June 29, 2017

A Wild & Disobedient Life

Henry David Thoreau, on his 200th birthday, is an American immortal who got there the hard way – against the grain of his town and his times.  By now he’s the heroic non-conformist who modeled ...

Henry David Thoreau, on his 200th birthday, is an American immortal who got there the hard way – against the grain of his town and his times.  By now he’s the heroic non-conformist who modeled his brief life on religious convictions: that every human being has an original relation with divine spirit, and that on earth a man must become a majority of one.  So he made a dissenting record living apart, and walking the woods more like a Native American, he felt, than a Yankee.  Never to church, never married, never voted and didn’t pay his taxes.  He talked to the trees as almost-people, and he caressed the fish in his stream like almost-children. Manly and able “but rarely tender,” he won Emerson’s obituary praise that flatters us, too: “no truer American existed,” Emerson said, than Henry Thoreau.  The prophet of Concord is our subject this hour on Open Source. 

We begin with Thoreau’s bicentennial biographer Laura Dassow Walls, visiting this week from the University of Notre Dame.  There’s news and insight in her book that’s drawing high praise already.  She shares with us how her life first intersected with Thoreau’s:

I was a teenager. I was learning girl culture of 1970 and conformity and trying to figure out how to get along and worried about future and what college to go to what kind of job I could have — what kind of a job could a woman have. And they were limited. So, for instance, secretarial work was still something we were encouraged to think about. We took home Ec classes and thought of ourselves as homemakers. And here was this voice who said maybe you could go to the woods, maybe you could confront life, maybe you could figure out what it is to be alive.



The polymath and writer Lewis Hyde is a thoroughly modern transcendentalist, author of a treasured book-length essay, titled The Gift, about the making of art in a commercial society.  In conversation this week we asked Lewis Hyde to speak of form and language—the almost King-James-Version Biblical rhythms in Walden—and whatever they tell the world about the scope of the project Thoreau set for himself:

So every time you can reduce your necessities you increase your freedom. And so, I think, it’s worth in any life to pause and think which of the things you feel you have to do you really have to do because to the degree that you can discard some of them you increase the range of your own freedoms.

Susan Gallagher helps us examine the ways in which the issue of slavery underlies everything Thoreau’s writing about: freedom, conscience and the crime inside the US Constitution.

Just as historians once underestimated the power of slavery in shaping American society, I think that they’ve underestimated the power of slavery in shaping Thoreau. He described slavery as an existential threat. He says ‘right we are now in hell. We are losing our lives. And then John Brown comes along in 1859 and he says this is the best news that America has ever heard. John Brown is the first man who ever lived. And how did he live? By dying. You die for a purpose and you die because you refuse to wrestle the plank from the drowning man. You refuse to make your survival depend on the extinction of the liberty of another. Liberty is more important than life.’

Susan Gallagher teaches history and political science at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and she edits a vital, earthy Thoreau website at mappingthoreaucountry.org.


Our final guest, a natural-born, walking, talking Thoreauvian named Kevin Dann came up with a brilliant answer to our question: who, in our day, has taken up Thoreau’s role?  Dann is the author of  Expect Great Things, a phrase and now a book that has the feel of the great man himself.  There will be a prize for any listener who can top Dann’s choice as the reincarnation of this fellow Thoreau.

This episode is the first in a 3-part series on Thoreau and American philosophy. Stay tuned for more transcendental radio and check in for updates on our Twitter page.

See a full transcript of this show on Medium.

Podcast • August 25, 2012

Bernd Heinrich and our Journey — from Life to Life

I went out to the wild woods of western Maine in the late summer to inhale the biologist Bernd Heinrich‘s experience of Life Everlasting — and just to behold a modern man in a cabin ...

I went out to the wild woods of western Maine in the late summer to inhale the biologist Bernd Heinrich‘s experience of Life Everlasting — and just to behold a modern man in a cabin he built himself, almost as simple as Thoreau’s. Of course I am wondering: how many of us could learn to live as Bernd Heinrich does for months at a stretch? Could he teach me to see what he’s been watching in this wilderness for 60 years?

Bernd Heinrich made his professional reputation getting to know ravens and bees the way his friend Edward O. Wilson got to know ants. They are among the great naturalists surviving in the DNA era when, as Wilson has remarked, big-time science has little time for anything larger than a cell. Heinrich is an all-round woods watcher of birds and plants. He can place us on the calender, within a day or two (as Emerson observed of Thoreau) just by looking — in this case, at the goldenrod coming into bloom. “The nights are getting colder. The fireweed is fading out. Spirea is coming in. You can see the color fading in the birches…”

Bernd Heinrich hooked me five years ago with his autobiography, about himself as a 10 year old German immgrant boy running wild in these same Maine woods. And he’s hooked me again with his reflection on The Animal Way of Death in the subtitle of Life Everlasting. The short form is the notion that it’s not from dust we come, to dust we shall return. It’s life all the way, unless we bury ourselves in metal caskets. The trick in grasping the point is to watch animal recycling in nature.

So we spend the afternoon looking at what vultures have done to a fallen porcupine in the woods, and what maggots are doing to a road-kill squirrel that Bernd has brought back to his cabin. “Icky stuff,” as Bernd says. The trick is to rethink the “Nevermore!” from Poe’s Raven. He might have said: “Ever after!” If a raven’s beak gets our remains, we’ll be on the wing, literally, almost immediately.

I’m reminded specially of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John 12:24, which Dostoevsky fixed as an epigraph at the start of The Brothers Karamazov: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

So we are watching something very grand going on and reflecting on big ideas of life through death — of resurrection, perhaps, and the reincarnation of bodies and ideas. “Without recycling,” Bernd Heinrich remarks, “all life would grind to a halt.” And I’m observing that death and recycling, as in the kernel that falls to the ground, may be the only route to immortality.

A week later I’m loving Bernd Heinrich’s train of thought. His implication, for starters, of a natural religion based our physical links to an unimaginably vast network — and of a moral obligation to all living things. “Not just to your neighbor,” he is saying, “but to the whole ecosystem.”

We’re the only animal with the knowledge that we’re part of something else… this knowledge of a physical connection with the rest of life; and it’s not a belief, it’s a knowledge…

We’re speaking of physical immortality. In the book I was also thinking of reincarnations, not only from physical to physical, but also in the case of humans especially, we are each seeded by ideas. We talked about Ed Wilson. He said: Bernd, you could run a marathon in two and a half hours. And that planted a seed in my mind, and I got out and started training, and I became an ultramarathoner and I ran also a marathon in two hours and twenty-two minutes. And in 24 hours I ran 156 miles, and it was a national record. So our immortality is not just physical. We are one of the few species who have immortality that is transmitted mentally, through ideas…

As Ed said, you know, the interest is more and more in the cell rather than in the organism.
Fewer and fewer people are actually in contact with the nature around us that really affects us. In other words, you can’t really know, for example, the plight of the ravens or the vultures unless you are out in nature… We don’t have enough naturalists… I am afraid of our power to cause damage. I see us as a plague who overruns our whole planet and upends the balance and creates an ecosystem that’s very, very simple where we don’t have this recycling, for one thing. And just the buildup of toxic effects, ad infinitum. It just seems like: when I was a kid nobody ever really thought about it. The idea that you could destroy the wilderness was just unthinkable. But now we’re thinking about it… because it’s actually happening.

Bernd Heinrich at his wilderness camp in Western Maine with Chris Lydon, August 2012

Podcast • May 25, 2010

Damion Searls: A Thoreau Journal for Writers & Moderns

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Damion Searls (48 min, 23 mb mp3) Damion Searls has found and freed the lean, shapely and modern American classic inside the very definition of a “baggy monster.” ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Damion Searls (48 min, 23 mb mp3)

Damion Searls has found and freed the lean, shapely and modern American classic inside the very definition of a “baggy monster.” Henry David Thoreau’s 25-year Journal ran to more than 7000 manuscript pages and 2-million words, roughly double the heft of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Searls’ flash insight was that Thoreau had not been keeping a diary or a notebook of gems for reuse. No, the Journal (singular) was a single project of observation, introspection and above all, composition. Writing faithfully, often 15 pages a day, the Journal was Thoreau’s steadiest employment. As his Week on the Concord and the Merrimack with his brother John was the chronicle of 7 days and Walden was supposed to be the account of a year, the Journal was the undertaking and may indeed be the masterpiece of a lifetime.

In conversation, Searls ventures that one way to see Thoreau right is to acknowledge Marcel Proust and Rainer Maria Rilke as his artistic successors — and to see Thoreau’s Cabin at Walden Pond (circa 1847) in Concord, Massachusetts and Proust’s cork-lined studio in Paris (circa 1910) as a matched pair of iconic writing rooms:

Proust himself was a disciple of Emerson’s; his first book is dotted with Emerson epigraphs all over the place. And it’s kind of staggering to think about, but at one time he had planned to translate Walden into French. Wouldn’t that have been something? When he read excerpts of Walden in another translation, he praised them in a letter to his friend by saying, “It is as though one were reading them inside oneself, so much do they rise from the depths of our intimate experience.” And that’s such a great Proustian bit of praise. That’s what Proust is always looking for. I think of Proust’s cork-lined room and Thoreau’s cabin in Walden as the two iconic places where a writer burrowed into himself in solitude and got to a place that spoke incredibly intimately to his readers. That’s the kind of Emerson project of becoming self-reliant, and that’s when you become universal. And Thoreau and Proust—which is a strange combination, but I think it’s really right, I mean Remembrance of Things Past is one of the only books almost as long as Thoreau’s journal—but they’re the ones who really did it.

And then Rilke is such an aesthete, but it’s kind of remarkable how many of these Thoreau journals end up sounding like Rilke poems in prose, or vice versa. So I think that in terms of the generational stuff it took a while. Thoreau was seen as this kind of crusty Yankee, and then he was seen as this civil disobedience hero and this environmental prophet, all of which are true. There’s a book called Senses of Walden by the great philosopher Stanley Cavell in the early 70s that started to really read Thoreau’s writing as this very dense literary, connective, pun-filled, textured thing of greatness that it is. And so I think it’s only been recently in the 70s and 80s and 90s that people have paid as much attention to Thoreau’s prose as I think it deserves.

Damion Searls with Chris Lydon in Boston, May 21, 2010.

This Journal is Thoreau entire: the Concord chauvinist who was also a cranky neighbor. At 5′ 7″ and 127 pounds, Thoreau was a compact featherweight, firm of build, grave of aspect with icy blue “terrible” eyes, Emerson said, that bristled with integrity and something like rebellion. A Tea Party edge, in today’s politics. Thoreau had “this maggot of Freedom and Humanity in his brain,” Emerson decided. He was “rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself except in opposition.” Thoreau repaid a debt to Emerson (14 years his elder) in the Journal‘s first words: “‘What are you doing now?’ he asked, ‘Do you keep a journal?’ — So I make my first entry to-day.”  Later the tensions with Emerson are etched in Thoreau’s mild acid: “Emerson is too grand for me,” says the “commoner” before “nobility.” Their mutual friend Bronson Alcott had come to hang out with Thoreau a day after visiting with Emerson. Thoreau noted: “… he had got his wine, and now he had come after his venison. Such was the compliment he paid me.”

We are talking about Thoreau’s incomparable eye on lichen, on the wild-blossoming “blue-eyed grass,” and the color of everything — the man who became the fish and frogs that he, still and cool, kept watching: “I fancy I am amphibious and swim in all the brooks and pools in the neighborhood, with the perch and the bream…” Also the Abolitionist, who breaks out in the Journal as a radical Christian in the slavery fight with a “government that pretends to be Christian and crucifies a million Christs every day!” Thoreau, friend and backer of the incendiary John Brown, can make Rand Paul and the Tea Baggers of our day sound wimpy: “I do not vote at the polls,” Thoreau writes in the Journal. “I wish to record my vote here.” Of the Fugitive Slave Act, which brought the bloodhounds to Boston, Thoreau bellows in the Journal: “Why the United States Government never performed an act of justice in its life!”

And still Damion Searls‘ fascination in editing and abridging the Journal is Thoreau the Writer — the high-flying poet whose imagination saw that “The bluebird carries the sky on his back;” the man who, anticipating David Shields, wanted to keep breaking form in imitation of nature: “In Literature, it is only the wild that attracts us… It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the Schools, that delights us.” We are speaking of Thoreau’s case for calluses on writers: “I find incessant labor with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, the best method to remove palaver out of one’s style.” And of a professional with a code: “The best you can write will be the best you are.”

Damion Searls is an exemplar of what Thoreau called “the rising generation.” He may be the busiest thirty-something in the writing game with four projects coming to flower this year: Thoreau’s Journal; a translation and selection of Rilke: The Inner Sky: Poems, Notes, Dreams; a book called On Reading by Proust; and his own story collection of contemporary fictions, What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, in shapes borrowed from masters like Nabokov and Hawthorne. In conversation Searls suggests we think of Thoreau, Rilke and Proust as a trio. Add young Searls, and it’s a quartet.