Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Thought of Something Else

books: walden
Wendell Berry has a poem called "The Thought of Something Else." It begins with this:

A spring wind blowing
the smell of the ground
through the intersections of traffic,
the mind turns, seeks a new
nativity - another place,
simpler, less weighted
by what has already been.

Another place!
it's enough to grieve me -
that old dream of going,
of becoming a better man
just by getting up and going
to a better place.

In my mind's wandering, my better man's better place is a small farm in West Virginia. Never mind the fact that I have absolutely no idea how to properly husband a farm. Never mind the fact that the mere 1,800 sq. ft. of land currently under my care is bald, fissured or both. Never mind the fact that my only experience with organic fruit comes courtesy of Central Market. Never mind the facts because that's what makes a dream a dream.

Another place! That old dream...of becoming a better man...just by going to a better place.

My current place is suburban Dallas. I am sure that this place suits some people, for many, it was probably even their better. But as for me and the children my wife and I dream about, it isn't suitable at all. My wife and I both grew up exploring the woods in our own neighborhoods with our siblings and best friends; naming the areas we discovered after places in our favorite books, landmarks from the "real world", or better still, names entirely of our own invention. We value those experiences to such a degree that it's not just something we want for our kids, it is as necessary as clean drinking water and vegetables.

Our current place doesn't offer those kinds of experiences and there are even some arguments to be made about the drinking water if you want to get in to that. But my dissatisfaction with this place isn't as selfless as wanting something grand for my kids, it's born out of what I want for myself. Although, as someone who has a sincere fondness for nature, I'm certain that if I live out the rest of my days in this place that has little to no reverence for Creation, I'll go insane and that can't be good for anyone. So, really, moving to a farm is for everyone else's benefit, not mine!

In doing all of this dreaming about six acres in Lincoln County, WV, I've acquired some books about farming. So far, the only thing I've discovered is that learning how to farm by reading a book is like learning architecture by watching someone dance: it just isn't going to happen. But, as anyone who has seen "What About Bob?" knows, there is such a thing as baby steps. So, as Bob himself would say, "Baby steps start a garden in the backyard. Baby steps start a garden in the backyard." And that is where I have found myself, anxious for the spring and anxious to remember the smell of the ground.

But, then I hear Thoreau say in the first few pages of Walden, "I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of." Misfortune? Are you kidding? What I wouldn't give to inherit a farm and the knowledge of caring for it! I know that the context of Thoreau's statement is that these poor men are slaves to their work and that they "labor under a mistake." If he were to write it today, he would probably say something like, "I see young men and women, my townspeople, whose misfortune it is to have inherited businesses, mansions, office complexes, personnel and wireless devices; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of." Even still, reading this sentence makes me think about the Apostle Paul and again about Wendell Berry and I feel like I am at two roads diverged.

In Paul's letter to the Philippians, he writes, "For I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances may be." Do I just need to learn contentment? Is it possible that even if I had my land, tools and the majority of the food that my family ate was produce we'd grown from seed it possible that even then I would be discontent, longing for the predictability of suburban life and the Kroger a minute's walk away? Would I feel as much a slave to labor there as I feel like a fish out of water here? Sure, it's possible.

But, it's also possible that Berry's idea of becoming a better man simply by going to a better place would ring true and this is where the roads diverge. Maybe the answer lies in a backyard garden that's waiting to be planted.

technorati tags: , ,


s.o said...

well put Brian.
One of the things I enjoy in reading Thoreau is the almost immediate self-evaluation I undergo. In that way, Berry's writings are proving just as challenging.
And I think you're completely right about Thoreau's motives in his statements about owning a farm. Berry seems to love the "work" of a farm and of nature. Thoreau was, by trade, more of a land surveyor. I think he was always drawn more to observe and study nature than to "work" it (if that makes sense). For me now, I esteem both trades.

Bronson Alcott was a friend of Thoreau's and began to visit him each Sunday evening when Thoreau lived at Walden pond. In February of 1847, Alcott records this in his journal:
"So vivid was my sense of escape from the senses while conversing with Henry today that the men, times, and occupations of coming years gave me a weary wish to be released from this scene and to pass into a state of noble companions and immortal labours...
Thoreau is a walking Muse, winged at the anklets and rhyming her steps."

- I remembered this account when I read both your & Jay's posts about a possible leaving and "relocating." There does exist this "wish" of release and searching to find "noble companions and immortal labours." We might yet become better men "just by getting up and going."

s.o said...

I love the new title bar with the cabin in it.

gary miracle said...


Joe said...

I think this is great and would like to add a couple of thoughts to what seems like a few questions I'd like to comment on, not answer.

I think, when you say "...I'm certain that if I live out the rest of my days in this place that has little to no reverence for Creation..." Talking about suburban Dallas, you are saying that the monuments built dedicated to transportation, industry, commerce and cultural education are in fact diminishing the quality of life and in turn, we are turning up our noses to what God has so blissfully created for us because of the modernization the planet is going through? Am I at least close?

I find this to be a point worth talking about because it says so much about what God has given to us and how we pollute it, rape it, and vandalize it all, when in fact we are doing what comes natural to us, despite the unsanctified abuse we dish out to the life giving force of Earth on such a grand scale. But considering this, you must also consider how far we've come, despite what I see as a recent regression in ourselves, as being a good, necessary thing, instead of a bad immoral thing. But don't get my wrong, I totally believe we should revel in what has been provided for us and we should not only be in reverence of it, we should do all that we can to protect it and nourish it. That doesn't mean we should ignore it or let it go by way of the Dodo bird. Is the best course of action to live simply as you suggest, or to appreciate the simplicity of living simply while living the way that's best? Is living 'correctly' a state of mind?

One of the reasons, I believe, we've come out of the mud and caves and thatched roofed domiciles of our past, is because of one very common gene which is dominant throughout every person everywhere, which is this. Everyone has a deep desire somewhere within their chemical makeup to create, to put themselves into something that will last forever, to make more of themselves then a simple man or woman put here to spawn and JUST survive, what would the fun in that be? Thoreau did what he had to, which came naturally natural to him. Einstein and Edison did what they had to do, and even Pasteur did what he had to do...they all created something out of what would appear nothing. Amazing right? No one would say that they were Gods, nor Devils, nor anarchists. They were people who lived as life taught them and used their imaginations instead of their instincts to just survive. They didn't prescribe to the Epicurean philosophy either, eating and drinking and being merry until they die was not for them. They used what was before them, their tools, their imaginations, their desire to create and they did. If only more people prescribed to this methodology.

So I guess what's being said here is that apart from creating and building and industrializing, we are in turn destroying the environment with biohazard waste.
We are not really doing anything for ourselves but slowly killing our planet and in turn killing ourselves. This brings up so many things about Life and what it's all about more than almost anything.

Why do we continue to contribute to the planets ultimate demise? Why do we drive big toxin producing killing machines and pollute our water and soil with destructive man made chemicals? What is the driving force behind it all? I can only come up with one idea and that is creation. We are just stupid creators, lost in the footprint of God.

What we should do is simple, find ways to create, without destroying or diminishing the world around us. As much as some would like however, we we'll never stop creating, it is too hard wired within us to stop having imaginations and building on them, no matter what they are, but it is important to do it so as not to cause harm to ourselves or the planet or our spirits as human beings.

I realize after reading what I've wrote so far that it's a bit of a stretch from what you were actually writing about, yet it still pertains to what I believe Walden is partially about. And although I haven't read Walden recently, I remember thinking that the whole 'plot' if you will, of the story, is how independence is so gratifying and perpetually stimulating. As some have said before, being tied to car payments and house payments and all that jazz is as gratifying as watching reruns of commercials over and over again. It truly stinks. Being dependent on other people in order to live is not being independent and that is what I believe is at the core of Thoreau’s book. If you can equate living in the woods and being creative and thoughtful and imaginative about your surroundings with living in a city full of books and art and industry and commerce and all that jazz, then you can learn independence as well. The fact is, we are creative, imaginative and hopefully morally sound human beings for the most part. Why can't we live independent lives in a country dependent on the values, beliefs and intuitiveness of the people, together, as a whole body...? Does that make sense at all?

So back to my previous thought before I realized what I was saying really had no bearing at all on what has been said, but I'm gonna finish anyways cause I just feel like it.

Everyone wants to live on forever, because it is natural to us to fill a void that is with in us all because of the fact that we are here and then we are gone, gone out of this life, gone out of the consciousness of existence and never to return again. Everyone dies, and everyone will eventually be forgotten, our destruction as a culture, as a race and as a planet is inevitable. Nothing lasts forever and why should we?

Is it necessary to forsake recent evolutionary advancements in medicine or transportation or industry because we are not keeping a deal with the earth? Or should we continue to strive to evolve as thinking, feeling, and imaginative creatures? Perhaps one day, we will all come to realize what we have done to our planet and we all will proceed to fix it. One man cannot fix all of the world’s problems, not now, not ever. Education is the key to survival.

I totally think more people should read Walden by Henry David Thoreau, think about it, discuss it and come to a conclusion about what it means to them before completely dismissing it and saying, 'wow, what a stupid book, he can't write for crap. Ice crystals which resemble diamonds...what was he smoking!?' Like so many people of my class did not so long ago.