July 12. Henry David Thoreau’s birthday. I doubt that he would want us to celebrate his birthday. He’d undoubtedly respond with some snarky and gnomic statement, a moderately sarcastic apothegm and we’d be sorry we bothered. He’d rather have us go out and take a very long walk, pick some huckleberries, lie on our backs contemplating the stars; he’d want us each to give away five things we’d rather keep, eat only enough to sustain health, and vegetarian probably; he’d want us to read his books, particularly Walden, and truly ask ourselves what are our grossest groceries.
I know that Thoreau rubs a lot of people the wrong way. He could be annoying. His prose is often difficult. He is righteous. Sometimes self-righteous.
But it is worth is to swallow all of that (or put it aside) and really wrestle with his great book. To my mind Walden is the most important American book. Anyone who really does the hard work of taking the Thoreau challenge seriously–to look in the mirror and ask how well you are doing your soul’s work, and what unnecessary baggage you are carrying around–has the opportunity of rebooting, creating a cleaner, purer, simpler, finer, more present life.
“I went the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” — It doesn’t get any better than that, ever.
And Walden contains some of the finest nature writing in the history of the English language.