I’ve been reading Thoreau’s Walden in the Yale edition (2006) with an introduction, notes, and a beautifully-designed cover. It’s a satisfying chunk of a book, fitting easily to the hand, and a good price at less than ten dollars. I went back to Thoreau because I’m also reading Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own, the story of how he built himself a writing hut in the woods behind his home. Pollan, a journalist for the New York Times and the author of In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Food Rules, wrote two of his books there and probably would have written more had he and his family not moved from Connecticut to California in the years after it was built.
Pollan cites Thoreau’s opening sentence to ‘Where I Lived, and What I Lived For’ as he describes the reasons that compelled him to plan and to build: “At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house.” Elsewhere, Pollan notes that Walden can be read as Thoreau’s exploration of foundations for life, what it takes to build a character deep and strong. Digging down below the frostline, weary with the labor, and allowing himself the fantasy of slacking off, Pollan is brought up short by his co-worker, a sometimes laconic, sometimes obstreperous day worker, who quickly reminds him that houses fall out of ‘true’ when subjected to the upheavals of frozen ground straining at a foundation. Later, quietly exultant as he stands on the footings he himself poured for his place, Pollan muses about the nature of foundations, the need to plant ourselves on solid ground, and the architectural metaphors we freely borrow for the blueprints of our lives.
Michael Pollan built his writing house because he wanted to grapple with material, feel the roughness of the wood and stone in his hand, and turn ideas into something with weight and heft. He’s a master at the reflective moment, like Thoreau, hewing the blank stone of experience into a textured wall of meaning. Thoreau’s sturdy independence is not exactly Pollan’s way; he is under no illusions about his ability to put up a house in the woods all by himself. But he reaches back to Walden as a touchstone, it seems, to capture Thoreau’s sense of being in a site and to fit the words to the experience.
Thoreau’s prose in Walden is spare, as lean as the man himself. At times, when he is describing the color of the water in the pond or the thick pleasure of feeling one’s way through a forest in a night without stars, his sentences become poetic, though always with a lightly bemused air. This is a man for whom words are gems in the rough to be cut to refract light in a hundred directions. He renders experience, shapeless and dark, into bright moments you can hold in your hand.
It’s that ability to dig deep into remembered experiences and form them into something that can be experienced by others which makes Thoreau such an exemplary teacher. In a letter written to a friend in 1857 he suggests a theme for an essay recounting a hike up Mt. Washington. State to yourself, he urges, exactly what that experience meant to you and why. Keep coming back and back to it until you are sure you’ve gotten to the real heart of the experience. “Not that the story need be long,” he advises, “but it will take a long while to make it short.” Climbing a mountain and getting blown all over the summit isn’t unique: it happens to many people. “It is after we get home that we really go over the mountain, if ever. What did the mountain say? What did the mountain do?” In other words, until we interpret our actions they are simply occurrences. Reflecting on them shapes them into experiences filled with meaning.
There are days in which we enter the classroom brimming with intention and plans and it all seems to fall to the floor as lifeless as last year’s leaves. And there are days in which the air in the room seems charged and there’s a grandeur shining through each face before us. Those are the times in which Thoreau’s—and Pollan’s—incandescent ability to see the foundations rising to life from the ideas on the page become an inspiration. To state it plainly: reflection on our practice gives meaning to our actions. It is the foundation upon which we may build to ‘true.’