Thursday, June 4, 2009

One World At a Time

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give true account of it in my next excursion. (Walden)

If I were to imagine a patron saint or presiding spirit of this blog, it would be Henry David Thoreau. Fully embracing life, he did not fear death. As Robert D. Richardson, Jr. has noted in Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Thoreau had been unable to cope emotionally with the sudden death of his brother John in 1842. Days later, Emerson's five-year-old son Waldo died, further plunging Thoreau into a sea of unexpressed grief. But when Thoreau himself knew that he had only months to live, he fully accepted his own approaching death. The autumn leaves "teach us how to die," he wrote.

Richardson writes: "Away from home, the Civil War deepened. A new general named Grant was emerging in the Western Campaign. On April 6 and 7 one of the bloodiest battles of the war was fought at Pittsburgh landing near Shiloh church. On May 1 New Orleans fell to the Union...Thoreau's last days were spent at home, in peace, surrounded by family and friends. His bed was brought downstairs. No longer able to write, he dictated to [his sister] Sophia. By early April his voice had been only a faint whisper for many weeks. But his mind, wit, and spirits held."

Days before his death, Thoreau's Aunt Louisa came by the house. When Louisa asked him if he had made his peace with God, he replied: " I did not know that we had ever quarrelled, Aunt." His friend, the former minister and abolitionist Parker Pillsbury, visited and inquired about what near-death visions Thoreau might be having. "You seem so near the brink of the dark river, that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you." Suggestive of how wide-awake he had lived, Thoreau responded "One world at a time."

Richardson concludes: "Henry Thoreau died at nine in the morning on May 6, 1862. Outdoors, where he could no longer see them, the earliest apple trees began to leaf and show green, just as they do every year on this day."

He was forty-four years old.

(Photo from Google Image)

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