On being Thoreau

One of the great things about keeping a blog is the excuse it gives you to do weird things. As you try to build your experience so you can get more unusual things to write about, you find yourself in places and situations outside your normal comfort zone.

For example, it would never occur to me to go down on one knee at the entrance to the local McDonald’s and take a picture of the sign telling how to navigate the drive-thru. When I wrote last week about my encounter with a “buttinsky” trying to cut in front of me, I thought a photo of the sign telling customers to “circle building for drive-thru” would lend a certain visual appeal to my story. I imagined myself a crusading investigative reporter, hot on the story of a thoughtless man abusing the freedoms on which this country was founded in order to get his Egg McMuffin ahead of me.

After the incident, I’m crouching down by the street, snapping shots of the sign from all different angles, completely oblivious to passers-by wondering what in the world is that crazy man doing? I’m not concerned with what others think of me, because I seek the truth — there’s a crusading cyber-journalist at work here.

I did feel the need to draw the line a few days later when I was preparing my thoughts about falling and becoming trapped in a roadside ditch. I was walking along a heavily traveled highway not far from my work, examining the litter that had accumulated in the weeds. I wanted to be able to create an essay that came from an authentic place (in my mind, not in the ditch) about the refuse that might suddenly become life-sustaining if I fell while running and couldn’t get up. I considered collecting pieces of trash and discarded cans for a photo montage, until it occurred to me there might be passing co-workers who thought I was using my coffee break to make a few extra bucks in the recycling business.

Another thing I enjoy is doing on-line research — okay, looking stuff up on Wikipedia — for background information. In the falling-into-a-culvert post, I wanted to make a joke or two about feeling like Henry David Thoreau communing with the natural world only steps from civilization. I had studied Thoreau and other prominent nineteenth-century transcendentalists in college, and admired their pioneering efforts in the environmental movement and in avoiding constructive work. Reading more carefully now about Thoreau’s personal life, I came to a new appreciation of what a lunatic he was. Were he alive today, he might even be taking pictures at the McDonald’s drive-thru.

What follows are a few interesting facts from his curious biography. Everything cited below is true; if I can’t resist making a sarcastic comment about a particular point, I’ll do that in italic. Wait, that last phrase wasn’t meant to be sarcastic, I just wanted to show what the italic would look like. Like people don’t know what italic is. Like that.

  • He was born David Henry Thoreau and didn’t become Henry David Thoreau until college. He didn’t want to keep the middle name at all, but his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson insisted.
  • Novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote that Thoreau was “as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed … but his ugliness is of an agreeable fashion.” He wore a neck-beard for many years, which he insisted women found attractive, probably because it hid large portions of his head. Louisa May Alcott said, however, that his facial hair “will most assuredly deflect amorous advances.”
  • He declined his master’s degree from Harvard, in part because they charged $5 for it, and in part because the college offered it to all graduates who “proved their physical worth by being alive three years after graduating” and earning enough to be able to spare a $5 donation to their alma mater.
  • He founded a grammar school with his brother John but had to abandon the effort when John became fatally ill after cutting himself while shaving. “See?” Henry told John as he lies dying in a pool of blood. “There are other advantages to the neck-beard.”
  • Emerson urged him to start his first journal in 1837, and he did so with the following entry: “‘What are you doing?’ he (Emerson) asked. ‘Do you keep a journal?’ So I make the first entry today.” For the young people out there, I’ll note that a journal is like a collection of tweets, except if no one wants to read it, they don’t have to.
  • After giving up teaching, he worked in his family’s pencil factory. He discovered a process to make a good pencil out of inferior graphite using clay as the binder. A pencil is like a laptop, except it can give you lead poisoning if it jabs you.
  • In 1844, the original tree-hugger nature boy accidentally started a forest fire with his friend that consumed 300 acres of Walden Woods.
  • His two-year experiment to live simply in the wilderness actually took place about a mile from his family home. Some historians claim his mom brought him a goodie basket of donuts and cookies every Saturday. You’d think that last sentence would be in italic but it’s not.
  • In 1846, he briefly left the woods to make a trip to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. He later wrote a piece on the expedition that he titled “Ktaadn.” The transcendentalists were not known for their spelling skills.
  • He wrote a two-million-word document that detailed his natural history observations over the course of 24 years. It didn’t sell well either.
  • One night in 1859, he decided to go out during a driving rainstorm and count the rings on some tree stumps. He became ill with bronchitis and began a three-year decline that eventually rendered him bed-ridden.
  • When he became aware that he was dying, he uttered his final sentence — “Now comes good sailing.” It sounds profound, until you learn that it was followed by the single words “moose” and “Indian.”
  • Thoreau’s greatness was not recognized by some of his contemporaries in literary circles. Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson said that living alone in natural simplicity was effeminate. He was “like a plant that he had tended with womanish solicitude,” Stevenson wrote. “In one word, he was a skulker.” John Greenleaf Whittier (again with the middle name) said Thoreau wanted to “lower himself to the level of a woodchuck and walk on four legs.”
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3 Responses to “On being Thoreau”

  1. sandysays1 Says:

    Davis,
    Thanks for the confirmation of the suspicion! I wonder what he’d do today. Hmmm, let’s see. Ecco terrorist? No they’re kind of sane, just criminal. I got it. Politics! Senator, House Speaker, Presidential Advisor. Or he could be a commentator on MSNBC or FOX.
    visit me at http://www.sandysays1.wordpress.com

  2. Rocky Humbert Says:

    Since you are a Thoreau-in-training, it seems some deep literary de-construction and textual analysis is due.

    From that, I sadly conclude: you are developing a Geometry Fetish.

    First, you “circle building” and then you “draw the line.”

    But please, are you are contributing to the decline and fall of American civilization. Drive thru? or Drive through?

  3. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Davis,
    This is a hoot. Thanks for a morning chuckle.
    I especially liked:
    John Greenleaf Whittier’s comment that “Thoreau wanted to “lower himself to the level of a woodchuck and walk on four legs.” ”
    K

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