At first we thought it was only a bird chirping. I started the car and pulled away from the curb. The sound followed us down the street, insistently. Cheep! Cheep! Cheep! My wife and I looked this way and that, but saw no bird. It followed us four blocks through our neighborhood.
“Stop the car!” my wife said suddenly. She still saw nothing, but it had dawned on her that the voice wasn’t following the car—it was trapped inside it. Continue reading →
More about the previous post: After talking about the “miracle” in which we “look through each other’s eyes for an instant,” Thoreau goes on to say, “I know of no reading of another’s experience so startling and informative as this would be.”
A few paragraphs earlier he says that the “whole ground of human life seems to some to have been gone over by their predecessors…” an idea with which he strongly disagrees. What we need, he believes, is a fresh perspective, and he’s suggesting that we can achieve this through imagination and empathy. You think it’s all been said and done and thought before? You have only to question the things you took for granted and look at them with fresh eyes, and new worlds will open to you.
I’ve suggested this before, but it bears repeating: Walden isn’t primarily a book about going to the woods. It’s a book about looking at the world around you in a new way. Going to the woods wasn’t just for the love of nature. It was also a way of gaining perspective, of standing just enough apart from normal life to see it as a visitor, as if meeting it for the first time.
“I want to leave a mark,” says one of the characters in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, subject of last week’s post. “But… The marks humans leave are too often scars.”
As the speaker implies, a lot of the ugliest aspects of human history come from people trying to leave their mark on the world. But can’t we all identify with this? Who doesn’t want to make a lasting difference and escape the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes, “There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.”
But maybe we do achieve a kind of permanence, after all. You could think of it as sort of a web of effect. Everything we do has multiple effects that spread out from ourselves like the strands of a spider web, or like ripples in a pond. Your actions affect other people, altering their behaviors in big and small ways that in turn affect others, and so on, spreading out through space and time. (Time travel stories make much of this. You go back in time and step on a bug and return to your own time to a world altered beyond recognition.) Continue reading →
“To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (1836).
Nearly half of this blog’s readers live in countries other than the United States. Maybe you’re one of those and you’ve heard of the recent self-inflicted shutdown and near-default of the US federal government (as an attempt by Republicans to block a new law that expands health care coverage among this country’s fifty million uninsured). You may be wondering, “Are Americans out of their minds?” or, “How did the United States become the world’s most powerful country when so much of what it does seems so… dumb?”
As an American, I’ll try to sort things out for you (a very American thing to do). I mostly avoid politics on this blog, but since I deal a lot with curiosity and learning, I want to say something about the large number of my fellow citizens who seem to lack curiosity and avoid learning. I’m going to make some sweeping generalizations below — bear in mind that they don’t apply to all Americans all the time, but these things are common enough to get us in trouble: Continue reading →
Middle Creek, above Pawnee Lake, Nebraska, June 1, 2013.
Reach ahead gently with the paddle and draw it back slowly, a good long stroke, and you’ll keep the kayak moving with very little noise. Just a steady dip, dip, dip of the paddle blades, and the boat itself glides silently across the still water. Continue reading →
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 →