Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Henry David Thoreau’

08 JULY, 2014

Thoreau on What Skunk-Cabbage Can Teach Us About Optimism and the Meaning of Human Life

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“There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.”

Even though our brains are wired for optimism, our cultural conditioning is to worry about everything. Long before modern psychology shed light on how our minds affect our bodies, one of humanity’s greatest thinkers drew from nature a subtle yet powerful metaphor for the vital importance of cultivating an optimistic outlook about the future.

From The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — the same treasure trove of wisdom that gave us Thoreau on what success really means, the greatest gift of growing old, friendship and sympathy, and why not to quote Thoreau — comes a beautiful meditation on what winter plants, and skunk-cabbage in particular, can teach us about melancholy, optimism, and the ebb and flow of human life.

Writing in a diary entry on the last day of October in 1857 — a time when climate change hadn’t yet rendered the latter part of New England autumn mild and frostless — Thoreau marvels at the sight of two swamp ferns, still green this late in the year:

You are inclined to approach and raise each frond in succession, moist, trembling, fragile greenness. What means this persistent vitality, invulnerable to frost and wet? They stay as if to keep up the spirits of the cold-blooded frogs which have not yet gone into the mud; that the summer may die with decent and graceful moderation, gradually. Even in them I feel an argument for immortality. Death is so far from being universal. The same destroyer does not destroy all. How valuable they are (with the lycopodiums) for cheerfulness.

Illustration from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

But the greatest source of cheerfulness and hopefulness comes from the skunk-cabbage, a prophet of perseverance and optimism:

If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year. Their gravestones are not bespoken yet. Is it the winter of their discontent? Do they seem to have lain down to die, despairing of skunk-cabbagedom? “Up and at ’em,” “Give it to ’em,” “Excelsior,” “Put it through,” — these are their mottoes. Mortal human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year; their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards to where the “weary shall be at rest.” But not so with the skunk-cabbage. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud, pushing it upward and lifting the dead leaves with it? They rest with spears advanced; they rest to shoot! …

See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau is a soul-stretching read in its entirety. Complement it with Henry Builds a Cabin and Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, two charming picture-books adapting Thoreau’s philosophy for children.

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26 MAY, 2014

Thoreau on the Greatest Gift of Growing Old

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How happiness feeds on the hard-earned blessing of making fewer apologies for our existence.

“Living has yet to be generally recognized as one of the arts,” Karl De Schweinitz wrote in his 1924 guide to the art of living, and as with any art, genius-level mastery at it is only accomplished through hours upon hours of deliberate practice. It’s a truth that Henry David Thoreau, one of the great masters of the art of living, illustrates in a particularly beautiful passage from The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — the same treasure trove of wisdom that gave us Thoreau on what success really means, friendship and sympathy, and why not to quote Thoreau.

Writing in the afternoon of October 20 of 1857, shortly after his fortieth birthday, Thoreau does what he does best, drawing from an everyday encounter a profound existential parable:

I saw Brooks Clark, who is now about eighty and bent like a bow, hastening along the road, barefooted, as usual, with an axe in his hand; was in haste perhaps on account of the cold wind on his bare feet. When he got up to me, I saw that besides the axe in one hand, he had his shoes in the other, filled with knurly apples and a dead robin. He stopped and talked with me a few moments; said that we had had a noble autumn and might now expect some cold weather. I asked if he had found the robin dead. No, he said, he found it with its wing broken and killed it. He also added that he had found some apples in the woods, and as he hadn’t anything to carry them in, he put ’em in his shoes. They were queer-looking trays to carry fruit in. How many he got in along toward the toes, I don’t know. I noticed, too, that his pockets were stuffed with them. His old tattered frock coat was hanging in strips about the skirts, as were his pantaloons about his naked feet. He appeared to have been out on a scout this gusty afternoon, to see what he could find, as the youngest boy might. It pleased me to see this cheery old man, with such a feeble hold on life, bent almost double, thus enjoying the evening of his days. Far be it from me to call it avarice or penury, this childlike delight in finding something in the woods or fields and carrying it home in the October evening, as a trophy to be added to his winter’s store. Oh, no; he was happy to be Nature’s pensioner still, and birdlike to pick up his living. Better his robin than your turkey, his shoes full of apples than your barrels full; they will be sweeter and suggest a better tale.

Illustration from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

But perhaps the greatest gift of old age is that of unselfconsciousness — 150 years after Thoreau, in reflecting on her long career of interviewing creative icons, Debbie Millman observed that the only two people not plagued by the characteristic self-doubt of creators were Milton Glaser and Massimo Vignelli who, not coincidentally, were both in their eighties. Thoreau, too, arrives at the same appreciation in considering the old man:

This old man’s cheeriness was worth a thousand of the church’s sacraments and memento mori’s. It was better than a prayerful mood. It proves to me old age as tolerable, as happy, as infancy… If he had been a young man, he would probably have thrown away his apples and put on his shoes when he saw me coming, for shame. But old age is manlier; it has learned to live, makes fewer apologies, like infancy.

Illustration from 'Henry Builds a Cabin,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 is a beautiful read in its totality. Complement it with these sweet and poignant illustrated adaptations of Thoreau’s life and thought, then treat yourself to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s exquisite reading of John Masefield’s “On Growing Old.”

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28 OCTOBER, 2013

Thoreau on Not Finding a Publisher and What Success Really Means

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“Sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever.”

A century before Anaïs Nin’s prescient discontent about the state of publishing and 160 years before our present-day grumblings, Henry David Thoreau — one of the most celebrated minds in the history of letters, who penned some of the most enduring and influential texts in Western literature — confronted the tribulations of publishing as he completed A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, his moving elegy for his brother John. Unable to find a publisher for the book, he paid out-of-pocket for a print run of 1,000 copies — but only 300 were sold. True to his belief that success comes from within rather than without, the legendary poet, philosopher, and abolitionist considers the experience in this funny and poignant diary entry from October 28, 1853, found in The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 (public library) — the same timelessly fantastic tome that gave us Thoreau on why not to quote Thoreau and his irresistibly quotable wisdom on friendship and sympathy.

Rain in the night and this morning, preparing for winter.

For a year or two past, my publisher, falsely so called, has been writing from time to time to ask what disposition should be made of the copies of “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” still on hand, and at last suggesting that he had use for the room they occupied in his cellar. So I had them all sent to me here, and they have arrived to-day by express, filling the man’s wagon, — 706 copies out of an edition of 1000 which I bought of Munroe four years ago and have been ever since paying for, and have not quite paid for yet. The wares are sent to me at last, and I have an opportunity to examine my purchase. They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs to a place similar to that to which they trace their origin. Of the remaining two hundred and ninety and odd, seventy-five were given away, the rest sold. I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor? My works are piled up on one side of my chamber half as high as my head, my opera omnia. This is authorship; these are the work of my brain. There was just one piece of good luck in the venture. The unbound were tied up by the printer four years ago in stout paper wrappers, and inscribed, —

H.D. Thoreau’s
Concord River
50 cops.

So Munroe had only to cross out “River” and write “Mass.” and deliver them to the expressman at once. I can see now what I write for, the result of my labors.

Nevertheless, in spite of this result, sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever. Indeed, I believe that this result is more inspiring and better for me than if a thousand had bought my wares. It affects my privacy less and leaves me freer.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 remains one of the history’s most rewarding and notable diaries. Complement it with Thoreau’s philosophy adapted in a picture book and his ever-timely reminder of what success really means.

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