Thoreau and the Art of Life

Edited by Roderick MacIver
Watercolors by Roderick MacIver

 

Thoreau and the Art of Life: Reflections on Nature and the Mystery of Existence
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Thoreau and the Art of Life

 

Nature is a mutable cloud which is always and never the same. She casts the same thoughts into troops of forms, as a poet makes twenty fables with one moral. Beautifully shines a spirit through the bruteness and toughness of matter.

 

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NOTHING WAS EVER SO UNFAMILIAR AND STARTLING TO ME AS MY OWN THOUGHTS….MY JOURNAL SHOULD BE THE RECORD OF MY LOVE. I WOULD WRITE IN IT ONLY OF THE THINGS I LOVE, MY AFFECTION FOR ANY ASPECT OF THE WORLD, WHAT I LOVE TO THINK OF…I FEEL RIPE FOR SOMETHING…YET CAN’T DISCOVER WHAT THAT THING IS. I FEEL FERTILE MERELY. IT IS SEED TIME WITH ME. I HAVE LAIN FALLOW LONG ENOUGH.
     – Henry David Thoreau, in his journal

 

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Here’s an excerpt from 1838 when Thoreau was 20 years old:

Silence is the communing of a conscious soul with itself. If the soul attends for a moment to its own infinity, then and there is silence. She is audible to all men, at all times, in all places, and if we will we may always hearken to her admonitions.

 

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Dragonfly LE Print LE3502From the Introduction by Roderick MacIver

Thoreau thought through our potential as human beings to live complete lives — lives that encompass joy, adventure, reflection, natural beauty, meaningful work, and relaxation. He thought and wrote about nature, about love and friendship, art and creativity, spirituality, aging and death, simplicity, wisdom. He tried to live his conclusions. He was deeply devoted to the craft of writing. From these roots emerged a powerful and contradictory body of work that continues to inspire and confuse us.

 

Thoreau’s work is important in large part because our culture desperately needs the perspective of people who know and love nature. Ellery Channing wrote after Thoreau’s death, “His habit was to go abroad a portion of each day, to the field or woods or the Concord River…. During many years he used the afternoon for walking, and usually set forth about half past two, returning at half past five.” He carried a notebook and a small magnifying glass in order, he said, “to see what I have caught in my traps which I set for facts.” There is the walking in the beauty, the rain, the cold, of course, but there is also the time for reflection, and that reflection is one of the reasons that Thoreau’s work has endured.


According to everything we know, Thoreau was unsusceptible to temptation. He believed that wisdom and simplicity were closely related. He declined invitations to dinner parties, avoided alcohol because it interfered with his taste for water, and when asked what food he liked best, he responded, “The nearest.” He seems to have distrusted the pleasures of intimate sensuality.

 

Autumn Portage

 

“When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality.”

 

Thoreau and the Art of Life: Reflections on Nature and the Mystery of Existence
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