As some of you know from my Facebook updates, we were in Boston last weekend. As we were staying in Cambridge, and not too far away from Concord and Walden Pond, I realized it was time to revisit this legendary lake where Thoreau wrote his famous book.
I had been to Walden Pond more than twenty years ago during a cold Thanksgiving break and quite frankly, I had been underwhelmed. The pond was partly frozen, the trees were barren and there was not a single sign or reminder of Thoreau’s two-year stay there. A further demythologization of the man followed in the years thereafter when I read stuff about Thoreau seeking isolation, yet not enough isolation to allow his mother to do his laundry. Was Thoreau a fraud?
When I returned to Walden Pond, however, I was in for a surprise. There was paid parking with solar panels, a visitors’ center and a gift shop. The pond itself had an attractive beach where people lounged and seemed to lead anything but “lives of quiet desperation.”
Of course I also went there because Thoreau (and Emerson) had been such a profound influence on Henry Miller’s writing and thinking. In essence, Big Sur became Miller’s Walden and spawned a memoir that was not unlike Thoreau’s canonical book.
Visiting the visitor center, Jon and I decided to watch the Ken Burns movie on Thoreau and Walden Pond, and I don’t know what set it off but it moved me deeply.
Like Miller, Thoreau was a bit of a drifter until he wrote his breakthrough book. As a Harvard graduate of his day, there were several careers he could have had but he chose teaching, which he abandoned when he didn’t agree with the school’s practice of flogging. He would continue to teach elsewhere but he was really a poet and philosopher at heart.
On July 4th, 1845, Thoreau moved to Walden Pond to live in a modest one-bedroom cabin which he had built himself and that sat on land that his mentor and friend Emerson owned. “I went to the woods,” he would write in Walden, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
By living deliberately, and living in the moment, an exercise in which he focused on and meticulously described Nature around him, Nature became his best company and solitude his best friend. Like John Muir, he was an environmentalist before the word or movement were invented. This new way of looking at Nature coincided of course with a new respect for Nature in the Romantic Movement, but both Muir and Thoreau were far removed from the Romantic poets in Europe, yet used the American wilderness as an inspiration to create a new and more enlightened appreciation of the natural world. They fathered a conservation movement that, among other things, and with Teddy Roosevelt’s help, created America’s national parks.
But Thoreau might not have been half the man if it weren’t for Emerson’s famous essays on Nature and Self Reliance. It was Emerson who talked about the “immanence” in Nature, as in the notion that God, or the divine, only manifests itself to us in Nature (incidentally, Spinoza said more or less the same thing). As a lapsed Catholic myself, I, too, believe that God was never truly present in any church, synagogue or mosque but was there in Nature all along, provided we are receptive to it.
Coming home, I went back to Walden. I also went back to what Miller had said about Thoreau in an essay he wrote in the 1940s. Miller was astute in observing that whereas most young men and contemporaries of Thoreau went bonkers with the Gold Rush and moved to California, Thoreau did the opposite: he stayed home and cultivated a different (and more significant) mine on the shores of Walden Pond. Or As Thoreau claimed himself: even though Walden was close to civilization, and the town of Concord in particular, “for the most part it is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.”
“He found Walden,” Miller said, “but Walden is everywhere if the man himself is there.” He was a man after Miller’s own heart: “He was too deeply religious to have anything to do with the Church, just as he was too much the man of action to bother with politics, and too rich in spirit to think of amassing wealth.” Simplify, simplify and you get to the core of what life is all about.
I also reread Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience which was triggered by him having to spend a night in jail because he hadn’t paid his taxes. Interestingly, that essay and his political views in general were an inspiration to both Gandhi and Martin Luther King. You realize, as Miller realized as well, that Thoreau was quite radical for his day (early on, he spoke out against slavery but he also argued that we are all enslaved when we lead lives serving and performing our daily duties, tasks and jobs while not nurturing the self and soul).
Although the young republic of America had shaken off its colonial shackles and had rejected the English king in favor of an American president and a seemingly more democratic system, Thoreau’s negative views of governments and majority rule were revolutionary for its day, or as Miller observed: “He is nearer to an anarchist than a democrat, socialist or communist,” and extending the analogy to his own time, Miller echoed Thoreau when writing that “no government on earth is good enough or wise enough to be entrusted with such powers as employing nuclear weapons.”
As a child of the Enlightenment, Thoreau was not blind to the societal progress that had been made: the absolute monarchy became a limited monarchy and finally a bicameral democracy. With each new government, the rights of the individual became more important than the rights of kings and autocrats. After all, this had been the point of the French Revolution.
Yet at the democratic level, progress was halted, for an elected government by the majority could still go to war, enslave other people, commit injustices and/or be corrupt. Government still had too much power to make the wrong decisions, decisions that might go against the interest of the majority vote. “There will never be a really free and enlightened State,” Thoreau wrote, “until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.” Thoreau asks for a State that is “just to all men” and “to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor.”
We thought, at the time, that we had done an adequate job of dismantling the monarchy in favor of a Trias Politicas model, but it is almost as if Thoreau argued in favor of a fourth body or power that truly represented the people’s agenda and could serve as a check if there were an abuse of power that spread to the other three branches. In light of the Trump administration and the seemingly unchecked power of the President that now seems to extend itself to the highest court of the land, people seem to hunger for a level of consent we’re not getting.
Of course, no such state has been realized anywhere, not even in Europe, where people seem to share in a more just society because there is more income equality and a greater respect for basic human rights such as universal health care, free education, and greater social security.
After two years of Trump, we’re going backward– the rights of the individual (immigrants, women, people of color, children, the poor) are curtailed and violated left, right and center, whereas the power and abuse of an increasingly autocratic government (the monarch and aristocracy being replaced by an oligarchy of the rich and their corporations) has started to oppress and enslave its subjects.
This is not only the Putin model but if you’ve been watching the Kavanaugh hearings, you see the pattern become apparent there as well: Kavanaugh is a tool of our new corporate fascist state, for he has ruled time and again in favor of corporations and deregulation and against the rights of the individual (women and people of color in particular). Soon, who knows, he’ll also be a safety valve for a corrupt, greedy and amoral, corporate fascist whose coup belongs in banana republics and not a country that is rooted in the Enlightenment ideals of the eighteenth century.
Protesting, calling congressmen and senators, writing letters, starting petitions, knocking on doors to bring out the vote, voting… am I alone in feeling that the voice of the majority is not heard and respected? We are powerless as the constitutional crisis deepens.
The time has come, maybe, for some actual civil disobedience. People who work for the government and government agencies could go on strike, teachers could fail to show up for work, and what if we all decided to not pay our taxes? Because truly, what is the government doing for us? Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and scores of other social programs are being gutted while those funds are financing a tax cut for the rich, more nuclear warheads and an army that has not protected us, but that has gone to war with other countries that don’t form an immediate threat to us. This country was founded by imperialists but now we have become imperialists ourselves and that requires a huge tax burden that squeezes the poor and the middle class, because the rich and corporations are not paying their fair share.
Conformity leads very quickly to obedience and indifference, and in order to have a society that protects our basic individual freedoms and human rights, Thoreau seemed to argue, we first need to free ourselves from the kind of group thinking and tribalism that is tearing us apart. We need to establish a firm sense of our own Walden before we can ensure a Walden Pond for future generations.
In the meantime, the call to action by Thoreau is a firm reminder that as citizens we should never resign our conscience to the legislator, for “Why has every man a conscience, then?” #Resist