Sunday, January 02, 2005

Henry Thoreau sends New Year's greetings

My family frequently swims and walks at Walden Pond, a few miles from our home. Even on a sunny New Year's Day, falling in winter this year as it usually does, we mainly had walking in mind, although we did see one brave family take a ritual dip as they apparently do every year. Actually, the children in the family bravely hid their embarrassment on shore while their parents braved the waters. The pond is popular with free-spirited folk.

My oldest child, four years old, likes the replica of Henry Thoreau’s tiny cabin next to the parking lot and also the quiet grove where the original cabin’s foundation lies at the far shore of the pond. The boy knows Henry as the bear in the delightful books by D. B. Johnson, who captures for children the heart and soul of Thoreau’s essays. To our delight, yesterday, the cabin was occupied by a charming and talented Thoreau re-enactor who invited us in for traditional local New Year’s Day biscuits (baked in a real wood oven from a nineteenth-century recipe). I meant to tell him how good he was at his acting, but part of his charm was his refusal to break character, so I thought better to leave the compliment unsaid. Once my eldest got over his surprise in finding that Henry was a person rather than a bear, he was enchanted. He especially liked hearing about the Concord jail, from which Henry said he had recently been freed. Today, a day later, my son asked me if I paid taxes.

Of course, the happy outing encouraged me to re-open Walden for this New Year’s posting. Walden reminds us that the American vision of a more vibrant and wholesome food economy wasn’t invented this year, nor even in recent decades, but rather it has been part of the American ideal for a long time. And I mention “economy” along with “food” on purpose. Thoreau was a vegetarian and a back-to-the-lander, not from economic thoughtlessness, but from economic wisdom. He kept his eye on what was important. Walden’s first chapter, entitled Economy, includes this droll conversation about food:

One farmer says to me, "You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make bones with"; and so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying his system with the raw material of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle. Some things are really necessaries of life in some circles, the most helpless and diseased, which in others are luxuries merely, and in others still are entirely unknown.
It is a good day to reflect on the real necessaries of life. Happy New Year.

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