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Michael Gracie

Something Thoreau wrote on November 20, 1857

“In books, that which is most generally interesting is what comes home to the most cherished private experience of the greatest number. It is not the book of him who has travelled the farthest over the surface of the globe, but of him who has lived the deepest and been the most at home. If an equal emotion is excited by a familiar homely phenomenon as by the Pyramids, there is no advantage in seeing the Pyramids. It is on the whole better, as it is simpler, to use the common language. We require that the reporter be very permanently planted before the facts which he observes, not a mere passer-by; hence the facts cannot be too homely. A man is worth most to himself and to others, whether as an observer, or poet, or neighbor, or friend, where he is most himself, most contented and at home. There his life is the most intense and he loses the fewest moments. Familiar and surrounding objects are the best symbols and illustrations of his life. If a man who has had deep experience should endeavor to describe them in a book of travels, it would be to use the language of a wandering tribe instead of a universal language. The poet has made the best roots in his native soil of any man, and is the hardest to transplant. The man who is often thinking that it is better to be somewhere else than where he is excommunicates himself. If a man is rich and strong anywhere, it must be on his native soil. Here I have been these forty years learning the language of these fields that I may the better express myself. If I should travel to the prairies, I should much less understand them, and my past life would serve me but ill to describe them. Many a weed here stands for more of life to me than the big trees of California would if I should go there. We only need travel enough to give our intellects an airing. In spite of Malthus and the rest, there will be plenty of room in this world, if every man will mind his own business. I have not heard of any planet running against another yet.”

A passport stamp is not incontrovertible proof that you were actually there.

MG signing off (in the midst of the not so mundane, and endeavoring to take it all in)

Something Thoreau wrote on April 2, 1852

“In the promulgated views of man, in institutions, in the common sense, there is narrowness and delusion. It is our weakness that so exaggerates the virtues of philanthropy and charity and makes it the highest human attribute. The world will sooner or later tire of philanthropy and all religions base on it mainly. They cannot long sustain my spirit. In order to avoid delusions, I would fain let man go by and behold a universe in which man is but as a grain of sand. I am sure that those of my thoughts which consist, or are contemporaneous, with social personal connections, however humane, are not the wisest and widest, most universal. What is the village, city, State, nation, eye the civilized world, that it should concern a man so much? the thought of them affects me in my wisest hours as when I pass a woodchuck’s hole. It is a comfortable place to nestle, no doubt, and we have friends, some sympathizing ones, it may be, and a hearth, there; but I have only to get up at midnight, aye to soar or wander a little in my thought by day, to find them all slumbering. Look at our literature. What a poor, puny, social thing, seeking sympathy! The author troubles himself about his readers–would fain have one before he dies. He stands too near his printer; he corrects the proofs. Not satisfied with defiling one another in this world, we would all go to heaven together. To be a good man, that is, a good neighbor in the widest sense, is but little more than to be a good citizen. Mankind is a gigantic institution; it is a community to which most men belong. It is a test I would apply to my companion–can he forget man? can he see this world slumbering?”

As applicable now as it was to the thinker back then, timeliness (or lack thereof) of his various predictions notwithstanding? Certainly some elements chime familiarity.

MG signing off (because in the battle for attention between forests and trees, the trees win way too often)

Something Thoreau wrote on December 2, 1853

“The skeleton which at first sight excites only a shudder in all mortals becomes at last not only a pure but suggestive and pleasing object to science. The more we know of it, the less we associate it with any goblin of our imaginations. The longer we keep it, the less likely it is that any such will come to claim it. We discover that the only spirit which haunts it is a universal intelligence which has created it in harmony with all nature. Science never saw a ghost, nor does it look for any, but it see everywhere the traces, and it is itself the agent, of a Universal Intelligence.”

He lived in an age when science was methodical, slow moving. Yet you can be sure much of the science then settled was later expounded upon or tossed in the rubbish bin. Nowadays, tools exist to accelerate study while enhancing the reliability of measurement, as well as engage in alternative hypothesizing at the flip of a coin. And yet the scientific method seems to have been tossed aside in favor of expediency, despite the obvious risks.

Was Thoreau telegraphing the resultant skeletons in the closet?

MG signing off (thinking “Universal Intelligence” is often deserving of critical review)

Something Thoreau wrote on February 19, 1855

“Many will complain of my lectures that they are transcendental. “Can’t understand them” “Would you have us return to the savage state?” etc., etc. A criticism true enough, it may be, from their point of view. But the fact is, the earnest lecturer can speak only to his like, and the adapting of himself to his audience is a mere compliment which he pays them. If you wish to know how I think, you must endeavor to put yourself in my place. If you wish me to speak as if I were you, that is another affair.”

Maybe those listening to Thoreau’s lectures were just too busy engaging in productive activities, such as liking selfies on Instagram, to be bothered comprehending what he said.

MG signing off (ok, maybe not)

Something Thoreau wrote on December 27, 1859

“All the community may scream because one man is born who will not do as it does, who will not conform because conformity to him is dread – he is so constituted. They know nothing about his case; they are fools with they presume to advise him. The man of genius knows what he is aiming at; nobody else knows. And he alone knows when something comes between him and his object. In the course of generations, however, men will excuse you for not doing as they do, if you will bring enough to pass in your own way.”

In other words, you could receive a pass as long as you brought something to the table. But what happens when the body politic starts jockeying for scraps?

MG signing off (because you can take the road less traveled, or build an entirely new one along with a tollbooth)

Something Thoreau wrote on January 30, 1854

“It is for man the seasons and all their fruits exist. The winter was made to concentrate and harden and mature the kernel of his brain, to give tone and firmness and consistency to his thought. Then is the great harvest of the year, the harvest of thought. All previous harvests, are stubble to this, mere fodder, and green crop. Now we burn with a purer flame like the stars; our oil is winter-strained. We are islanded in Atlantic and Pacific and Indian Oceans of thought, Bermudas, or Friendly or Spice Islands.”

Thoreau may have been surrounded by snow and early darkness, lacked a television, and at times nursed a persistent cough. I can appreciate all that right now. But he didn’t have any fine graphite fly rods and yet still alluded to persistent thoughts of tropical climes.

MG signing off (because he does have fine graphite fly rods, and he is also thinking about the tropics)

UPDATE: It’s the worst kind of seasonal affective disorder, which has otherwise been particularly widespread this year.

Something Thoreau wrote on February 28, 1856

“How various are the talents of men! From the brook in which one lover of nature has never during all his lifetime detected anything larger than a minnow, another extracts a trout that weighs three pounds, or an otter four feet long. How much more game he will see who carries a gun, i.e. who goes to see it! Though you roam the woods all your days, you never will see by chance what he sees who goes on purpose to see it. One gets his living by shooting woodcocks; most never see one in their lives.”

In the above case extraction of said trout was likely followed by putting it in a frying pan, the original act driven by necessity. Does the same apply when the purpose is sport … simple amusement? Or is the talent in some way devalued?

MG signing off (to detect, and possibly dissect)

Something Thoreau wrote on March 20, 1858

“The fishes are going up the brooks as they open. They are dispersing themselves through the fields and woods, imparting new life into them. They are taking their places under the shelving banks and in the dark swamps. The water running down meets the fishes running up. They hear the latest news. Spring-aroused fishes are running up our veins too. Little fishes are seeking the sources of the brooks, seeking to disseminate their principles. Talk about a revival of religion! and business men’s prayer meetings! with which all the country goes mad now! What if it were as true and wholesome a revival as the little fishes feel which come out of the sluggish waters and run up the brooks toward their sources?”

As much as it still looks and feels like winter, spring, and the inevitable little fishes, are close at hand.

Some consider angling their revival, their prayer meeting, and go mad over it no matter the time of year. Others just especially look forward to the transition periods.

MG signing off (counting the days ’till the rainbows start running)

Something Thoreau wrote on October 26, 1855

“I sometimes think that I must go off to some wilderness where I can have a better opportunity to play life – can find more suitable materials to build my house with, and enjoy the pleasure of collecting my fuel in the forest. I have more taste for the wild sports of hunting, fishing, wigwam-building, making garments of skins, and collecting wood wherever you find it, than for butchering, farming, carpentry, working in a factory, or going to a wood market.”

Not sure about rejecting farming and carpentry, both of which seem like fitting pursuits for the self-reliant. But the rest sure does sound like fun, particular as it doesn’t remotely involve stepping into a shopping mall.

MG signing off (to imagine Thoreau taking a selfie while wearing a raccoon fur cap then refusing to post it to Instagram out of spite)

Editor’s note: He didn’t have access to a smartphone after all, but what if he did?

Something Thoreau wrote on April 16, 1852

“How many there are who advise you to print! How few who advise you to lead a more interior life! In the one case there is all the world to advise you, in the other there is none to advise you but yourself. Nobody ever advised me not to print but myself. The public persuade the author to print, as the meadow invites the brook to fall into it. Only he can be trusted with gifts who can present a face of bronze to expectations.1

Does the advent of self-publishing – electronic books, blogging, social media – make striking the balance more elusive, or easier to segregate?

MG signing off (to push another publish button, subject matter notwithstanding)

1 [At the time, Walden was ready for printing but Thoreau did not yet have a publisher]