to get good jobs that provide the time and resources to continue their education.” Not only is the order of priority different in these two sentences, but “good job” and “education” take on different meanings as well.
Continuing the thought from #29 about the value of doing things yourself, Thoreau suggests, after describing the construction of his little house, that students participate in building their schools and colleges.
“I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them in this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end.”
Booker T. Washington. Wikipedia
I know of one school that did this by necessity. When Booker T. Washington, a former slave, founded the Tuskegee Institute, the students actually helped build the original buildings. The students were black in the American South in the late nineteenth century — going to public school was out of the question, and so the only way for them to have a school was to build it themselves.
It was a terrible situation — even with an education the students faced a lifetime of bigotry — but Washington tried to make the best of it. He felt that by building their school, the students also built character. Had Thoreau still been living, the two men would have had a lot to talk about. Continue reading →
Original title page of Walden featuring a picture drawn by Thoreau’s sister Sophia. Via Wikipedia
One should not read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden quickly. It’s a book that benefits from a leisurely pace. This book can change how you look at the world and improve your enjoyment of life. Even if you live in a city and like modern technology, as I do.
That’s why for the next year I’m going to blog about Walden — quoting it, commenting on it, amplifying and arguing with it. It’s like a book club that meets four days a week (new posts on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday), but the readings are mostly a good deal shorter than this post — just a few minutes out of your day. And though I hope you’ll read the book for yourself, you don’t have to do so to follow these posts. I’ll quote as much as I need to for the post to make sense.
Just remember: Walden isn’t something to finish and check off your list. It’s something live with, a companion. I can think of very few books that stand up to that kind of use, but this is one. Continue reading →