Friday, June 11, 2010

Celebrating birthdays with Thoreau

Having recently celebrated my thirty-sixth birthday, I turned--as I have so often done in the months since I bought the book--to Thoreau's Journal to see what he was up to on his thirty-sixth birthday, July 12, 1853. He takes no notice of his birthday in the pages of the journal, and it seems he spent the day, in typically quiet fashion, paying attention to the woodland plants:
White vervain. Checkerberry, maybe some days. Spikenard, not quite yet. The green-flowered lanceolate-leafed orchis at Azalea Brook will soon flower. Wood horse-tail very large and handsome there.
Birthdays have been spent in far worse ways, and I find Thoreau's approach to birthdays congenial. A birthday seems best spent doing what one always chooses to do when free of obligation; in my case, that involves a stack of books and a pitcher of iced tea on the back porch, with perhaps a martini to welcome the dusk. My version of paying attention to the woodland plants.

Thoreau's forty-third birthday offers a bit more idiosyncrasy, in the form of some advice for hikers:
The best way to drink, especially in a shallow stream, or one so sunken below the surface as to be difficult to reach, is through a tube. You can commonly find growing near a spring a hollow reed or weed of some kind suitable for this purpose, such as rue or touch-me-not, or water saxifrage, or you can carry one in your pocket.
In Chicagoland, that advice takes on added poignancy this week, which has seen the local water authorities balk at the EPA's efforts to make it work to return the Chicago River to something more closely resembling water.

Speaking of rivers: in a wonderful interview with Christopher Lydon on Radio Open Source, Damion Searls, the editor of the new edition of Thoreau's Journal that has so entranced me these past months, offered a memorable passage from the entry for May 17, 1854 whose closing could serve, in a pinch, as a distillation of Thoreau's approach to the world:
Observed a rill emptying in above the stone-heaps, and afterward saw where it ran out of the June-berry Meadow, and I considered how surely it would have conducted me to the meadow, if I had traced it up. I was impressed as it were by the intelligence of the brook, which for ages in the wildest regions, before science is born, knows so well the level of the ground and through whatever woods or other obstacles finds its way. Who shall distinguish between the law by which a brook finds its river, the instinct by which a bird performs its migrations, and the knowledge by which a man steers his ship around the globe? The globe is the richer for the variety of its inhabitants.
Even better, in typical fashion, Thoreau immediately shifts from that well-turned phrase and flight of fancy to the particular, taking note of a humble squirrel:
Saw a large gray squirrel near the split rock in the Assabet. He went skipping up the limb of one tree and down the limb of another, his great gray rudder undulating through the air, and occasionally hid himself behind the main stem.
Oh, living things, hide not from Thoreau! It is pointless, for he will seek you out; it is pointless, for he is your dearest friend.

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