The Terrible Thoreau

SUBHEAD: Thoreau died just 150 years ago, but theEarth has ages more than 150,000 years since.

By Jim Ralston on 9 September 2015 for the Sun -

Image above: An Autumn morning on Waldon Pond. From (

In the first hour of morning, Henry David Thoreau writes in his transcendentalist masterpiece Walden, “some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night.”

I’m sleeping in my clothes on Emily’s living-room couch when I wake to find her two-year-old daughter, Ariel, clutching her stuffed tyrannosaurus and staring into my eyes.

“Go for walk?” she says.

I point to the dark window and tell her it’s still dark out; she needs to go back to bed.

“Go for walk?” she repeats, as if I must not have heard her the first time. She runs into the kitchen and returns with a pretend cup of coffee. I pretend to drink it, smacking my lips and saying, “Ah.” Then I get up.

I’ve been baby-sitting Ariel on Tuesday nights in exchange for a sofa to sleep on when I’m in town for work. (I live a good distance from the community college where I teach.) Over the months, I’ve learned that if Ariel wants to go for a walk, that’s what’s going to happen.

And on that walk, if she wants to sit on the curb and examine a dried-up earthworm, that’s what we’ll do. And if she wants to put the worm in my shirt pocket for safekeeping, along with some interesting twigs and dead bugs, well, what are pockets for?

She and I don’t talk much on our walks, and when we do, we speak in simple sentences: nouns, verbs, the occasional adjective — such as scary if we’re talking about dragons or raccoons. When I don’t understand what Ariel is saying, she sighs and turns her attention to something else: a row of ants on the sidewalk, a squirrel, a clump of thistles. (“Sharpies,” she calls them.)

In the condominium playground she goes down the slide headfirst, and I catch her at the bottom. I think of myself as someone who lives in the moment, but taking care of Ariel has revealed to me what an effort it is just to be for a couple of hours.

When my mind wanders to my to-do list for the day, she pulls me back, pointing to a waning moon hanging above the first streaks of dawn. “Can’t reach it,” she says, holding her arms out. We climb the ladder to the top of the slide and stretch out our arms together, but it’s still beyond our reach.

A neighbor’s dog has been put in the yard to do his business. “Bingo’s pooping,” Ariel says. She wants to pet him, even though Bingo always knocks her down. An upstairs light pops on here and there as people rise from their beds and drift into their kitchens for their first cup of coffee.

Emily’s light is on, too. “Mama’s up,” I say. In the glow of sunrise we pick a bouquet of dandelions and daisies for Emily. She and I had a brief romance a while back, and I’m still in love with her in a sleepy sort of way, but it’s not mutual.

“Robin,” Ariel says, pointing to a bird I hadn’t noticed.

“Two robins,” I say as a second swoops in.

“Want to hold them,” she says.

I tell her that robins don’t want to be held; they want to be free. Ariel runs after them anyway.

The college where I teach English is only a few years old and doesn’t have a real campus yet. Classes are held on the first floor of the Berkeley County Building in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Weather permitting, I find places to teach outside.

This morning at nine I’m scheduled to teach a group of high-school seniors who are taking courses for college credit. I write a note on my classroom’s whiteboard: “American Lit in Norbourne Parish Cemetery; quiz on Henry David Thoreau.”

Waiting for the students to arrive, I poke around the old graveyard, home to many wealthy residents from Martinsburg’s early years. Some of the monuments are twice as tall as I am, but the names and dates have largely eroded away, as names and dates do.

Many of the individual headstones stand at a severe slant, if they haven’t fallen over altogether. Nobody comes here anymore to put things right. Homeless men sleep in remote plots by the back wall. I see signs of their encampments: an empty bottle, some food wrappers. I catch a whiff of urine.

As I walk among the graves, I recall passages from Walden that I’ve known by heart since my college days in the 1960s: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, to see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

In my youth I thought there was no way I would die without having lived, but today I’m not so sure. Somewhere in midlife time kicked into overdrive, and now, suddenly, there it is on the horizon: the end of the road.

Oh, the acceleration of time! Thoreau died just two life spans ago, but the human population explosion — along with the explosion of our industries and material desires — has caused Mother Earth to age more in that 150 years than she did in the previous 150,000. She has become an old woman overnight.

In 1845 Thoreau, within a half-hour’s walk of his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, could build a one-room cabin on a pristine lake (Walden is more of a lake than a pond) a mile from his nearest neighbor, catch fish for his dinner, cultivate a bean field for his cash needs, and keep his accounts on his thumbnail.

Every day the possibility of living such a simple and elegant existence grows smaller. Earlier this morning, driving the back roads from Emily’s into town, I passed a construction site swarming with bulldozers and cranes the size of dinosaurs on what I swear last week was a cow pasture.

Nature has been plundered, gobbled up, drilled, fracked, deforested, depastured, deflowered — you name it; we’ve done it and are doing it. We tell ourselves that Mother Earth, like banks and insurance companies, is too big to fail, or that, should She begin to fail, we can bail Her out at the last minute.

But enough already. Here come the students filing through the gate, texting on their phones and snapping pictures of themselves, happy to be outside with the birds and the bees on a spring morning, even if they are in a cemetery. Skylar arrives ahead of the pack and whispers to me that I’m getting a reputation: people are calling me the “graveyard professor.”

As she and her classmates settle in among the tombstones, using them for desks or backrests, I ask them to take out a piece of paper for the quiz. They protest almost in one voice, but I begin anyway. Number one: How big was the cabin Thoreau built with his own hands at Walden Pond? Number two: Why didn’t he make it bigger? Number three: On what day did he move in, and why did he choose that day?

As the quizzes trickle in, I see that only a few have read the assignment. Skylar, whose mom died last year, and Minerva, who’s from the Dominican Republic, get their usual perfect scores. The males largely fail.

Disappointed, I try to get my students to view Thoreau’s themes of independence and freedom through the lens of their own lives. Thoreau saw a farmer as being owned by his farm, rather than the other way around. I ask them what possessions they are “owned” by: their smart- phones, maybe?

A few roll their eyes, but I press on: A phone has a monthly bill. If your parents don’t pick up the tab, you need a part-time job to pay for it, and then a car to get to work, and maybe a second job to pay for the car.

“Maybe we like our jobs,” one young man says.

OK, I reply, but what about the workers in China who made those phones: Do they like their jobs? Thoreau took up his life on Walden Pond not only to live simply but also to make sure he wasn’t enjoying a comfortable existence on the backs of others who labored for little or no wage.

Several students talk at once, asking what they are supposed to do: give up their phones?

I tell them I don’t have a cellphone. Or the Internet. Or a TV.

“No TV, Mr. Ralston?” Minerva says. “That’s like not having a toilet.”

There is laughter in the graveyard.

As the class winds down, I go over the answers to the quiz: Thoreau moved into his ten-by-fifteen-foot cabin on July 4, Independence Day, 1845. He chose that day to make the point that political independence is just the beginning.

We’re not completely free until we also throw off our inner masters: greed, laziness, ignorance. I gesture to the cemetery around us. “People hope there’s life after death,” I say, “but for Thoreau the right question was: Is there life before death?”

On that note I send the students on to their next class. As they exit to the street, texting while they walk, I want to call out to them to watch out for cars. All this finger chattering! I remember my hour with Ariel this morning, how aware she was of her surroundings.

I’m also reminded of Thoreau’s acid remark about the laying of the Atlantic telegraph cable in the mid-1800s: that the first message we received from the other side of the ocean would be that Princess Adelaide had the whooping cough.

In my head I hear Howard, my friend and upstairs neighbor back home, telling me to ease up on the kids. Howard is a healer, a spiritual counselor, and an adherent of various Eastern practices: qigong, tai chi, acupuncture. He corrects me when I focus only on how dire humanity’s situation has become.

For example, if I tell him about some problem I perceive in others, Howard might reply, And your tendency to judge people — that’s not a problem?

He and I have been sparring like this for years, and he lands a good blow now and then. I’m always seeing danger ahead for the human race, and his response is always Name a time when there wasn’t danger ahead.

Howard likes to quote from another famous transcendentalist, Walt Whitman, who writes in his poem “Song of Myself” that there “will never be any more perfection than there is now, / Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.” Howard says Whitman was a giant soul — and Thoreau would have been, too, if not for his penchant for carping about humankind.


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