I don’t know why, but the change of season from summer to fall has become an issue of momentous importance to me this year. It’s coming late; the leaves here in the Springs have hardly begun to turn. Looking out of my office window, the scene is very similar to what it was in July, there are just slight tinges of color here and there. Usually, the leaves are on the ground by now. Last night, there was a frost warning, it never got that cold, there was no frost.
As I said above, I don’t know why I feel so anxious to chronicle the change of season this year. It’s got nothing to do with the upcoming elections, I’m pretty sure of that. Neither has it anything to do with the fact the Broncos are having a lousy season under a coach of unproven talents. Perhaps, more than anything, it’s because I feel I’ve missed the last two or three such transitions. I have tended to be busy, to keep my head down and focus on the task and let the miracle taking place all around me pass me by. That’s something I should try to avoid at all cost.
I read Thoreau’s Walden in high school, possibly voluntarily, more likely because it was assigned. I remember being enthralled with the philosophy presented in that short book by one man who lived in a simple cabin by a pond for “two years and two months.” I thought at the time, and still do, truth be told, that living that way would be an ideal. I forget about the realities of a lack of indoor plumbing, being infested by mosquitoes and other bugs, lack of functioning air conditioning, and a readily accessible Chipotle restaurant to visit on a whim. The ideal is too idyllic.
Yet, although I still have my marked up paperback copy that I used in high school (it’s the only book from that time that I still have), I haven’t even glanced at Walden since then, hardly even thought about it. So, I thought it might be time to download the Kindle version and re read it; it is, after all, reputed to be an excellent sample from the genre known as nature writing. Within the first page or so, however, I come across this:
“Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance—which his growth requires—who has so often to use his knowledge? We should feed and clothe him gratuitously sometimes, and recruit him with our cordials, before we judge of him. The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.”
Many of us live lives that we haven’t chosen, sometimes by happy accident, other times by very unfortunate circumstance. For those more unfortunate, the choice then becomes one of attitude and acceptance. The accidental circumstances of our lives aren’t really the determining factor in how we choose to live those lives, just ask Victor Frankel. Yet, Thoreau can only condemn those who work honestly and generously, as degrading, turning those people into “machines.”
When he does admit that, perhaps, many people cannot live lives of leisure and philosophical speculation, he does it this way:
“Some of you, we all know, are poor, find it hard to live, are sometimes, as it were, gasping for breath. I have no doubt that some of you who read this book are unable to pay for all the dinners which you have actually eaten, or for the coats and shoes which are fast wearing or are already worn out, and have come to this page to spend borrowed or stolen time, robbing your creditors of an hour. It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you live, for my sight has been whetted by experience; always on the limits, trying to get into business and trying to get out of debt, a very ancient slough, called by the Latins aes alienum, another's brass, for some of their coins were made of brass; still living, and dying, and buried by this other's brass; always promising to pay, promising to pay, tomorrow, and dying today, insolvent; seeking to curry favor, to get custom, by how many modes, only not state-prison offenses; lying, flattering, voting, contracting yourselves into a nutshell of civility or dilating into an atmosphere of thin and vaporous generosity, that you may persuade your neighbor to let you make his shoes, or his hat, or his coat, or his carriage, or import his groceries for him; making yourselves sick, that you may lay up something against a sick day, something to be tucked away in an old chest, or in a stocking behind the plastering, or, more safely, in the brick bank; no matter where, no matter how much or how little.”
The condescension is palpable. While I’ll continue to read Walden, it’ll be in the back of my mind that I’m reading the work of a prototype of the modern day leftist.