Acorns in July

wild fruits cover“Oak corn, that is ac-corn, or acorn,”  (from Thoreau’s Wild Fruits)

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.

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July 27: The Most Perfect Art

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.

Posted in Impermanence, Journal, Language, Morning, Reading, Thoreau, Thoreau's writing, Time, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Little Quiz on Wisdom

Who said which?  Match the answers below with these five quotations:

  1. Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
  2. The beginning of wisdom is awe of the One.
  3. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.
  4. Who is wise?  The one who learns from every person.
  5. 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

Posted in Adult Education, Bible, Hebrew, Judaism, Kabbalah, Language, Morning, Thoreau, Transcendentalism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“Make to You a Teacher”

2'Asei l'kha ravThe title of this post seems to contain a typo, or bad English.  I know.  I’m just doing a literal Hebrew-to-English translation here to get your editorial or linguistic attention.  Do yourself a favor and start learning.  (See item ‘l’ in list below.)  Or, as Thoreau put it in Walden (1854):

“It is worth the expense of youthful days and costly hours, if you learn only some words of an ancient language.”

‘Asei l’kha rav, it says in the writings of the Sages, “Make to you a teacher.”   There are many, more fluent ways to translate this three-word byte of ancient Jewish wisdom (Pirkei Avot 1:6, ca. 200 CE).  These three Hebrew words comprise the first part of a short verse, the whole of which is similarly compressed (and some would say cryptic).  The rest of the verse — saved for later, just FYI here — includes something about a friend, and something about judgment.  But we’ll get to that in detail another time; for now I want to demonstrate the possibilities contained in the first three words.

Here’s my brief analysis of the three words individually:

1. The first word is the imperative, or command, voice of the Hebrew verb “to do” or “to make.”  So it could mean Do! or Make!

2. The second word is the preposition “to” or “for” with a suffix indicating “you,” in the default gender (masculine) and default number (singular).  So it could mean “to you” or “for you.”  The connotations implied in variations such as “for yourself,” “of your own,” or even “yourself into” are also legitimate.

3. The third word means “teacher.”  (And is the root of the word “rabbi,” which also means teacher.)

Just three words, with a few possible translations of each, and now you’re ready to write a Ph.D. thesis!  You can calculate how many literal meanings might be derived.  Here’s a short list of translations I came up with, some less literal than others, some including the friend aspect.  Which interpretations(s) do you like?  What would you add to the list?

a) Find a teacher and gain a friend for life.
b) Create a teacher for yourself.
c) Make one of your friends into a teacher.
d) Make one of your teachers into a friend.
e) Make yourself into a teacher.
f) Create a relationship between yourself and a teacher.
g) Choose a teacher and commit to living your life according to his/her teachings.
h) Find someone to go to with hard questions.
i) Groom someone you know for becoming your future teacher.
j) Everyone should create a teacher at least once in their lives.
k) Be proactive in your own education.
l) Do yourself a favor and start learning.
m) Choose friends who are teachers.
n) Study with friends.

Or maybe, even — and this, admittedly, is a stretch, but I still like it —
(o) Learn from your students.

Posted in Adult Education, Hebrew, Judaism, Language, Reading, Thoreau, Why Not Hebrew? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Faith in a Seed

Cover of "Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion...I recently finished reading Faith in a Seed, which collects some of Henry Thoreau‘s late nature writing that was published for the first time in 1993.  The book is composed largely of one of his lesser-known essays, “The Dispersion of Seeds,” written in 1860, two years before he died of tuberculosis.

At first I was bored by all the detailed recordings of the size and shape and color and texture and quantity and Latin name and life cycle and history of every little seed pod and pine cone he came across.  But I was determined to read the whole book, cover to cover, editor’s notes included, even when it felt like a triumph just to turn a single page.

Eventually, however, I began to succumb to the text’s charm.  At many points, “The Dispersion of Seeds” moves with typical Thoreauvian grace between scientific notation and poetry, simple observation and metaphor.  His prose is occasionally so lyrical that I had to wipe my tears off the page before continuing to read.  For example,

Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no plant has been, I have great faith in a seed.  Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

By the end I was hooked, like a seed of Bidens, “whose seeds, or fruit, are provided with small barbed spears, or hooks, or other contrivances by which they attach themselves to any passing body that touches them, and so get transported by it… [they] will often adhere to your clothes in surprising numbers. It is as if you had unconsciously made your way through the ranks of some countless but invisible Lilliputian army, which in their anger had discharged all their arrows and darts at you, though none of them reached higher than your legs.”

Thoreau agreed with Charles Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species came out in 1859.  In “The Dispersion of Seeds,” Thoreau explains how the trees and plants in his native environment (Concord, Massachusetts) “plant themselves” — via birds and squirrels; wind, rain, snow, ice, and fire; and even via human beings, who spit out cherry stones and who find those prickly Bidens seeds adhering to their pants after traipsing through field and dale.  Thoreau’s essay can be read as a response to those mid-19th-century scientists who still believed in “spontaneous regeneration.”

First, you're gonna dig a hole.One can only wonder what Thoreau would have thought of the 2nd-century Talmudic text called Zera’im, whose title means “seeds” in Hebrew.

Posted in Botany, Hebrew, Illness, Judaism, Language, Latin, Nature, Reading, The New Yorker, Thoreau, weather | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Muse & the Marketplace 2013

I signed up for a writers conference called “The Muse and the Marketplace,” which takes place this weekend in Boston.  I’ve never been before.   I wonder what it will be like to be surrounded by hundreds of writers?  I’m curious and excited.

Thoreau had plenty of advice for would-be writers; one of my favorite quotes is from his journal of 1841:  “It is vain to try to write unless you feel strong in the knees.”

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If you’re going to talk dirt, do it right – from Haaretz

Earth Day gives us an opportunity to explore Hebrew terms for earth, land and soil. Read the full article in Haaretz: On Root / If you’re going to talk dirt, do it right “Thus Hebrew distinguishes between the nuances of … Continue reading

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