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Sunset at Walden Pond is different every time. Tonight, from my kayak, it looked like a big flame diving down behind the trees.
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Autumn morning in Heywood’s Meadow, near Walden Pond. Continue reading
It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and I’m sitting out on my lawn, inside a flimsy, rectangular structure I assembled last week with the help of some friends. At 6 by 10 feet, my hut is significantly smaller than the house that Thoreau built. My structure’s frame is made of one-inch PVC piping. For walls, I used plastic shower curtains. These “walls” hang from the white plastic pipes by, yes, shower-curtain rings.
One shower curtain is printed with a bright-green, close-up photograph of grass. This curtain is my favorite; I love its whimsical look, and it reminds me of my first apartment, which had wall-to-wall green carpeting and a bathroom of cracked, pale-green tiles. Another shower-curtain wall is more of an olive green, with a texture that seems to repel duct tape no matter how I try. Sections of clear or translucent shower-curtain liners make up the rest of the walls. There’s a doorway but no door.
Ah, now there’s a little breeze, thank Gd. Just as Thoreau enjoyed having wind blow through his cabin, I appreciate it on a sunny day in late September. However, Thoreau’s main goal was to remain close to nature, resisting plastering his chimney even until deepest frigid November, whereas in my case I’m just boiling hot in here, inside my little plastic house; a bit more air flow would definitely be a good thing.
But I’m not complaining. Rather, I’m celebrating Sukkot, known in English as the “Feast of Tabernacles” or “Festival of Booths.” Sukkot is a week-long autumnal Jewish holiday, which is based on a few verses in Leviticus1, instructing us to “dwell in sukkot” from the 15th to the 22nd of the month of Tishrei. My shelter, my little booth, is called a sukkah (the singular of sukkot), and it is my home for the duration of the holiday. “Dwelling” in the sukkah means taking all my meals here, inviting guests, as well as doing all my teaching, reading, and writing in the sukkah, which has Wifi. The commandment “You shall dwell in sukkot,” means, in other words, one must conduct all one’s activities of the day there. Many people even sleep in their sukkot.
I’ve decorated my sukkah with pictures duct-taped to the walls, paper chains and drawings by my friends’ children, and produce from local harvests (pumpkins, tomatoes, mums). There’s space for a small table and a few folding chairs, plus a box of “sukkah supplies,” containing extra plates, cups, napkins, candles, prayer books, and other trappings for a week of celebration. My sukkah is quite festive, especially at night, when it’s illuminated by electric sukkah lights (known as “Christmas lights” to some), which twinkle and shine all around the top perimeter of my hut and the edges of its doorway.
Most importantly, the roof of my sukkah is made of skhakh, which can be any all-natural material, such as branches, palm fronds, reeds, or bamboo. Looking up through the skhakh it should be possible to see the moon and stars, or clouds, or blazing sun, or rain, or snow. Whatever the weather, it comes down through the roof of a proper sukkah. Thoreau would have liked it; he might even have recognized his ideal, hypaethral (open to the sky) house, with roof open to the heavens as he wished our minds could be open to “Higher Laws.”
Thoreau would also have appreciated the themes of Sukkot. Spending time in the sukkah is meant to teach us about the temporal nature and ephemerality of the material world. A properly built sukkah is flimsy, frail, and impermanent, just like our lives. Duct tape doesn’t hold forever. A Nor’easter easily takes down my sukkah. We are dust, after all, and our days are as the grass2.
Recognizing this fact leads often to tears; but after tears comes joy — and this is the main message of Sukkot. As it is written in Ecclesiastes, which we study on Sukkot, “Everything has its own season and its moment in time… a moment to be born, and a moment to die… a moment for lament, and a moment for dancing.” Recognizing the appropriate season for each thing is our challenge; when we rise to this challenge, we’re rewarded with a life lived in the present moment.
“We should be blessed if we lived in the present always,” writes Thoreau in Walden3, “and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it.” This is the Thoreau that always leads me back to Ecclesiastes and Sukkot. Taking “advantage of every accident” is like accepting all things in their seasons, whether lament or dancing. If we were as blessed as grass, we would “confess” to sadness, “confess” to joy. If we lived in the present, we might be “influenced” by dew.
Living moment-to-moment does not come easily to most people. This is why we have to go dwell in a sukkah for a week every year, to be reminded that all we have is time, not stuff, and time is only a series of present moments. Therefore, according to both Walden and Ecclesiastes, we might as well be happy. In fact, another Biblical name for the Sukkot holiday is “Season of Our Joy.” And in case that’s still not enough, we are Biblically commanded to be “only joyful” for the duration of Sukkot — to be as blessed and present as Thoreau’s dewy grass.
Two weeks before Sukkot, there was Rosh haShanah, followed ten days later by Yom Kippur. Although the upshot of both these holidays is happy — beginning a new year with a fresh slate, enjoying a renewed lease on life — their observance involves plenty of reflection on the past, which is revealed in their very names: Rosh haShanah (literally “the head of the year”) is also called “the Day of Remembrance,” and Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement.”
These are holidays that, I’m sure, Thoreau would not have liked as much as Sukkot. Having presented his appealing vision — of living life like a blade of grass, noticing every tiny drop of dew — he immediately switches gears, to criticize people’s focus on the past. We waste too much precious time, he says, “in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities.” If only we had paid attention, I think he means, we could have used our time well. “There’s nothing new under the sun” (Eccl.); the dew has always bent the grass. Thoreau takes his criticism one step further, to denigrate a typical rationale for living outside the present: We excuse ourselves for living in the past, he says, when we call it “our duty” to atone that way.
Now that he’s got me, I realize that, in fact, I have noticed the dew during these holiday weeks, albeit obliquely. When I first headed out to the yard with a bag of PVC pipes, following tradition to start building my sukkah on the morning after Yom Kippur, the lawn was wet and slippery with dew, which dampened my shoes, threatened the stability of my ladder, and reawakened an old knee injury. When I came out to the sukkah this morning to set up for a holiday breakfast, I wiped away dew clinging to metal folding chairs left outside overnight. It’s been dew, dew, dew, yet I’ve hardly given its “influence” a thought. Eureka! Maybe tomorrow I’ll go out early with my camera and take a close-up photograph of a drop of dew on a blade of grass. I’ll catch the Golden Hour after sunrise, it will be great. Tomorrow, tomorrow.
1. Leviticus 39:42-43
2. Psalm 103:14-15
3. “We should be blessed as if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it.; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty.” (Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, 1854)
Note: This post was originally written on April 13, 2012.
Military-formation jets screamed overhead today. The flyover was part of the ceremonies for Boston Red Sox Opening Day. But that sound will always remind me of September 11, 2001.
Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing on 9/11. I was teaching Biblical Hebrew in Arlington, MA, that morning, and my reaction to the news was automatic: I jumped into my car, zoomed out Route 2 to Walden Pond, ran down to the beach, and swam out to the very middle.
Going for a swim might seem like an odd reaction to news of terrorist attacks. But for me it was perfectly logical. Walden Pond is not just my swimming hole, it’s my great escape. It faithfully absorbs all my problems, comforts my soul, and leads me down the shortest path back to awareness of the present moment. No wonder Walden Pond is my FPOE (Favorite Place on Earth).
Henry Thoreau loved Walden’s water, too. In Walden he wrote, “For hours, in fall days, I watched the ducks cunningly tack and veer and hold the middle of the pond, far from the sportsman; tricks which they will have less need to practise in Louisiana bayous. When compelled to rise they would sometimes circle round and round and over the pond at a considerable height, from which they could easily see to other ponds and the river, like black motes in the sky; and, when I thought they had gone off thither long since, they would settle down by a slanting flight of a quarter mile on to a distant part which was left free; but what beside safety they got by sailing in the middle of Walden I do not know, unless they love its water for the same reason that I do.”
So there I stayed, in the deepest part of the Pond, variously treading water and floating on my back for a couple of hours. Fearfully I watched the perfect blue sky, punctuated not by a single cloud that day but rather by military planes periodically taking off from nearby Hanscom Air Force Base. I knew by then that the suicide bombers had destroyed both towers in New York, attacked the Pentagon, and crashed a plane somewhere in Pennsylvania. NPR reported that the terrorists had made their way to New York via Boston’s Logan Airport. They had been right here in Boston! And I knew, as I watched each plane fly over the Pond, that all commercial and private flights in the United States had been grounded until further notice. Those were not civilian pilots up there.
Out in the middle of Walden Pond I felt a tiny bit less scared and vulnerable. I could not think of a single place in all the world where I might feel safer. I was grateful not to be in New York, or Washington DC, or even in the city of Boston proper. Those were politically significant cities. Concord was not. I recall reasoning – with the logic of fear – that any terrorist planning to attack America in another big way would be very unlikely to attack Concord, MA. Even Minneapolis, MN, where I attended high school, seemed more “important” and therefore more dangerous than Concord. Who would ever want to attack Concord? Nobody! And if some terrorist/Nazi/rapist/ax-murderer did want to come after me for some nightmarish reason, he would first have to swim out to the middle of Walden in order to find me. Because I didn’t plan on leaving any time soon.
So, I felt safe from individual bad guys. But what about planes and bombs? The terrorists could get to me that way without dipping even a toe into the hallowed waters. Right, I’d forgotten: They could simply fly over Walden and drop a bomb on it! Without knowing anything about what happens when a giant bomb is dropped onto a 102-feet-deep kettle pond of only 61 acres, I realized that the attackers could very well kill me that way. Yikes. Well, dying in the bombing of Walden Pond seemed not a bad way to go.
But then again, I asked myself, why would anyone ever drop a bomb on Walden Pond? What end could they possibly achieve that way? I certainly couldn’t think of any. Bottom line: The terrorists wouldn’t bomb the Pond. Ergo, the middle of Walden Pond was the safest place to be, and I was never leaving.
The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it.
(H. D. Thoreau, Walden)
It’s early morning, just after sunrise. Crickets throb the moist air, not in unison, but still a single, if hoarse and squeaking, voice.
Here’s a sprinkling of rain. So light, it almost sounds more like wind rattling the dry, late-summer leaves. But the leaves aren’t waving in a breeze, they’re bowing their heads. Gradually the drizzle grows louder, until it drowns out the crickets.
Then the rain lightens up again, and the song birds chirp in. Morning comes no matter what, they seem to sing. The crickets throb louder than before, but now their chorus is joined by those daytime insects that screech through the hottest humid days, as if the forest were a badly tuned violin, playing to an absent, grumpy audience.
The crows — or are they blackbirds? — start their caw-cawing. They are loudest of all, till they’re overpowered by a distant, increasing hum …. of rush-hour traffic. You aren’t way out in the wilderness after all, you’re in a leafy suburb of Boston. In case you still have any doubt, a plane roars briefly overhead.
But there is just one plane, and the traffic noise is gone, too, at least for the moment. Never mind about the city; the eye sees only jungle green. It’s wild enough.
The rain intensifies, tapping impatiently on the leaves, brushing off dust. The crickets resume. Has night returned already?
No. If you pay attention you can hear them all: crickets, song birds, traffic, rain, crows, summer bugs. While listening, you smell the rusty, summer-rain breeze wafting through the window screen.
Now you hear a new sound: the commuter rail, speeding in from Fitchburg toward Boston. Normally it just zooms by, on its way past Walden Pond in Concord, heading toward Waltham and Cambridge, setting off a few bells where it crosses roads. Normally the train isn’t allowed to sound its horn when it passes through Lincoln.
But this morning is part of track-repair season. This morning the train does sound the horn in Lincoln. This morning the train horn blows its horn loudly.
The horn is like a trumpet, blaring long and short brassy notes. It sounds like reveille, like the blaring of a military bugle. Wake up! Pay attention! Alert, alert! Like the crowing of the rooster Chanticleer, waking up his neighbors. It’s time to wake up.
Like the blast of a ram’s horn, a shofar, the wake-up call announces T’kiyah! Sh’varim! Sh’varim! T’ruah! Wake up not just your body but your soul. Awaken! This morning is part of soul-repair season. In ten days the whole world will go to sleep and then awaken to a new morning and a new year. The poem of creation begins again. Are you ready? Wake up, wake up!
July 31. It’s 7 AM and acorns are pelting my car, which is parked in the driveway near the open window where I sit writing. A sunny summer day has dawned, with temperatures forecast in the eighties. But, with every rustle of leaves followed by a loud pong, I sense a cold winter coming. The acorns hitting the hull of my green kayak — lashed face down on top of my car’s roof rack, its summer home — create a reverberating sound like the beating of a drum. Some of the falling nuts miss the kayak and crash down directly onto the car’s metal roof and hood. Ouch, I wince — future body work will be expensive.
The old oak tree spreads grandly over the driveway. Usually it is not raining acorns. Right now the tree looks innocent and shady, full of green leaves, sparkling near the top with morning sunshine. It’s not even August yet.
In Thoreau’s nature study On the Dispersion of Seeds (1860), he writes at length about all the work done by squirrels to propagate oak trees in forests once dominated by pines, and how we should appreciate — not complain about — them. “We should be more civilized as well as humane,” he says, “if we recognized once in a year by some symbolical ceremony the part which the squirrel plays in the economy of Nature.”
Take care, little squirrels. I hereby recognize you. Gather your nuts. Fatten yourselves for long nights and mounds of snow. Just please stop dropping acorns onto my car.
Henry David Thoreau penned the following lines in his journal on July 27, 1840. I just happened to read them last night, while perusing his journal entries for July 27 before going to bed on July 26:
“Language is the most perfect art in the world.
The chisel of a thousand years retouches it.”
I like the concept of the written word lasting perfectly and forever. The immortality of great thoughts expressed. Language as something carved out of time. Our lives may be brief, but perfect art lives for thousands of years.
This was his last entry for five months; there’s no more published Thoreau journal until January 23, 1841. I’m sure much has been written about this Gap — perhaps it resulted from one of his extended illnesses? — but at the moment the Gap just struck me as spooky bedtime reading, so I closed the hardcover tome and retired for the night.
This morning I sat down to go over my notes on Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which I recently began reading. At the end of the “Saturday” chapter, I had underlined: “Language is the most perfect art in the world. The chisel of a thousand years retouches it.”
Here were Thoreau’s exact same words, published in A Week in 1849, nine years after he first wrote them! Now it’s July 27 again (2013). I don’t think the chisel of time has yet found any reason for retouching.
Who said which? Match the answers below with these five quotations:
- Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
- The beginning of wisdom is awe of the One.
- I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.
- Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.
- It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.
a) Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden
b) Shalom Shabat, my grandfather, of blessed memory
c) the Book of Psalms
d) the Talmud
e) one of the above (which one?), quoted a second time in this quiz