When Henry David Thoreau left the village of Concord on July 4th – a date he contended was, more or less, coincidental given the inference to our American Revolution – he would later write that he had gone to the woods to “live deliberately” – and thus was the first in a string of paradoxical experiences. Several miles outside of town. Alone. Living in a 10 by 15 cabin he, himself, had built. Home for the next two years. 1845. Walden Pond.
Though his intent was deliberate living, Thoreau wrote:
“It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pondside…the surface of the earth is soft and impressible…and so with the paths which the mind travels.”
An observation from his first week, saved for his concluding chapter. Habit. Routine. The dangers of conformity. It’s like we can’t help ourselves. He’s linked his first and last chapters, book-ending his own story. Brilliant.
Over the two-year period he lived on Walden Pond, Thoreau moved from a militant pragmatism – bringing his civilized ideas to the natural world – to that of a deeper understanding into a larger narrative of why he was there, now that he was there and what he was to make of it – that he himself had not foreseen, nor planned. In each detail of the pond, in each observation of the seaons and wildlife, through the effect of a prolonged experience, Thoreau had begun to apply more universal laws and in an ironic twist, he saw in the natural world consequential applications to his life back in civilization. The natural world had flipped context on him. The natural world had experiences for Thoreau. Experiences he had not planned.
This spring I’ve been thinking about time. The effects of time. And how I try to steal a weekend or a few days to experience Up North. I too am guilty of applying a militant pragmatism when planning my Up North experiences like I would plan a business model or marketing a new venture. It’s like I can’t help myself. As if I have a say in the matter really. As if Up North didn’t already have plans for me. I plan my days, my events and think about the experiences I’m going to have, never considering what experiences Up North will have planned for me.
I’m not referring to Up North as person, diety, religion, or even a slight implication to animism as much I am inferring from the power of the Up North experience itself and its ability to take on a life of its own. And in that, my routines are shattered, my plans change, there’s a rhythm, an ebb and flow if I go with it and listen for it. And when I do, I remember the necessity in my personality for that connectivity to Up North; the effects of a prolonged Up North experience. The blessed detours from my usual routes, from the beaten track I would have laid for myself from the door of my cabin to the foot of the pond.
And here I wish to say not the archaic truth that a stay in a cabin in the woods or the road less traveled has made all the difference, but the humble recognition, that after several days of barefoot living on Lake Michigan, I’m an open book. Receptive to possibilities. To revelation. The lessons come. By day four, even dunegrass is spiritual.
What unplanned detours (literal or metaphorical) have you experienced Up North for which you are grateful?