Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Thoreau Day

Yesterday, July 12, was Henry David Thoreau's birthday. I celebrated. I consider Thoreau a hero and a constant source of inspiration. His were practiced examples of how one might live in accordance with their values.

Some people have asked me, if I don't celebrate Thanksgiving, or American Independence Day (July 4th), or religious holidays, what do I celebrate? I think Thoreau's life and work are worthy of celebration.

So I invited twenty friends over, we grilled up some hamburgers, got wasted and lit off a mess of fireworks. I'm kidding of course. I took a walk at Treman State Park, not far from home, by myself. It was a hot, dry day but at five in the afternoon, and in the occasional shade of the woods, the weather was pleasant enough. From the lower park I walked along the Gorge Trail until it split and then I took the Rim Trail to the upper park. From there I took the South Trail back down to the lower park. It's a well marked loop, paved in some places, popular. Some mildly strenuous moments if you're not accustomed to walking uphill. Something like five miles total. It took me a bit under two hours.

The woods around were alive with chipmunks and squirrels busy chasing each other and fussing about in the trees. I did not catch sight of a single bird. I have walked this trail many times, in many seasons, and always see newts and salamanders but this time not one. Mosquitoes and flies were out, and I have been on walks where they drive me nearly to a panic, but they weren't so abundant now. I saw one frog, after an hour or so of walking, and it made me very happy. I see and hear very few of those, though I think they should be plentiful here and in this season.

I saw no fish in Enfield Creek, in the pools that punctuate the falls. On my last walk here I saw many, but they were all dead. I saw no sign of raccoons, or skunks, or foxes, coyotes, deer, yet the roadsides everywhere here are littered with their fresh or rotting corpses. No prints of bear paws in the dirt tracks.

There's so much here I cannot name: trees and plants, soil and erosion patterns, what flowers when. I didn't take the kind of walk that I imagine Thoreau would have taken: slow, deliberate, carefully observing details and relationships. I walk fast, each step a step away from roads and computers, governments and corporations, self-promotion and other peoples' news. Like HDT, I imagine, I spend time in nature to assuage the loneliness and isolation of the contemporary urban (and virtual) environment. Walking alone on a narrow track in the woods (no phone, of course, and no money jangling in my pocket) I feel the opposite of alone. I feel utterly connected, to myself, to my surroundings, to time.

The contemporary urban and virtual environment encroaches on this, and hideously so. I wonder what it would be like if HDT took this walk with me. He would surely point out numerous, wondrous things that I miss. This gorge, its waterfalls, its trees, the way the flora changes, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically as I walk from one glacially formed ridge to another, has much to marvel at. But I hear HDT asking -- or maybe it's the voice of myself as a child, 25 years ago -- "where did everything go?" Fellow mammals are busy dying under the wheels of fuel efficient automobiles, pines disappear as invasive insect species lay siege to them, the water, ever more toxic, chokes the fish, the sky above is littered with airplanes and satellites.

Thoreau spent his 44 years observing and reflecting on the world around him. He called bullshit on the way civilized people treat each other, the way money and property perverts them, the racism and warmongering of politicians. He has inspired generation after generation of environmentalists, civil rights activists, people clamoring for self-determination, people struggling against war. What a hero. What a thing to celebrate.

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