The Adventures of Henry Thoreau by Michael Sims
I’m reading this new biography of my favorite spiritual neighbor. I like to imagine Thoreau rambling over the ground where I walk-or more likely where I drive-not only around Walden and Concord but farther afield. A wanderer, a naturalist, and-we learn from this book-a homebody. When he was twenty-seven years old Thoreau set the woods around Concord on fire. He and a friend were camping and their cook fire got away from them. It’s hard to believe that there’s not more to the story of the starting of the fire, but we’ll never know. The event was devastating.
For months, as Henry walked through the woods or town, he heard people yell to him about the “burnt woods.” He strode past with his usual rigid stoicism, but inside, beneath his mask, even below his guilt and shame, he felt an inconsolable grief over the loss of the woods. He was informed that some people now referred to him not as a ne’er-do-well or a curiosity–sobriquets he might wear with equanimity and even pride-but as a “damned rascal.” p. 222
Of course Thoreau skipped church to walk in the woods. He skipped the town meeting and everything else for that matter to walk in the woods. That’s ok. We know it all. I must put a different gloss on report from the end of Thoreau’s life. This is the story that is told again and again:
Aunt Louisa asked if he had made his peace with God and he replied cheekily, “I did not know we had ever quarreled, Aunt.” p. 321
I have read that account many times over the years, and every time it sounds to me like the awkward naturalist and spiritualist who looked so closely at things, who saw so much in the trees and in the rivers and in the earth, and in the air, who felt the world he loved ablaze–actually ablaze–never quarreled with God because he felt God, saw God, heard God. That’s what he meant when he said, “I did not know we had ever quarreled, Aunt.” He was not being impertinent or “cheeky” as Sims writes, he was drawing up all his careful journal notes, scientific observation and principled living, the outdoor air he breathed, the water he peered down into, the trees he climbed up into. All this put him outside the traditional and ordinary institutions of Concord but not outside communion with God.