So You Want to Start a New Walden
by E. Thomas Finan
Realize that this is only a matter of starting: Thoreau’s enterprise was an experiment and a quest for beginnings, so this is the aegis under which to advance.
Do not confuse playacting with thoughtfulness: Waving the placard or wearing the costume of the moment might be a diverting way to pass the time, but don’t mistake diversion for truth. Let others seek to join the correct crowd and paint their lips with the slogans of the self-righteous. You pursue the oblique path. Your task is to inquire after the right and the good. It is to chase after the song wherever you find it.
Strive for wakefulness: Lethe daubs the eyes of so many with habit, presumption, and reflex. You need to wash the eyes clear so that they can unblinking face the dawn. Wakefulness brings clarity of vision. It opens you to the consequences and possibilities of your actions. The joys of life sharpen, as do the sorrows, but life is often found on the edge.
Cultivate quiet: The din of the world drowns out our thoughts. So much so much so much, life cries. In the storm of notifications, it can be hard to really notice the music around you. Limitation brings liberty, and symphonies unfurl in silence.
Bring rope—lots of it: The task of finding depths demands the fullest extent of all your coiled resources. You will have to sound every concept and use what concepts you can to sound yourself and your experience.
Walk with an open hand: Emerson lent the land that the cabin was on, and you too will have to use the resources of others: their insight, patience, instants of beauty, and all other kinds of intentional and unintentional gifts. And you must offer your own gifts. The explorer’s hand should be open to give as well as to receive.
Stuff a satchel with nails: Yours is an enterprise of baroque marriages and pointed conciliations. You must have a daring for connection—to fuse in the light of wonder.
Don’t forget a hammer, a saw, and a hoe: You will need a way of collecting force if you want to use those nails. You must make fine distinctions. You must be willing to overturn the detritus on the surface if you wish to discover what’s underneath and to plant there.
Fill your pockets with seed: You will need to plant and to seek nourishment from your planting.
Carry a love of shores: You will at times have to have it both ways if you want to have it any way. You will live between the land and the water. You will live in the woods and at the edge of the winding railroad trail. Your friends might come to visit from Concord, and you might stop by your parental household for dinner. The goal of Walden is gaining parallax—of using both eyes to see where things are in the first place.
I went to Walden itself the other day, with this list inscribed in my heart. I had never been before. Woods encircle the pond, like sentries around its plane of preternatural peace. When I stood on the edge of the shore, it seemed as though the panorama was a giant cup to hold the sky. Glazed a faint blue, the bottom of that cup heightened the sky’s richer waves.
Paths ring the pond, and I walked along them. At certain moments, the paths dipped down, and brought me to the shore. At other moments, they led me upward. When the leaves crunch around me, I couldn’t tell whether they were caused by four feet or two. A large brown bird—a hawk, I think—winged through the sky. There is a lesson in its flight. It rides the air with everything outstretched—its wings spread, its tail feathers fanned out. Reaching with every part of its body gives the hawk’s flight that exultant majesty. So is it with us: by reaching, we soar on the winds.
Thoreau’s cabin is doubly small. It is only a 150 square feet. But the more than 150 years have made it even smaller: it is a reproduction only, and it has the manicured sterility of something made to commemorate an earlier heroism. It is too clean, too neat, too quotidian in its memorializing. It is a Disneyland showpiece—not a true magic castle.
Far from that reproduction, the site of the original cabin has a far greater charm. It is an empty space marked by a rectangle of nine square posts. Inside the posts, a spot marks where Thoreau’s hearth was. I said empty—but it’s full of possibility. I stood inside of it, and I saw the true cabin rising around me. I glimpsed the view of the explorer, and wonder ran its fingers along my shoulder. In this skeleton of the cabin, the heart of Walden still beats.
Near the cabin, tiny towers of stones climb upwards. They are left by visitors (dare I say pilgrims?) as a tribute—perhaps even as a testament of their own hopes to live deliberately and wondrously.
As I stood in front of those towers mortared together by dreams, the footsteps of a jogger pounded forward with the resolute beat of a train. And not just any jogger, but C—, like a visitor from another world. With each lurching stride, his topknot bobbed. Consisting mostly of black strands gathered from the sides of his head, it looked like a giant bow atop his skull.
He stopped and waved at me. A thin sheen of sweat polished his face. “Hey, what are you doing here?”
I had never been here, I told him. And it seemed like a day for exploring.
He shrugged. “I live down the street in Concord. So I like to go for the daily run here.” He emphasized daily. “Even on days when I teach, I try to get a run in either in the morning or the afternoon. It gives me time to process things. So there’s this symposium I’m contributing to for PMLA…”
He proceeded to talk about “the recovery of a materialist, counter-historicist ephemera,” but he mostly discussed the personal controversies: “I mean, it’s interesting work—don’t get me wrong. And it does some important stuff with the recovery of the archive. But I feel that the whole thing might be the project of an Oedipal pique—don’t you like that, Oedipal pique?”
“Those are fighting words.”
He grinned. “They are! But that’s what it really is the product of. Its leading proponent is Arthur Chu-Waters, who was Rick Rosenstein’s graduate student at Cornell who was Steve’s graduate student back when he was at Berkeley. So Waters has this score to settle with his ancestors, I think, with that whole counter-historicist thing.”
“So you think he’s wrong?”
“I think he wants to make a name for himself, and I think he has the right to do that. But, yes, he completely misunderstands history and I think very much—and quite paradoxically—undermines the case for archival work by this supposed counter-historicist turn. I mean, that’s why we turn to the archive—to re-write the textures of history, especially as that history has been suppressed by the powerful. History is the sea we swim in—we have to recognize the fact that there is water around us if we want to move forward. Lydia Greene—she’s done such great work on the archive’s role in challenging hegemonic narratives—and I will be tag-teaming Waters. I have so many other commitments, but I just had to weigh in here.” He looked at the Fitbit on his wrist, as though it called to him with some new and glaring message. “So you’re still writing something, right?”
“Actually, I’ve started a new project…”
He lifted his shoulder, like he was preparing to re-assume a suit of armor. “Well, good luck with it!”
He ran off, certain and confident. So on the world rushes, while you nurture your dreams of ecstasy.
But the cabin waits.
E. Thomas Finan is the author of the short story collection The Other Side. He has published work in The Atlantic, The Millions, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He teaches humanities at Boston University.