Monday, May 17, 2010

Walking with Thoreau (May 16, 2010)

“In the distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout-lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even in a bleak and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come home to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful. I have told many that I walk every day about half the daylight, but I think they do not believe it. I wish to get the Concord, the Massachusetts, the America, out of my head and be sane a part of every day.”
Thoreau’s Journal, January 7 1857

Walking with Thoreau

There is some debate about whether or not Henry David Thoreau was a Unitarian. Sure, he was baptized in the 1817 in the First Parish Concord, which BECAME a Unitarian church with much ado and scandal while Thoreau was growing up. And yes, he did go to Harvard, which was at the time home of the Unitarian Divinity School. And he certainly did fraternize with a number of Unitarians- Margaret Fuller (whom you will hear about next week from Chris) was a Unitarian, as were many of the Transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Unitarian Minister, took Thoreau under his wing as the younger man floundered upon leaving college. He introduced him to other like minded folks, and encouraged publication of his writings in the magazine Margaret Fuller edited – The Dial. In fact, it was on Emerson’s land that Thoreau began his most famous project- 2 years, 2 months and 2 days of simple living in the “second-growth forest” just outside Concords Mass. It was called Walden.

But whether or not Thoreau claimed us as his people, the question we ask ourselves this morning is did his thinking, his writing, his living help us become the religious tradition we are today? Do they challenge and inspire us in our living? If so, then I believe we can claim him as a forefather of our movement.

Thoreau’s life asks the question: is it possible to live more simply? The children’s story we heard this morning is based on an argument between Thoreau and his friend which Thoreau wrote about in his book “Walden: or Life in the Woods.” It challenges us to think of the services in our lives that we pay for, and asks “isn’t a day walking to Fitchburg better spent than a day earning the money to take the train to Fitchburg?” Throughout Walden, Thoreau keeps this kind of accounting- illustrating how cheaply and simply one can eat, dress, even build a cabin to live in. Critics remind us, however, that it was on his friend Emerson’s land, 14 acres, that Thoreau lived those 2 years, which begs the question- how simply can folks live who do not have their own land, nor a friend with 14 acres? Moreover, who among us has the skills to build our own cabin, to grow our own food, make our own furniture? But still, through his experiment Thoreau has issued the challenge to all of us: “what do we really NEED to live?” What is essential, and what is dispensable? This is a question that many Americans are asking themselves right now. All those folks who pay for takeout because they don’t have time to cook their own meals, who buy new things because they don’t have time to mend the old, whose demanding jobs create a life where there is not time for much else. Thoreau’s example asks us to examine our lives and see if the time saved by convenience is worth the time spent earning wages to pay for those conveniences. Thoreau wrote in Walden that: "Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." [39]

Now this Valley tends to be a little outside the main stream on this one I believe. Simple living is not such a hard sell here as it is in other parts of the country. Perhaps it’s because just aren’t that many high paying high-demand jobs here to go around, or perhaps it’s because this county still has family farms where people know how to do things themselves. Or maybe folks choose to stay here or to come to this area because they want a simpler life. Whatever the reason, when someone says over coffee hour that they are planting potatoes or putting up strawberries, or even building their own home, we think it’s cool. Through his writings like Walden Thoreau affirms the higher good of choosing such a life, lest we become dispirited, or feel that we have fallen behind the Joneses. I was getting grumpy the other day about having only one car- and all the choreography that entails - until my partner reminded me that we CHOSE to have only one car- and to live in a town where walking is possible ON PURPOSE, because it allows us to live our values in a way we were unable to do in the community where we lived before. Sure it’s easier to move into a house that’s already been built than to build a cabin in the woods with your own hands, but in Walden Thoreau holds up a vision of the importance and beauty of attempting such work ourselves. He writes “Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sin when they are so engaged?” [Walden p. 36] His writing reminds us why we make choices toward simpler living, and his example is a challenge to ask of our own lives “Why ride to Fitchburg when you can walk?”

A second challenge we find in Thoreau’s writing and living is this: Is it possible to live a live a life more connected to nature, to the wildness of things?
In his essay Walking Thoreau writes, “I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a sing day without acquiring some rust… I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.” [p. 9]. As we heard in our opening reading, walking for Thoreau is a moral and a religious pursuit. This he shares with the many Unitarian Universalists who have reported over the last century, that if they had ever felt anything that might be called a “spiritual” experience, it had happened hiking the side of a mountain, or on a brisk morning on the shore of the ocean, or just in a patch of sunlight in an ordinary grassy place. To Thoreau we are rejecting our religious imperative when we forget to just head out walking and lose ourselves among the trees. He feels some pity, and even disdain, for those of us stuck behind a desk in an afternoon.

I picked up that essay in the first place because I’ve recently become a fan of walking myself. There is something so empowering about walking. If you don’t have the money for a train, if your car runs out of gas, just putting one foot in front of the other can take you anywhere in this whole wide continent. Of course walking has about the lowest ecological footprint possible, and I find that I know a place so much better when I walk it than when I drive it. And there is some other intangible benefit- some kind of peace or grounding that comes to one on the best walks; a number of religious traditions honor walking as a spiritual practice. Thoreau reminds us that reconnecting with nature does not require any fancy gear, or an eco-travel vacation in Brazil, just getting up from behind the desk and putting one foot in front of the other, and seeing where your walk takes you, seeing what the out-of-doors is up to these days.

Thoreau also challenges us as a society- he challenges us to value wildness, in the land and in ourselves. It was kind of creepy to notice the change to this country since the time of Thoreau’s writing. He asks for example: “What would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?” [p. 11] For him, a real walk is one where all evidence of civilization disappears from view. He writes with frightening foresight: “At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off… and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds.” [p. 16]

I wonder if he really knew such a day would come- when so many in this country could only walk in a garden or mall, when the walker has little freedom, little access to wildness. Thoreau saw this as a potential loss to our humanity, and Contemporary journalist Richard Louv has done some important thinking about the real consequences of living without access to what he calls “natural, self-organizing places.” In particular, he wants to know what will happen to children who grow up in a society where there are no wild places? A 2003 Cornell Study finds that “life’s stressful events appear not to cause as much psychological distress in children who live in high-nature conditions compared with children who live in low-nature conditions” [Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods, p. 49]

Terry Hartig, a Swedish researcher, has worked on various studies showing that Nature can “help people recover from ‘normal psychological wear and tear’ [as well as improving our] capacity to pay attention” In one study Hartig’s subjects did 40 minutes worth of tasks designed to wear out their direct-attention. Afterward one group was asked to walk in a local nature preserve, another walked in an urban area, and the final group sat quietly reading and listening to music. “After this period those who had walked in the nature preserve performed better than other participants on a standard proof-reading task. They also reported more positive emotions and less anger.” [Louv, p. 103]

Thoreau is as poetic in his emphatic praise of the virtues of the natural world as Louv is careful and scientific. Both challenge us to value wildness as individuals and as a society. They challenge us to preserve wild places for our children and for ourselves, before they are all deforested or landscaped and turned into soccer fields. “What would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?”

Finally, Thoreau challenges us to be truly present, awake and alive. To Thoreau going for a walk- REALLY going for a walk involves being present in the moment. He writes “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is – I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” [Walking, p. 11] What a beautiful reminder to be present in our lives, to be present with whatever critters and plants and breezes we find on our path. Again Thoreau has a sense of moral imperative that we remember to be present with the natural world, and that it is worthy of our attention.

For myself, I am grateful to claim Thoreau as a prophet and guide on this journey. His ideals are woven throughout my own sense of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. His life is a challenge to us to remember how little of the things we buy we really need, and how deeply we need an afternoon outside. His story asks us to honor and advocate the wild places, so that our children and grandchildren can sometimes walk until society fades from view. As we journey with Thoreau, may we remember to be present in body and spirit. Shake off the village and return to our senses. “…dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful.”