Yesterday I went color-collecting. Although I always notice shape and color when I walk, sometimes I consciously pick a single hue and then seek to notice everywhere I see it: a kind of color scavenger hunt. Yesterday I took three separate jaunts around the campus at Keene State College, the first time noticing royal blue, the second time noticing forest green, and the third time returning with a camera to capture my favorite finds.
This is, of course, a silly game to wile away time, but then again what isn’t? If we’re going to travel the territory of our mundane lives, we might as well notice the neighbors. All this time I’ve been teaching at Keene State, I’ve never noticed that forest green is the preferred color for utility and maintenance doors, just as in the New England countryside the same shade of green is preferred for window shutters. I don’t know who decided, or when, that green is a utilitarian color: presumably it wears well, fades nicely, and is unobtrusive. I’m similarly unsure about whoever it was who thought it necessary to put bright blue edges on deep green picnic tables, but I’m surely glad they did: it’s a combination I find cheering, like a blue-eyed lake set in an verdant valley.
Among the congratulatory comments I’ve received from friends, family, and perfect strangers are those tinged with envy: how wonderful to be able to live the life of the mind. I suppose I understand this sentiment. For many of us, our undergraduate college years were carefree ones, days spent strolling grassy campuses fringed with comforting brick and stable stone facades. Nestled in pastoral green, we navigated the fragile transition between youth and adulthood, our wildest carousings being watched by the solicitous eye of an institution paid to operate in loco parentis. Although we sometimes resented the intrusion of residence assistants, professors, and advisors, the fact that they served as a kind of human safety net gave us the freedom to think, play, and rebel as we tested the bounds of grown-up freedom in a setting sheltered from the “real world.”
So I understand the sentiment of those who see a career in academia as being an extension of their carefree college days, a way to spend the rest of their lives holed away with books and libraries and lush green campuses. I can certainly think of worse ways to spend the rest of my life than teaching young minds on campuses dotted with green doorways.
But ultimately I don’t want a life of the mind. If forced to choose between body and mind, I’d choose the body time and again. Although I respect Ralph Waldo Emerson for his mind, I love Henry Thoreau for his feet: what Emerson thought and wrote, Thoreau walked and lived. How heart-breaking a loss it would have been for Thoreau to have wasted his life as a grad student or college professor holed away in a library study carrel. Thoreau, like Wordsworth before him, considered the outdoors as his study, and theirs is the example I want to emulate.
And so I don’t want to live a life of the mind but a life of the foot. Like Thoreau I want to travel a great deal in Keene, and like Whitman I want to wile my earthly time as a flaneur, one of the roughs. Keene isn’t Concord, and it certainly isn’t New York, but it will do. At my dissertation defense, one of my advisors asked me what sorts of places best lend themselves to nature writing, and my glib answer is nevertheless true: All of them. Given the choice between the real world and the life of the mind, I choose the real and the actual, the “Contact!” that Thoreau climbed Mount Ktaadn to find. Whitman himself knew it was possible to be the poet of the body as well as the soul, and Kerouac’s character of Japhy Ryder summed up in a single sentence my personal life credo:
- The closer you get to real matter, rock air fire and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is.
Even Emerson admitted that books are for the scholar’s idle times, and I’d agree. A life of the mind might pay the bills, but a life of the body is what feeds the soul. So today I’ll walk to the library, drop off another stack of dusty tomes, then keep walking. The world is full of green doors yet unnoticed.