A Little Man With a Big Nose

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

I have just finished reading Laura Dassow Walls’s Henry David Thoreau: A Life. As I have mentioned before, I don’t usually like biographies, because if you admire the person who is the subject of them, you are devastated when he or she dies in the last chapter. Sitting in my little library, I was devastated when the American I most loved and admired succumbed to consumption at the age of forty-four.

Everyone knows a little about Thoreau, most of it wrong. When I first read the book, I was told by friends that when he moved to his cabin by the shores of Walden Pond, Thoreau “cheated.” What kind of a hermit was he when he spent a lot of time in Concord with his friends. The answer is: He was no kind of a hermit. The first chapter of Walden, or Life in the Woods is entitled “Economy,” not some eremitical mumbo-jumbo.

Long after he returned to his house in Concord, Thoreau lived an active life giving speeches, writing thousands of pages of notes on nature, fulminating against slavery (his house was a station on the Underground Railroad), and supporting John Brown and his followers even after Brown was executed for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. He had read and understood Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, even while thousands of Americans condemned it as heretical.

I love the above photograph of Thoreau, which also is on the dust jacket of Laura Walls’s biography. Look at those piercing blue eyes. The scraggly beard was to warm his neck to protect him from the ravages of consumption.

This biography is nothing less than spectacular. I was saddened to come to the end of it.

Why do I admire Thoreau so much? I can only say that he was one of the most observant people who ever lived, easily on a par with John Muir and Charles Darwin. It was Thoreau’s notion of land set aside from human occupation as “commons” which led, via Muir, to the creation of the National Park System. Also, I regard Walden as a great book in a century that included such luminaries as Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman.

Now I’m going to have to read some more Thoreau. Lucky me!

Captain of a Huckleberry Party

Author Laura Dassow Walls and Her Biography of Henry David Thoreau

Today I did not even set foot outside my apartment. It was a nice day, even a bit on the cool side, but I was entranced reading Laura Dassow Walls’s Henry David Thoreau: A Life.

Ever since I first read Walden, I have been entranced by Thoreau. I even liked A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which was not exactly received with open arms when it was published. Wikipedia describes him as a Naturalist and indicates his chief interests as being (in no particular order) ethics, poetry, religion, politics, biology, philosophy, and history.

In addition, he was a pencil manufacturer (the family business), handyman, surveyor, builder, and agronomist. His published works represent but a small part of his interests. Perhaps his major work consisted of his notebooks, which were voluminous. His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson promoted him and his work, but lost interest as the friendship wore off and referred to Thoreau as the ideal captain of a huckleberry party.

I am not always fond of reading biographies: As soon as I become interested in the subject, he or she dies at the end of the book. Still, I always wanted to know more about Thoreau, so I’ll have to put up with some grief when I get to that last chapter.

I’ll leave you with this great quote from Walden:

However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.

The Cancer Deal with the Venusians

Downtown Dallas Skyline

It is the opening of William Burroughs’s Nova Express:

“Listen to my last words anywhere. Listen to my last words any world. Listen all you boards syndicates and governments of the earth. And you powers behind what filth consummated in what lavatory to take what is not yours. To sell the ground from unborn feet forever—

“Don’t let them see us. Don’t tell them what we are doing—

“Are these the words of the all-powerful boards and syndicates of the earth?”

“For God’s sake don’t let that Coca-Cola thing out—”

“Not The Cancer Deal with The Venusians—”

“Not The Green Deal – Don’t show them that—”

“Not The Orgasm Death—”

“Not the ovens—”

Whenever I think of these lines, I think that Burroughs, in his own way, saw the cancerous growth of modern civilization. I have already written of the crazed commercial and residential real estate construction during the coronavirus epidemic.

Almost two hundred years ago, Henry David Thoreau writing in Walden saw where it would all lead, even before the first skyscraper was ever erected (or did the Tower of Babel not count?):

Men have an indistinct notion that if they keep up this activity of joint stocks and spades long enough all will at length ride somewhere, in next to no time, and for nothing; but though a crowd rushes to the depot, and the conductor shouts “All aboard!” when the smoke is blown away and the vapor condensed, it will be perceived that a few are riding, but the rest are run over,—and it will be called, and will be, “A melancholy accident.”

I saw this quote from Thoreau at the end of Joseph Wood Krutch’s The Forgotten Peninsula: A Naturalist in Baja California written in 1961. This was almost sixty years before the massive development of Los Cabos and La Paz changed the state of Baja California Sur forever.

Serendipity: The Sachem Passaconaway

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

I am slowly reading Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), which he wrote after the fact about a canoe trip with his late brother John, who got tetanus seven years earlier when he cut himself shaving. It is a leisurely book full of philosophizing, local history, and poetry. In it I ran into this description of a former Indian chief who had lived in New England in earlier times:

In these parts dwelt the famous Sachem Pasaconaway, who was seen by Gookin “at Pawtucket, when he was about one hundred and twenty years old.” He was reputed a wise man and a powwow, and restrained his people from going to war with the English. They believed “that he could make water burn, rocks move, and trees dance, and metamorphose himself into a flaming man; that in winter he could raise a green leaf out of the ashes of a dry one, and produce a living snake from the skin of a dead one, and many similar miracles.” In 1660, according to Gookin, at a great feast and dance, he made his farewell speech to his people, in which he said, that as he was not likely to see them met together again, he would leave them this word of advice, to take heed how they quarrelled with their English neighbors, for though they might do them much mischief at first, it would prove the means of their own destruction. He himself, he said, had been as much an enemy to the English at their first coming as any, and had used all his arts to destroy them, or at least to prevent their settlement, but could by no means effect it. Gookin thought that he “possibly might have such a kind of spirit upon him as was upon Balaam, who in xxiii. Numbers, 23, said ‘Surely, there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel.’ His son Wannalancet carefully followed his advice, and when Philip’s War broke out, he withdrew his followers to Penacook, now Concord in New Hampshire, from the scene of the war. On his return afterwards, he visited the minister of Chelmsford, and, as is stated in the history of that town, “wished to know whether Chelmsford had suffered much during the war; and being informed that it had not, and that God should be thanked for it, Wannalancet replied, ‘Me next.´”

The Sachem Passaconaway