Feb 5, 2011
Any prospect of awakening or coming to life to a dead man makes indifferent all times and places. The place where that may occur is always the same, and indescribably pleasant to all our senses. For the most part we allow only outlying and transient circumstances to make our occasions. They are, in fact, the cause of our distraction. Nearest to all things is that power which fashions their being. Next to us the grandest laws are continually being executed. Next to us is not the workman whom we have hired, with whom we love so well to talk, but the workman whose work we are.
From “Solitude,” Chapter Five, Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
This morning dawned a fuzzy cotton ball white. The hours since have passed as an artist’s study in progressively blurred vision. Now mid-afternoon, the air itself has taken on a gray cast, as if all the lichen-laden bark of the forest has bled into it, just as watercolor gray on a too-wet brush bleeds across a page of bright white paper.
Looking out the window in front of my desk, I have the ridiculous urge to dab at it with a piece of Kleenex as I would at overly watery brushstrokes. Quick! Before everything runs together and the whole design is lost.
As the fog thickens, the limbs of nearby trees are increasingly disembodied. Branches seem to float, detached from their supporters. Tree tops are cut off from their trunks. I wonder: if it were up to me to bring the fast-fading scene back to life, could I draw it true? The twist and bend of every finger-like twig. The improbable angle and reach of each branch. Sapsucker holes and lichen dressing. The lone oak leaf hanging on by a proverbial thread.
Even as I watch them fade from my window-framed view, I struggle to recall the red maple, sugar maple, red oak, shagbark hickory, black locust, and black birch stretched down the ridge toward the old logging road we call Wiley Way. If the ash-colored air erased the trees as the shake of an Etch-A-Sketch obliterates a drawing, would I be able to recreate them as they were just moments before?
And so it begins, again: The Existential Angst of Allegheny Winter. Where else, but perhaps Alaska, would your mind tell you that you might possibly be required to recreate the landscape from memory?
Just another form of distraction? Harmless entertainment? Like, uh, going to the mall or to the movies or out to dinner? Sort of, yes, but different. A distraction is, indeed, a beguilement, an amusement, something that draws the mind away from what’s important. The difference here is that, when the view out every window is versions of opaque ashy-white, the mind takes its diversionary tactics very seriously.
I rummage in the bookshelves and pull out Walden.
I read it all the way through about a year and a half ago—the first time since highschool—and with much greater enjoyment. I remember especially the chapter on Solitude, which seems, in my memory, to speak to something I’m feeling, though I can’t quite get a handle on what that is.
Holding the book and staring out the window into the increasingly thick gray-white gloom, I feel argumentative. I want Henry David right here, right now. You’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do, Mr. Thoreau.
Alas, he’s not available.
Suffice it to say I’m feeling rejected and dejected, alone and betrayed when I turn to Chapter Five. Thoreau insists otherwise. And what he says makes so much damn sense. Quickly I begin to pull a through-line.
The creative force that animates the trees out there—hidden from my sight within the fog—that force animates me. Yes, me. The creative force is everywhere and thus nowhere in particular. It is sense and sense rendered moot, much the way white light is color rendered colorless.
To focus on particular places, views, seasons or sets of sensory inputs as the necessary precondition, or the “occasion,” as Thoreau put it, for “coming to life” is, well, guaranteed to cause us to spend most of our time in a state of purgatory. Not dead, no. But not exactly alive either.
The bitter-sweet air beneath a copse of evergreens, the morning song of towhees, the visual perfection of a late July garden, new snow under a cloudless sky, even the winter-dark outlines of familiar trees through an office window, these smells and sounds and sights are delightful and delicious.
But if Thoreau had Cajun roots, he may well have called these occasions lagniappes of spirit. Charming little gifts from the Creator. Seductive and beguiling. The spiritual equivalent of flower bouquets and four-star meals. They reveal certain things about the relationship, to be sure, but not what’s most important. Not what endures.
Essentially, as Thoreau wrote, such “outlying and transient circumstances” are a distraction. And distractions, Thoreau implies throughout Walden, can become awfully addicting. To the point that we come to believe we can’t live without them, that, in fact, if forced to choose, we’d rather have our distractions from life than life itself. (And this, mind you, in 1845 or thereabout.)
Lagniappes are nice. What’s not to like about a beautiful day? (Or any other diversion.) But, as Thoreau makes so clear, beautiful days mask more than they reveal both about the Creator and about ourselves. Bottom line: if the relationship hinges on special occasions, on sensory treats, perhaps it’s not that much of a relationship.
In Chapter Five of Walden, Thoreau quotes Confucius:
"How vast and profound is the influence of the subtle powers of Heaven and of Earth! We seek to perceive them, and we do not see them; we seek to hear them, and we do not hear them; identified with the substance of things, they cannot be separated from them."
The “subtle powers of Heaven and of Earth,” are, in my interpretation of this passage, the Creator’s Energy, imbued into and thus become an inalienable part of Everything.
I believe this, I do. Especially when it’s easy. When the air is sweet and the sky is clear and faith would seem to demand nothing whatsoever from me. When I kneel in the warm Summer earth of the garden, I am part of Everything and Oneness is not a matter of faith so much as a matter of fact.
During an Allegheny Mountain mid-winter, the situation is quite a bit different. From weather-mandated physical separation, a spiritual alienation easily follows. How quickly I forget to remember we are One. How quickly I fall under the influence of thought-phantoms of separation.
The snow falls, the wind blows, the fog persists. And as each day unfolds, I feel myself more distracted by the absence of the lagniappes upon which I’d grown so dependent. The Creator would seem to have stopped wooing me entirely.
But, of course, such a statement presupposes that all “occasions” of connection with the Creator’s Energy must occur out there, on days when the view through the window is crystal clear. Such a statement assumes that the sight of wind-wizened twigs on the end of a lichen-draped branch imparts more Spirit than the sight of my own work-roughened fingers at the kitchen sink or the keyboard.
After re-reading Walden, I’m quite certain that Thoreau (and perhaps Confucius as well) would tell me I’m mistaken in this.
They’d tell me, instead, that the bones of my hands are the trees, and my skin the forest floor. They'd insist that I am, myself, no less cause for wonderment than any other creation. On any occasion.
The workman does not leave his work, regardless of the weather.