I’ve been rereading “Walden,” slowly and deliberately, unlike my encounter with it in school, when I pretty much skimmed it for famous aphorisms, like “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Sounded about right then. Much of my high school career was awash in quiet desperation, mostly of a romantic nature.

I’ve also been reading parts of the book on my Kindle, a device I’m sure Henry David Thoreau would have hated, Luddite that he was. Thoreau was highly suspect of – and raged against – much of the world-changing technology of his time, especially the railroad, which he loathed. At least my e-reader isn’t noisy, Thoreau’s pet peeve against the iron horse.

You could argue that Thoreau was the Unabomber of his day, but his weapons were not packages of chemical fire, but words. Powerful, explosive words. Thoreau blew up the industrializing world with his insights, his rants, his memorable turns of phrase.

He wrote about Maine, too. His other famous book is “The Maine Woods.” One publisher describes it as “his impassioned protest against despoilment (of nature) in the name of commerce and sport, which even by the 1850s threatened to deprive Americans of the ‘tonic of wilderness.’ ”

“Tonic.” A word little used these days without benefit of gin. Thoreau’s contention was that the wilderness experience was essential to the cultivation of our better natures, our very souls. The Maine woods and mountains were a wake-up call from the soporific enticements of material things “more easily acquired than gotten rid of,” soul-crushing physical labor and a new-found obsession with speed and efficiency. A tonic, like a bracing slap to the face. A wake-up call.

We lead such complicated lives today. Thoreau’s wise advice was to “simplify, simplify.”

Now that I’m retired and have more time to fish, hike and generally goof off, it’s easier to feel communion with the man and his words. If memory serves me, when I read him in high school I thought he was a famous nut, a malcontent and misanthrope, although I didn’t know those words then. Today, I keep his pond tome beside my bed and dip into his cantankerous and critical mind with regularity, reading and digesting only a few dense sentences at a time, before drifting off to sleep. Better than sleeping pills.

In Robert Pirsig’s modern classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” the narrator and his young son – who is showing early signs of mental illness – embark on a long motorcycle trip with only three books: the bike’s manual, a general guide to maintenance and a copy of Thoreau’s “Walden.” He reads it to his son much like I read it now, in small bites. And then they talk about it. Alone, I let the words and ideas roll around in my head, seeking insight and inspiration.

Thoreau was no slouch reader himself; he took the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita with him to Walden Pond. Just like the guy to one-up me.


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