Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Tolerable Planet

"A competition sponsored by the Thoreau Farm Trust of Concord, Mass. is accepting haikus - poems of 17 syllables with five in the first line, seven in the second and five in the third - that reflect the life and legacy of Henry David Thoreau. Because the haiku form often is used to express the poet's ideas about nature and the seasons, contest organizers chose it to be 'an ideal reflection of Thoreau's philosophy of simplicity and life lived close to the land.'"

I've just been mowing my lawn, trying to come up with a haiku poem about Henry David Thoreau. I was using a walk-and-push power mower. Even though the machine has an attachment to mulch the grass and recycle it into the ground, I suspect that the Nature Philosopher from Concord Massachusetts would not have totally approved - unless he knew the whole story.

I have for a long time been a fan of Thoreau's writings, although as a Philosophy major in college, other than his essay on Civil Disobedience, I did not study him. Several years later, after fatherhood, and shortly before home ownership and the subsequent shift to avocational gardening and writing, I read quite a bit of him. And apparently spoke or wrote of him enough to inspire Thoreauian gifts to me. You would think that a measly seventeen syllables on my part should be easily doable.

One summer in the mid 1980's, when our son Bram was attending a weeklong fencing camp in Concord I made the pilgrimage to Walden Pond on the day I was to pick him up for his return home. I brought my bicycle. After parking my car at the home of the family with whom he stayed, I biked through the suburban streets of town to the sacred site of Henry David's two year and two month experiment in self-reliance and simple living.

At the time the location was, to put it kindly, pretty underwhelming - a small body of water surrounded by sparse woods and an un-maintained and root-ridden hiking trail over which I walked my bicycle because there was no storage place for it on the grounds. (My understanding is that considerable work, including a replica house and improved pathways, has been done has been done since.)

At a nearby information center I bought a postcard with a woodcut portrait of Thoreau and the quotation "If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." I hung it on my work office wall right in front of my desk at eye level. I reread the thought periodically but I cannot honestly say that it inspired me to do any particular thing.

I was more impressed by his thoughts on nature - not as much his aphorisms on the importance of the environment but his descriptions of how he felt being in it - e.g. hoeing beans in his Walden garden. His message seemed to be that nature was not a magical separate entity to be viewed with awe and wonder, but instead needed to be interacted with by man in a sustaining and nurturing way in order for both it and man to have their full significance.

I was at the same time just acquainting myself with the natural world in the yard of our first and so far only house - my first horticultural experience ever. Then, one month after moving in, our entire landscape went from a collection of non-existent or short-and-orderly bystanders to a run-amok mob of thigh-high grass and rapidly growing unfamiliar flora. And my neophyte hopes of a transcendent and spiritual relationship with Mother Nature changed to the terrifying fears of a sinner in the hands of an angry goddess.

But partially because of Henry David's words I was gradually able to settle on a combination of methods, techniques and tools - like hand-tilling the gardens, creating my own compost, organically treating the yard, hand-trimming the bushes and hedges, and the aforementioned mulching mower - that allowed me to gain control of and then re-shape our tiny topography into a place where Mars, I, and (hopefully) the flora and fauna of our outside world feel at home. It is still a work in progress, and always will be to a certain degree - that is after all the fun of it.

"What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?"

A Tolerable Planet

Bare hands gently place
Compost 'round roots from a friend
Three lives are enriched.

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