First day of issue

Yesterday, J surprised me with first day of issue covers of two US postage stamps commemorating Henry David Thoreau: one issued in 1967, and the other issued this year. The stamp from 1967 is ugly as sin–its designer managed to make an admittedly homely fellow look even worse–but this year’s stamp is lovely, with a portrait of Thoreau in muted earth tones alongside a reproduction of his signature.

Postcard with Smokey Bear stamp

I was never a serious stamp collector, but I still have the albums from when I dabbled in stamp-collecting as a child, along with a souvenir postcard with a Smokey Bear stamp I bought and had cancelled at the Smokey Bear Station at the Ohio State Fair in 1984, when Smokey turned forty. (That sentence tells you pretty much everything you need to know about me as a fifteen-year-old. Not only was I nerdy enough to collect stamps, I was nerdy enough to love Smokey Bear.)

Stamps about stamp collecting

To me, stamp collecting was an aesthetic pursuit, like admiring tiny works of art. I enjoyed the serendipitous nature of stamp-collecting: getting mail was exciting enough, and getting mail with interesting stamps was even better. I still like to use pretty stamps for even mundane mail: if you have to stick a stamp on an envelope anyway, you might as well use an attractive or otherwise interesting one.

Thoreau stamps

When Thoreau’s new stamp came out this year, I bought several sheets even though I didn’t need any stamps at the time. I like to think that sticking Thoreau’s face on my mail draws attention to a writer who has left an indelible mark on my intellectual life. Even if the adult recipients of the mail I send don’t notice the stamps I use, maybe some curious child will, just as I did when I was younger.

This being said, I haven’t yet used any of the Thoreau stamps I bought; so far, I’ve been saving them, using other stamps instead. I like to think my secret stash of Thoreau stamps is there just waiting for me to use them when the time is just right: in the “nick of time,” just as Thoreau described his own birth.

Apparently, I’m a true collector at heart, buying sheets of Thoreau stamps when they became available only in part because I wanted to use them. In reality, I just wanted to have them.

Thoreau diorama

Today is Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday. I wonder who of us currently alive will be remembered and still influential two centuries from now. We normally think you have to be wealthy, powerful, or both to have such an impact, but Thoreau was none of these. Instead, Thoreau is one of my personal heroes because he remained true to his own ideals and lived life on his own terms.

Thoreau stamps

I have to chuckle whenever I read critiques of Thoreau–or, more accurately, critiques of people’s image of Thoreau–since such critiques entirely miss what Thoreau himself was about. Thoreau wasn’t trying to live up to someone’s arbitrary ideal of what a pure, holy, or idealistic person is supposed to be like; instead, Thoreau’s outlook was the exact opposite of “supposed to be.”

Thoreau wasn’t trying to be perfect, and he wasn’t trying to be a role model–he never intended for anyone else to copy the lifestyle he tailored for himself. Thoreau, quite honestly, never gave a proverbial rat’s ass for what his neighbors thought, so he certainly wouldn’t be bothered with whatever contradictions or hypocrisies modern readers find in his life and work. Thoreau was simply trying to live a life that matched as closely as possible his own passions and proclivities, not the expectations of others. Centuries before the phrase was coined, Thoreau had exactly zero fucks to give.

Walden Pond selfie. #thoreau #walden

I don’t admire Thoreau because his lifestyle is one I can (or want to) perfectly emulate: in the opening pages of Walden, Thoreau himself notes that the purpose of his work isn’t to get others to try on the individually tailored coat of his lifestyle but to get them to consider critically their own. You don’t have to renounce worldly possessions and live beside a pond to live a Thoreauvian life, but you do have to consider your life choices with a wide-open and intentional eye. Why have I chosen to live my life this way rather than that, and how might my life be different–for better or worse–if I made other choices?

Thoreau seems more timely than ever

I don’t admire Thoreau simply or even primarily because he spent two years living and writing in a cabin beside a pond on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts. Instead, I admire Thoreau because he lived a life in accordance with his own principles. Not believing in corporeal punishment, Thoreau quit a teaching job that required him to spank lackadaisical students. Not believing in a war fought to further slavery, Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax. Loving nothing more than having the freedom to walk and wander for hours every day, Thoreau eschewed a steady job and worked instead as an occasional surveyor, pencil-maker, bean-hoer, and lecturer. These were not pursuits that would ever make Thoreau rich, but they gave him the time and freedom to be outside, and that was something he valued more than cash.

Henry David Thoreau likes my new desk. #henrydavidthoreau  #brenbataclan #moleskine #notebook #waterman #fountainpen #writingtools

When Thoreau died, he wasn’t a great or famous man: his influence then was chiefly parochial. But Thoreau didn’t let worries over his influence or legacy keep him from living life as he wanted. That, to me, is Thoreau’s true and lasting gift to subsequent generations of readers. Don’t for a minute feel that you have to walk in Thoreau’s footsteps, but do not hesitate for even a second from walking in your own.

Thoreau with replica house

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about Henry David Thoreau. This isn’t unusual: Thoreau is one of my favorite authors, and I spent a good deal of my doctoral dissertation analyzing his writing. I have a whimsical portrait of Thoreau over my desk because he represents many of the things I personally hold dear: he was a writer and a naturalist, a walker and a rebel. In a world insistent upon choosing sides, Thoreau was both an artist and a scientist, both poetic and political, both active and contemplative. When I try to imagine a well-rounded, grounded, and self-reliant person, Thoreau is who immediately comes to mind.

Spartan

I’ve been thinking more than usual these days about Henry David Thoreau because of “Civil Disobedience,” an essay published in 1849 that inspired both Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” a lesser-known essay that Thoreau first delivered as a lecture in Framingham on July 4, 1854, after escaped slave Anthony Burns was captured in Boston and sent back south. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau describes the night he spent in jail after refusing to pay his poll tax as a protest against the Mexican War and its expansion of slavery, and in “Slavery in Massachusetts,” he condemns Northern cooperation with the Fugitive Slave Act. In both essays, Thoreau turns his eye with all its acuity on the social ills of his day, as if politics were no less interesting than natural history. This politically engaged way of looking at the world seems particularly helpful in 2017, exactly two centuries after Thoreau was born.

Stove and two chairs

Although the popular image of Thoreau is that of a quiet misanthrope twiddling his thumbs alongside a peaceful pond, Thoreau was outspoken during the most politically tumultuous time in American history. When Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience” and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” the political debate over slavery was ratcheting the nation toward civil war, and Thoreau was deeply engaged in that debate. Thoreau didn’t just sit back and ignore the political issues of his day; although he cherished his solitude, Thoreau wasn’t an escapist. Instead, Thoreau figured out how to balance engagement and renewal, speaking out on political issues as he was able, but also finding time to unplug.

Desk with guestbook

Ever since the election, I’ve been spending a lot of time following news coverage and political commentary on Trump, Trumpism, and the burgeoning resistance to both. There has been a surge on the left of people trying to learn and understand everything from the demographics of the white working class to constitutional law and immigration policy. While folks on the right raced to buy guns when Obama was elected, folks on the left are now racing to read books. Unlike Trump supporters who shield themselves from “fake news” by plugging their ears to any coverage that doesn’t come straight from the President himself, people on the other side of the political divide have been reading widely and deeply, seeking multiple perspectives in an attempt to stay informed.

Thoreau's snowshoes

This attempt to stay informed, however, can get tiring: sometimes I envy the quiet complacency of the right, who can sit back and trust that America will magically become Great now that Trump is in charge. Had Hillary Clinton won the election, I would have presumably done the same, patting myself on the back for doing my civic duty at the ballot box and considering my job as a citizen to be over. Since the election, however, I find myself moonlighting as an activist, keeping a constant eye on breaking news, receiving daily text messages and emails urging me to contact elected officials on the issue du jour, and otherwise staying vigilant, ready to cancel plans and rush off to protest the latest executive order, unsettling tweet, or constitutional crisis.

Thoreau's bed and desk

In the aftermath of 9/11, people quickly learned that you can’t remain on high alert forever, but that doesn’t mean you should let yourself be lulled to sleep. Beth recently wrote about self-care during the resistance: if you plan to be an effective activist in the long run, you have to prioritize and pick your battles. This is, again, where I find Thoreau to be particularly inspiring. Thoreau spoke out against slavery, the Mexican War, and other political outrages of his day, but he also managed to take daily walks, write in his journal, keep a careful chronicle of wild flora and fauna, and tend his garden. Thoreau, in other worlds, figured out a way to simultaneously exist and resist.

Weathered

What Thoreau didn’t do, of course, was stay inside glued to either CNN or his Facebook feed: instead, he was outside and active. A lot of modern-day critics of Thoreau argue (rightfully) that his activism was largely symbolic: the single night in jail Thoreau describes in “Civil Disobedience” didn’t single-handedly bring down slavery. But just because an act of protest is symbolic doesn’t mean it is isn’t powerful, as many of the accoutrements of power are themselves symbolic.

Peace

Donald Trump didn’t magically become a different man when he raised his hand and took the oath of office, but that symbolic action marked a monumental transition of power. Some of the most alarming news items these days stem not from official policy Trump and his administration has enacted, but the tone-setting influence of angry rants and recklessly worded tweets. Words are nothing more than symbols, but that doesn’t mean words don’t matter.

Adirondack Writers' Guild

By writing about his night in jail, Thoreau preserved it for the ages, reminding generation after generation that “under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” The concept of civil disobedience–Thoreau’s insistence that the government is a machine, and private citizens can strip government of its power by intentionally becoming a “counter-friction to stop the machine”–is not new or earth-shattering: had Thoreau not written “Civil Disobedience,” both King and Gandhi would have found inspiration elsewhere.

Henry David Thoreau's grave

But the fact remains that Thoreau did write this essay: he planted a seed. The tree of peaceful protest would have found some other method of germination had Thoreau never tended it, but he was a faithful servant in freedom’s garden. A solitary and sometimes cantankerous man, Thoreau probably never envisioned the communal movements that both King and Gandhi led: what started as one man spending one night in jail has inspired massive collective movements that have changed the world. Even the largest earthquake starts with a tiny tremor.

February

History is neither a marathon or sprint; instead, history is a relay race. Thoreau did nothing more than pick up the baton of justice and pass it on, and we should expect nothing less of ourselves. It’s important to show up–to engage in faithful, regular deeds, even if those deeds are small–as a way of claiming our priorities. It is not necessary to do everything, but do not fail to do something. As you are able, act. If you cannot act, speak up; if you cannot speak up, listen. If you can neither act, speak up, nor listen, by all means pray. Remain faithful in small things, and trust your acts will be echoed by others, achieving a cumulative effect. We’re in this for the long haul, and there is a need for all sorts of acts and activism.

Reggie takes a swim

After taking my time deciding upon a project for the summer, I’ve started to revisit the blog entries I wrote from 2003 until 2006: that is, the years I lived full-time in Keene, New Hampshire, before I met J and moved to Massachusetts.

Water lily

When I first started blogging in December of 2003, my then-husband and I had lived in Keene for a couple months, and blogging was one of the ways I made myself at home in a town that was new to me. Taking pictures and writing about my daily dog-walks helped me find my way both literally and figuratively. When my then-husband and I separated and then divorced in 2004, blogging helped me navigate the alien landscape of my solitary life in a town some 700 miles from my family. During a particularly tenuous time, writing about my life helped me make sense of my life.

Pickerelweed

It’s been more than ten years since my first husband and I divorced, so revisiting the posts I wrote both before and after that event is a strange experience. Some aspects of my life in Keene are still crystal clear, but others have grown foggy with time. I vividly remember the dog-walks I took with Reggie along the Ashuelot River and around Goose Pond, for instance, but it seems like a lifetime ago that I lived alone in an apartment within walking distance of Keene State College. Revisiting the posts I wrote then is like bumping into an old friend on the street: here is a person I was intimately acquainted with, but we’ve lost touch.

Pickerelweed

Ultimately, I’d like to collate these several years’ worth of posts into a single year, just as Henry David Thoreau combined the two years he lived at Walden Pond into the single seasonal cycle recounted in Walden. Just as I love May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude for its clear-eyed account of her life as a writer in Nelson, New Hampshire, I’d like to distill my own experience in Keene into its barest, most essential truths. I moved to Keene as one half of a couple, but I ultimately lived there longer as a single woman than I had as a wife. How is it, I wonder, that solitary souls like Thoreau, Sarton, and myself found our way in our respective hometowns?

Reggie goes wading

As I work on this project, I find myself wondering how people who don’t write–people who don’t have the memory aid of a journal or blog–go about processing their pasts. I don’t have a particularly strong memory, so I rely heavily upon my journal, blog, and photo archives to remind me of where I was and what I was doing last month, last year, or last decade: without this record, I think my life would quickly fade into fog. It’s a psychological truism that we should learn from our mistakes, but to do this, we need to remember and revisit our past actions. If something as life-changing as my own divorce has already started to fade from memory, how can I internalize its lessons? Or do fading memories indicate an experience that has been gradually digested down to the dregs?

I shot the photos illustrating today’s post on a hot day in July, 2005, when Reggie and I went walking at Keene’s Ashuelot River Park.

Looming

On a recent foggy-day visit to the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, I took a detour through the drizzle and slush to revisit Steven Siegel’s “Big, with rift,” an installation J and I had seen (and I had blogged) back in November, 2013.

Towering

When I’d first seen it, “Big, with rift” seemed perfectly suited to its surroundings, its towering stacks of decaying newspapers standing alongside windblown piles of autumn leaves. On a brisk November day, “Big, with rift” seemed both crisp and earthy, its mass serving as a kind of compost to the plants taking root in its upper layers: paper returned to the elements.

On a gray and drizzly January day, however, the dripping stacks of “Big, with rift” seem almost lonely: a sad, soggy assemblage of heaping trash. There is a kind of dignity in the careful piling up of accomplishments, but there is also something sorry in such hoarding. If newspapers represent the constant influx of new knowledge, it’s senseless to cling to ideas that have outlasted their relevance. There is nothing more useless, after all, than yesterday’s news.

Drooping

In my original post, I noted that newspaper columns are a kind of structure, “a pile of words we build as a kind of warren, a burrow of beliefs we retreat to, entrenched.” In November, retreating to a burrow sounded cozy; in January, what once was comforting suddenly seems confining. What could be sadder than standing in a slushy woods with nothing more than wet words to keep oneself company? Looking at the dripping pillars of “Big, with rift,” I fought a nonsensical impulse to throw a blanket over the work, or at least to light a fire.

Strata

The exhibit I’d gone to the DeCordova to see several weekends ago was “Walden Revisited,” a collection of pieces inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s stint at Walden Pond. I suppose there were dark, drizzly days when living in a shack alongside a pond might have felt like cold comfort to Thoreau, and countless more readers have clung to his words than he probably ever envisioned. But Thoreau, I tell myself, wasn’t a hoarder of ideas, his mental cellar being clear of such clutter. Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for only two years; it was subsequent generations, not Thoreau himself, who tried to deify his image into that of a life-long hermit rather than a wanderer who tried one way of living and then moved on.

Compressed

When I first saw “Big, with rift” in November, 2013, I felt bad that it would eventually decay into nothingness; in retrospect, I think there are far worse fates than simply fading away. Left on their own for long, stacks of paper will compress and solidify, their sentiments becoming sedimentary. Instead of being piled higher and deeper, wouldn’t any active and vibrant mind prefer to clean house, jettisoning any junk that has outlived its usefulness?

Come spring, I trust “Big, with rift” will be reborn, wildflowers sprouting from its upper layers like hair. In the meantime, though, I think this slush-sopped stack sends a cautionary tale. Before you cling to your own or anyone else’s ideas, remember that words are too heavy to hoard.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

Back in March when J and I went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History to see the famous glass flowers, I snapped several photographs of a more ephemeral phenomenon: several botanical specimens taken by Henry David Thoreau. Among the embarrassment of riches that is the Harvard Museum of Natural History, these pressed plants mounted on paper and labeled in Thoreau’s notoriously illegible handwriting seemed particularly fragile and astonishingly personal. When Thoreau picked, pressed, and preserved these specimens, he was acting as an amateur botanist. He had no way of knowing more than a century and a half later, someone like me would cherish these yellowed pages as a tangible connection with a long-dead writer.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

Thoreau probably never suspected his meticulous botanical records—not only the 900-some specimens housed at the Botany Libraries of Harvard University or the two held by the University of Connecticut, but also the lists of first-flowering dates for the wildflowers he observed in Concord, Massachusetts from 1851 until 1858—would someday be used to study climate change. Thoreau intended to compile his seasonal observations into a project he called the Kalendar, by which he could ascertain the date simply by studying what was blooming in Concord at any given moment. Thoreau died before his Kalendar was complete, but even an incomplete project can eventually bear fruit if it is ambitious and accurate enough.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

I’m currently reading Richard B. Primack’s Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods, which chronicles how Thoreau’s nineteenth century observations are contributing to twenty-first century climate science. Primack is a biology professor at Boston University, and he and a team of graduate students have spent the past decade comparing Thoreau’s first-flowering dates with modern observations of Concord flora. Because Thoreau kept such a meticulous record of what bloomed when in Concord, Primack and his colleagues are able to track the acceleration of the seasons, with species such as highbush blueberry blooming between three and six weeks earlier today than in Thoreau’s day.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

Primack’s book is grim reading insofar as it confirms the dire warnings of climate scientists. But part of me is cheered by Thoreau’s unintended contribution to the project. Thoreau liked to say he was born in the nick of time, but his death of tuberculosis in 1862 has always struck me as painfully premature. Thoreau was only 44 at the time of his death, and he left many unfinished projects. He didn’t live long enough to see the abolition of slavery, he never completed his Kalendar, and most of his book-length works were published posthumously, with only A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden appearing during his lifetime.

Thoreau's Maine Woods

Because of global warming, the spring wildflowers in Concord, Massachusetts are blooming earlier these days, but it seems that Thoreau himself was a late bloomer, becoming popular as a writer, philosopher, and citizen scientist only after his death. I often wonder whether Thoreau lamented on his deathbed the work he left undone: did it seem silly to have spent so much time gathering data for a project he couldn’t complete? I like to imagine that in his heart of hearts, Thoreau had faith that even a feeble seed would bear fruit, albeit years later. I like to imagine Thoreau himself wouldn’t be surprised his meticulous botanical records would be pored over and appreciated eventually, in the nick of (another) time.

Natural light

Today my writing partner and I carpooled to Framingham State, where we spent a drizzly Saturday holding our own makeshift writing retreat. We’d done something similar last November, commandeering an empty classroom where we each claimed a spot to spread our laptops, notebooks, and snacks, committed to spending the day writing rather than compulsively checking email, mindlessly surfing the Web, or obsessing over our to-do lists. What we learned then still applies now: all you need to spend the day writing is a little peer pressure, a (relatively) distraction-free workspace, and the courage to carve out a day devoted to nothing but your own creative pursuits.

African violet leaves

Last November, my writing partner and I had little trouble finding an empty, unlocked classroom in May Hall, the main academic building at Framingham State. Today, however, we found campus nearly abandoned, the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend not being the most popular time for people to study, write, or otherwise work. After realizing the classrooms in May Hall were locked, my office in O’Connor Hall was in the process of being painted, and both the library and student center were closed, my writing partner and I claimed the couches and end tables that transform the hallway outside the English department secretary’s office into a makeshift student lounge. It wasn’t the workplace we’d envisioned, but it served our purposes, there being electrical outlets for our laptops, lots of natural light streaming through tall windows, a proliferation of potted plants, and hours of uninterrupted quiet.

African violet leaves

Over lunch, my writing partner and I talked about how some folks think it’s strange that we choose to spend an entire day doing “nothing” but writing: what kind of wasteful, self-indulgent pursuit is that? Neither one of us is a “professional” writer, relying upon day jobs rather than our writing to keep us fed, and both of us struggle with the tension between writing to produce a “product” and writing as a kind of spiritual practice. If you write simply because you enjoy writing—if you write simply because it gives you a creative outlet you can’t find elsewhere—does it matter if you never produce a publishable, praise-winning, pay-earning piece?

Potted plant, second floor Women's restroom

Fittingly enough, one of the essays I worked on writing today compares Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Life Without Principle” with the Buddhist ideal of Right Livelihood, and I think Thoreau would have something to say on this tension between product and process. Thoreau’s thoughts on living and making a living have fascinated me for years, and the concept of Right Livelihood is one I perpetually struggle with: how do you achieve Right Livelihood when all the things that seem “right” to you don’t earn you a much of a “livelihood”? In re-reading Thoreau’s essay, I chuckled to encounter the following line:

If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.

Natural light through African violet leaves

If I were to spend a rainy day in May Hall grading stacks of student papers, my colleagues would praise (and perhaps marvel at) my productivity, but if I spend the day struggling to write an essay I’m not sure will ever see the eyes of an actual audience, I must be a bit “off.” Who spends hours crafting blog-posts that earn comments but no actual currency, or writing a book that might not ever be finished, much less published?

First floor lounge

I have no doubt that Thoreau would have continued his “morning work” of writing in the morning and walking in the afternoon regardless of whether he was published or praised. During his lifetime, Thoreau was largely self-published: what living he earned came mainly from surveying and occasional lecturing, not book sales. But Thoreau kept writing because that’s what Thoreau did, so asking him not to write would be like asking the sparrows outside my window not to sing. Thoreau wrote not because he was pursuing the legitimacy that comes from producing a certain kind of product but because he believed the “aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get ‘a good job,’ but to perform well a certain work.”

Drizzly day

I wish we lived in a world where the things that feel “right” to me—writing and teaching and living a sane, balanced life—earned a living wage; I wish we lived in a world where people like Thoreau didn’t seem counter-cultural or curmudgeonly. But at the end of a full day spent writing, I feel more energized, encouraged, and inspired than I do at the end of a full day spent grading. Tenure-track professors engage in research and academic publishing because it presumably keeps their teaching alive and well-informed: how can you be a good, inspiring teacher if you haven’t had an original insight or idea in ages? This, to me, is part of why I write, even though the bloggish, entirely non-academic essays I produce don’t earn me any legitimacy in the academy. I write because at the end of a rainy day spent with my laptop on an almost-empty campus, I feel like it’s been a day well-spent.