Selected Essays

What Is Important

Henry David Thoreau writes in Walden, “I went to the woods to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and if not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” At the time of that writing, the 1840s, America was predominantly an agricultural, rural society. It was, though, beginning to morph into an industrialized and urbanized society. Today, less than 2 percent of Americans live in bucolic settings.

What most consider essential today is vastly different from what Thoreau believed to be. In the transition from agriculture to industry, from rural to urban, and from merely urban to our twenty-first century overly complex, technological society, we have lost something vital in our spirit that Thoreau calls essential. That essentialism, however, remains constant despite industrial and technological advancements.

I posted on my Facebook page a photo of bighorn sheep grazing in my yard. I accompanied it with no commentary or description. Over seventy individuals “liked” or “loved” the picture. One nephew asked in amazement, “You have bighorn sheep in your yard?”

In his essay, “Nature,” the godfather of Transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson, says, “The least change in our point of view, gives the whole world a pictorial air.” In a way, so did that Facebook post. It helped others see the world through my lens. While not a controlled statistical study, the responses indicate something intuitively felt: love and awe for nature, along with the boundless mysteries and joys she offers.

As you can imagine, the writings of the Transcendentalists and their Romantic cousins resonate and echo in my psyche. They write about what is important. I recall reading and studying them in high school or college or both. After a half century, even Mnemosyne has not been able to jar the exact time and place from the recesses of my memory. No matter. I have always had a love for nature.

As a boy, I played for hours in the western Pennsylvania woods and never got bored. As a young man, I could get lost in those same woods, retracing trails my sisters, friends, and I had created that, over time, had reverted to their natural state. I also checked on an old tree with a bull rope around a lower branch that served in our imaginations as a hangman’s noose. The tree was doing fine when last I saw it.

One of my life’s proudest moments occurred during a storm-brewing early afternoon while, as a twenty-something, I was helping my sister and brother-in-law cut, bale, and pick up hay. My job was to stack the bales high on a flatbed wagon and pack them tightly. It paid off when, as the rain began, my brother-in-law barreled across an uneven, bumpy field to get the rocking load into the barn before the rain burst into a serious downpour. The load held tight. Not one bale lost. It was such a simple act, yet it still resonates, advising me of what is important and reminding me of what I could do.

It might have been my older brother Bill who first brought Henry David Thoreau to my serious attention. We had long bull sessions well into the night when, as a heady college student, I visited him in Arizona. I thought I was very smart until he schooled me on what deep, complex thinking is.

Still, it was not until I taught Thoreau that I came to fully (if I have yet) understand and appreciate his writing. He reduces life’s complexity to a simple equation. “Simplify, simplify,” he exhorts us in Walden. That is all.

My students loved his words until I suggested that simplifying meant tossing their cell phones. They protested vehemently, and their protestations invariably launched us into a deeper discussion on the difference between simplicity and convenience. One of the great ironies of modern life is this: The more we make life convenient, the more complex it becomes.

The Washington Post book critic Ron Charles suggests that it might be helpful to look at Walden not as a metaphysical tract but as the writing of a grief-filled man struggling to make sense of the personal loss he has suffered. Charles says that the cabin and pond were places of torture as well as relief.

That insight has given me additional perspective on the Transcendentalists. Their writings now serve also as an elegy for a way of life lost.

Yet there is hope in Emerson’s words. In the introduction to Nature, he wrote,

A subtle chain of countless rings

The next unto the farthest brings;

The eye reads omens where it goes,

And speaks all languages the rose;

And, striving to be man, the worm

Mounts through all the spires of form.

Ah, the rose speaking universally and the worm aspiring to become human. I ache for one last bull session with brother Bill, but it is too late.

But it is not too late for you. Take time to read a few Transcendentalists works before it is. Turn off the angst-filled, violence-ladened human dramas and turn on Planet Earth, Night on Earth, or Nova and treat yourself to a world it’s not likely you have ever visited but is right beside, above, or below you.

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