• Paul A Maher Jr

I Am Nothing: Thoughts on Thoreau

Thoreau Naturalist
Henry David Thoreau

I find much of Thoreau’s writings a statement of decay: physical and spiritual.

Even with a dead horse, Thoreau finds solace though he must cover his nose with a handkerchief. Let the vultures dig in and have their feast, we should be cheered at such avarice sport.”Life—all life—is good, vultures as well as bluebirds, worms as well as butterflies, funky, phallus-shaped toadstools as well as primroses,” says Philip Cafaro in his book, Thoreau’s Living Ethics: Walden and the Pursuit of Virtue.

Thoreau does not stand apart from even the most repulsive or reviled of the natural world. Each serves its singular purpose in the great chain of being. There is more of a quibble with the shallow servitude of humanity, chained to an ever turning slave wheel, mindless of its daily expenditure to profit and be profited from.

I am nothing,” he is credited to respond to Harrison G.O. Blake who had asked if he would be desirous of company should he build a cabin to remove himself from society.

He is nothing, because he was content to simply BE.

Thus, the maidenhead has been pierced. The true person of religion seeks not divinity in the very pool he stands in, but aspires to reach a higher source. A tapped spring splits the stone at last and forms a polished freshet feeding many rivers.

Thoreau sees Pan in morning woods ghosted by bars of vapor, illuminated by the salmon crescent of the glowing east. He hears it in the piping call of a solitary robin hopping through a melting bed of snow.

Did not Hawthorne write in his notebook that his dinner guest was a “singular character” of “wild original nature“?

My understanding of Thoreau is fed from two sayings, for Thoreau, if anything, is rich in aphorisms: “I am nothing” and “I feel ripe for something, yet do nothing, can’t discover what that thing is.” There springs a conflict; in being nothing, one can be content in just being. Yet, there is the enormous tug of wanting, nay, needing to do something, but unable to know what that needing is, and so it bears a psychic weight upon you at every hour of the day or night.

And so Thoreau satisfied himself with mysteries. He is a person that reminds me of Beethoven: shaggy-haired, dark-demeanored sauntering through the countryside no matter the elements: rain, snow, or sunshine, each retained its own fairy-spirit bringing a new shine to a different day, every day.

There was on December 31, 1851 an old Irishwoman he observed knitting at her shanty in the woods, bareheaded on the hillside as the rain fell upon her and the ground thawed beneath her feet. Later that night, after listening to a lecture on womanhood given by a woman, he kept the lecture in his pocket wrapped in a handkerchief where it soaked his pocket in cologne. He walked through the fog as the sky drizzled its last lazy remnants of the day’s rain, observing from the Cliffs the dark pine cones of a tree rising higher than the tree top. Beneath it all hid a farmhouse. Remnants of humanity shift in their stolen beds, all of them denizens of a broken planet struggling for subsistence and dignity.

Once he found human remains that he suspected to be from an indigenous native of Concord. It was just one bone. On a separate occasion, at age 33, Thoreau discovered a lichen-covered bone in the woods which he thought could have been the remains of an “old settler.” It was gnawed by animals: “so indefatigable is Nature to strip the flesh from bones and return it to dust again.”

Nature is merciless.”It survives like the memory of a man. With time all that was personal and offensive wears off.”

Thoreau is a writer of decay, that of the mortification of the physical self that cannot take with it the trembling soul within:” Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.” Is not the sweetest meat that which lies closer to the bone?

Death comes in the form of a frozen unhatched snapping turtle’s egg. When he mistakenly breaks it, a perfectly formed inhabitant falls out into his hand. The oaks had shed their leaves and hawks dally in the air to migrate to warmer climes.

These days I feel the death of me inside, waiting to break loose from its shell, it too formed yet spectral, to unfurl its pennant and whip and snap in the loose eddies of America’s black restless winds.

Thoreau’s own death meditations arise out of a constant exposure to the final resolution: his brother and sister both at early ages, Emerson’s son Waldo among numerous others. Life is the answer to death it seems:

How may a man most cleanly and gracefully depart out of nature? At present his birth and death are offensive and unclean things. Disease kills him, and his carcass smells to heaven…. His carcass invites sun and moisture, and makes haste to burst forth into new and disgusting forms of life with which it already teemed.

It is a discomfort with not only the external body but with the externals of life itself. That the essence is bottled in a grossly-fashioned corpus and must be worked out, like fingers squeezing toothpaste onto the living brush and make all whole and new again.

Thoreau’s answer is to die like a tree, to just “wither and dry up” yet standing “clean without shame or offense amidst their green brethren.” Or can it be like a mollusk that “casts his shell with… little offense? ”

Are we not each objects of charity yearning for our own house in life, and our own patch of earth at death? We are the product of our own strivings, living in outrage at the plenitude of others, always wanting more should we be discerned to have less.

What is one more footprint in the sand, when the sand will ultimately be carved anew and abidingly, to its own form, from wind and sea?

This morning, I woke and put myself into a bad mood. I put myself there because I created the expectation that this day like others here in the south would be a miserable prolonged chain of fruitless hours.

I created this illusion, and therefore having spawned it, I was fully invested in having to believe it. Where I stand in this weak fawning world does not bring me any closer to the source of a clearer spring.

Nature,” Thoreau writes in his journal,” seems to have given me these hours to pry into her private drawers. I watch the shadow of the insensible perspiration rising from my coat or hand on the wall. I go and feel my pulse in all the recesses of the house and see if I am of force to carry a homely life and comfort into them.

These are ghostly thoughts, and the passage of this day shall be a day no more by the closing of the midnight hour.

Here, at this moment, wrestling with these thoughts initially set aflame by a book, a will to understand brings me to closer an unanswered question.

Can I not sit by a river and make it my living to watch it pass? It no more passes me by as those who are wont to say that wasting my hours is allowing my life to pass me by. Both are interminable rivers, one physical, the other a fruitless illusion of passage.

A turtle “makes its living” by sunning on a stone. A flower makes it its living to follow the sun’s trajectory, each is a servant to a desirous will to grow and nurture. There’s nothing to “get” because the getting has been got.

On the verge of discovery, I believe too that I am Nothing.

Being nothing is having nothing with nothing more to give.

Therein, I believe, is its truest bliss.


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