Tag Archives: memory

Standing inside a rainbow (Walden 145)

We’ve begun a new chapter, titled “Baker Farm,” and here Thoreau makes an astonishing claim:

“Once it chanced that I stood in the very abutment of a rainbow’s arch, which filled the lower stratum of the atmosphere, tinging the grass and leaves around, and dazzling me as if I looked through colored crystal. It was a lake of rainbow light, in which, for a short while, I lived like a dolphin. If it had lasted longer it might have tinged my employments and life.”

This is one of the more puzzling and tantalizing statements in Walden. An abutment is the end of an arch — Henry is claiming to have stood inside the end of a rainbow! Which, of course, is impossible. Everyone knows that rainbows recede from you as you approach — you can never reach rainbow’s end any more than a dog can catch his shadow. Continue reading


Landscapes of memory (Walden 109)

Walden shoreline in fall. Taken near hiking trail and former site of Thoreau's cabin. Wikimedia Commons

Walden shoreline in fall. Taken near hiking trail and former site of Thoreau’s cabin. Wikimedia Commons

It’s a privilege to do what’s described below: to live with a place you’ve known from childhood, or to return to such a place and have it still be there. For many people the places they once knew are inaccessible or altered almost beyond recognition. Continue reading

Toeing the line between past and future (Walden 18)

More about yesterday’s entry, specifically the phrase “to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future.”

You hear a lot of talk about ‘living in the moment,’ but what I appreciate about Thoreau’s words is that he is not only in the moment, but he is there with an awareness of the place of that moment within the span of time, to the extent that he can comprehend it. Eternity future and eternity past, and here you stand, toeing that paper-thin margin where there former becomes the latter.

Again, it’s sometimes said that all you really have is the present moment. True enough. You can ruminate on the troubles of the past, or worry about the future, and that’s where focus on the present moment can help. Continue reading

Repenting of our good behavior (Walden 12)

Thoreau cabin site

The site of Thoreau’s cabin, marked by a cairn in 1908. Via Wikipedia

“The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well? You may say the wisest thing you can, old man — you who have lived seventy years, not without honor of a kind — I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all that. One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

If you’ve already read Walden, or if you’ve been reading these posts, you know what Thoreau — the self-styled outsider, the observer of daily life in his hometown — means by “good behavior.”

And I can almost hear the objections coming from his fellow townspeople: “Look, we’re the ones building the roads, the schools, the businesses. We’re building this thing called civilization. Sorry it isn’t up to your standards, Henry. And what exactly is it that you’re doing to help?” Continue reading

Landscapes of memory and imagination

The old family home, long ago.

The old family home, long ago, back when the locust tree was a little stick (and the horizon was tilted).

I once edited a story by a man who’d spent many childhood summers at his grandparents’ house in a small Nebraska town. It was a distinctive old house with a cupola. Years later, he wrote, he revisited the town and saw the house, but didn’t knock on the door or even get very close. He feared that too much contact with the present reality of new owners, new furniture, and other evidence of the passage of decades would damage the house that existed in his memory.

I’ve experienced the same thing visiting my old neighborhood. I was driving back to the old family house (where my brother still lives) and took a detour to drive past the house where my aunt and uncle used to live and to take the old way home through the side streets. Continue reading