Consider the lilies of the pond and Spaulding’s Farm — Thoreau and “The art of spending a day!” — A religious naturalist practice

An inviting seat in the "noble hall" in Wandlebury Woods
Those of you who follow my blog will know that a good proportion of my posts refer to walks or cycle rides in the countryside, alone or with Susanna. It is not an exaggeration to say that, in terms of my religious life as your minister, they are the two most important days of my life. And, in the same way a Christian minister feels deeply compelled to encourage you in this or that kind of Christian practice I, as a religious naturalist, also feel compelled to encourage in you a religious naturalist practice offered by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), the mid-nineteenth century American Transcendentalist writer. (Notice I say "encourage" — what I write here is not a demand!)

I feel this compulsion particularly strongly for two reasons. One, is that for various reasons at the moment I’m acutely aware of my own need for this practice and this in turn helps me see just how much I value it. The second is that a friend of mine is just readying for publication a book on Thoreau and this has sent me back to Thoreau’s works in a particularly concentrated and joyful way.

So what is this practice of Thoreau's. Well, I know of no better way to introduce it than through a very important entry found in his journal of 1851, dated September 7th:

“The art of spending a day! If it is possible that we may be addressed, it behooves us to be attentive, If by watching all day and night, I may detect some trace of the Ineffable, then will it not be worth the while to watch? Watch and pray without ceasing? . . .
. . . If by patience, if by watching I can secure one new ray of light, can feel myself elevated for an instant upon Pisgah, the world which was dead prose to me become living and divine, shall I not watch, ever—shall I not be a watchman henceforth? If by watching a whole year on a city’s walls I may obtain a communication from heaven, shall I not do well and shut up my shop and turn a watchman? Can a youth, a man, do more wisely than to go where his life is to be found? As if I had suffered that to be a rumour which may be verified. We are surrounded by a rich and fertile mystery. May we not probe it, pry into it, employ ourselves about it—a little? To devote your life to the mystery of divinity in Nature or to the eating of oysters: would they not be attended with very different results?
. . .Go in search of the springs of life—and you will get exercise enough. Think of a man’s swinging dumb bells for health—when those springs are bubbling in far off pastures unsought by him! The seeming necessity of swinging dumb bells proves that he has lost his way.
To watch for, describe, all the divine features which I detect in Nature. My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature — to know his lurking places.”

Here he clearly tells us it is in the guise of an attentive watchman prepared to walk out into “the pastures” of the world that he finds his life, by discovering himself surrounded by a  “rich and fertile mystery” — the very springs of life.  

To ground Thoreau’s words a bit more, let’s return to the two stories we heard in our readings in which he offers us what we may call case-studies, or parables, which illustrate well something of the practical results of his practice.

The immediate background to the first story, that of the lily (printed in full at the end of this post), is the 1850 “Fugitive Slave Act”. It formed part of the controversial compromise (the Missouri Compromise) made between slave-holders of the South and Northern Free-Soilers. The act required that those living in the free Northern states had to return to their Southern masters all escaped slaves. Thoreau was horrified by this compromise and even he, who refused to write an ode to dejection in his most famous book “Walden”, now felt compelled to write “I cannot but believe that I am living in Hell.” Indeed, as Thoreau tells us, as he begins to walk he is not a happy man — “The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her” (“Slavery in Massachusetts, 1854).

His walk takes him by a pond, part of which is swamp-like with a preponderance of foul-smelling “slime and muck”. But then, suddenly, he scents a water-lily. Instantly, he finds himself in “a season” he had been waiting for. It’s a powerful moment of epiphany that reveals to him that another kind of world is always being born. The striking beauty of the lily he says seems “to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth” and for him “the fragrance of this flower” offers him “confirmation of our hopes.”

The second story (also printed in full at the end of this post) concerns his walk on Spaulding’s Farm. The late essay/lecture in which it appears, “Walking” (written and finely honed between 1851 and 1860), is regard as a seminal work by both critics and Thoreau. Indeed, he wrote, that he regarded it “as a sort of introduction to all that I may write hereafter.” In this essay he tells us that he wishes,

“. . . to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.”

Not least of all this is because, again in some very famous words from the essay, “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.”

A colour shot of the "noble hall" in Wandlebury Woods
Thoreau is again out walking but this time it is through the farm of a certain man named Spaulding. As he walks the pine trees in the setting sun suggest to him “some noble hall” and in an instant he finds himself in another world away from the merely civil — in the world of an “ancient and altogether admirable and shining family.” Thoreau then lays out before us something of their remarkable estate which he sees woven intimately and seamlessly through the estate seen by the more more prosaic and earth bound Spaulding. When Spaulding looks into the puddles on his cart track he sees no more than mud at the bottom but Thoreau, on the other hand, sees something very different — reflected back at him are the very heavens themselves. As in the previous story his walk through the natural world Thoreau reveals to him another kind of world — this time a world inhabited by "beings" whose whole way of being-in-the-world cuts against the materialistic, endlessly aquisitative world in which humans find themselves enslaved to all kinds of destructive desires, a situation which results in people no longer having any time to appreciate and the rich and fertile mystery of life.

Thoreau’s religious naturalist discipline, that of becoming a watchman continually seeking God in Nature, helped him to see that the meaning of life is not to be found outside the world, in some other transcendent, divine realm apart from our own, but always-already woven through everything. The experience of constant, attentive walking showed him that, even when all was dark around him, something creative, life and hope enhancing would, eventually, always be seen.

But note that the hope Thoreau sees is always, as Blake put it, an admixture of “joy and woe, woven fine”. Thoreau sees the lily — yes — but he does not, cannot, ignore the muck and the slime. Thoreau sees the wonderful estate of the “ancient and altogether admirable and shining family” — yes — but he does not, cannot, ignore farmer Spaulding's less admirable estate.

Now, if all Thoreau saw was simply that “joy and woe woven fine” this wouldn’t amount to much more than an empty platitude. But Thoreau doesn’t stop at this.

I have been helped to understand what it is that Thoreau seems to be doing by drawing on an insight (that I introduced you to a few weeks ago) of the contemporary Italian philosopher, Gianni Vattimo and his colleague Santiago Zabala. Recalling the famous sentence penned by Karl Marx that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it” they suggested that today we need to say something like:

“The philosophers have only described the world in various ways; the moment now has arrived to interpret it” (Hermeneutic Communism, Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 5).

Thoreau knows the importance of being able to describe the world truthfully and accurately — it is his ability to do this that made him such a good naturalist and powerful social critic. It is because he can do this that he is able to identify and powerfully point to the evil muck and slime that is the “Fugitive Slave Act” and its supporters; it is because of this that he is able to identify and powerfully point to the “freedom and culture merely civil” of farmer Spaulding that threatens to destroy the life giving wildness of the world by failing to see we humans are “part and parcel of Nature”.

But Thoreau also knew that describing things was not all we could do — there is always the matter of  the interpretation of those same things. As a watchman (and lyric philosopher) who came intimately to know himself to be part and parcel of Nature he felt increasingly confident that Nature was amenable to our interpretation and that this process could provide help for us that was not merely sentimental but the kind of help which acted as a harbinger of real (and realistic) hope that could help generate in us real change.

His story of the lily reveals this in a fairly straightforward way. Just as the lily is part and parcel of nature and emerges from the muck and the slime of the pond, by interpretation, so too can we, as creatures part and parcel of nature, emerge from the muck and slime of our political and social cultures.

However, his story about Spaulding’s farm reveals a slightly less straightforward interpretation of Nature. It shows Thoreau beginning more fully to trust that he was actually now doing what he spoke about in his September 7, 1851 journal entry. He has by now spent years practising his discipline of “watching all day and night” and it has, he feels, enabled him to “detect some trace of the Ineffable” — the “ancient and altogether admirable and shining family” who show us a better way of being-in-the-world are clearly ineffable in a way that the lily is not. However, that Thoreau is willing to share this story publicly reveals that he feels he can by now can trust the lesson he learns from this ineffable shining family as much as he can trust the lesson he learnt from the more obviously tangible lily.

The ability to trust this subtle teaching can only come to those who have, as his journal entry suggests, "watched and prayed without ceasing". Thoreau also came to know (as did St Paul from whom Thoreau silently borrows this phrase I Thessalonians 5:18-18) that this has enabled him to find a meaningful way to be in this difficult world of ours, with all its muck and slime, yet still be able to “rejoice evermore” and “in every thing [to] give thanks.” Thoreau's discipline helped him find a realistic, hopeful, this worldly way to go on.

Over the years I have increasingly come to trust Thoreau’s discipline and I continually try to practice it myself because it has helped me also to find a realistic, hopeful, this worldly way to go on. I can only recommend it to you. Why not leave behind the swinging of dumb-bells and go out to seek the springs of life that are bubbling in pastures all around us!


Reading from, “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854) by H. D. Thoreau

I walk toward one of our ponds; but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.
          But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity. It bursts up so pure and fair to the eye, and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth. I think I have plucked the first one that has opened for a mile. What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower! I shall not so soon despair of the world for it, notwithstanding slavery, and the cowardice and want of principle of Northern men. It suggests what kind of laws have prevailed longest and widest, and still prevail, and that the time may come when man's deeds will smell as sweet. Such is the odor which the plant emits. If Nature can compound this fragrance still annually, I shall believe her still young and full of vigor, her integrity and genius unimpaired, and that there is virtue even in man, too, who is fitted to perceive and love it. It reminds me that Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise. I scent no compromise in the fragrance of the water-lily. It is not a Nymphoea Douglasii. In it, the sweet, and pure, and innocent are wholly sundered from the obscene and baleful. I do not scent in this the time-serving irresolution of a Massachusetts Governor, nor of a Boston Mayor. So behave that the odor of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere, that when we behold or scent a flower, we may not be reminded how inconsistent your deeds are with it; for all odor is but one form of advertisement of a moral quality, and if fair actions had not been performed, the lily would not smell sweet. The foul slime stands for the sloth and vice of man, the decay of humanity; the fragrant flower that springs from it, for the purity and courage which are immortal.
          Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life: they are merely a decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils. We do not complain that they live, but that they do not get buried. Let the living bury them: even they are good for manure.

Reading from “Walking” (1861) by H. D. Thoreau

I took a walk on Spaulding’s Farm the other afternoon. I saw the setting sun lighting up the opposite side of a stately pine-wood. Its golden rays straggled into the aisles of the wood as into some noble hall. I was impressed as if some ancient and altogether admirable and shining family had seated there in that part of the land called Concord, unknown to me; to whom the Sun was servant; who had not gone into society in the village; who had not been called on. I saw their park, their pleasure ground, beyond through the wood, in Spaulding’s cranberry meadow. The pines furnished them with gables as they grew. Their house was not obvious to vision; the trees grew through it. I do not know whether I heard the sounds of a suppressed hilarity or not. They seemed to recline on the sunbeams. They have sons and daughters. They are quite well. The farmer’s cart path which leads directly through their hall does not in the least put them out, — as the muddy bottom of a pool is sometimes seen through the reflected skies. They never heard of Spaulding, and do not know that he is their neighbor, — notwithstanding that I heard him whistle as he drove his team through the house. Nothing can equal the serenity of their lives. Their coat of arms is simply a lichen. I saw it painted on the pines and oaks. Their attics were in the tops of the trees. They are of no politics. There was no noise of labor. I did not perceive that they were weaving or spinning.(9) Yet I did detect, when the wind lulled and hearing was done away, the finest imaginable sweet musical hum, — as of a distant hive in May, which perchance was the sound of their thinking. They had no idle thoughts, and no one without could see their work, for their industry was not as in knots and excrescences embayed.
          But I find it difficult to remember them. They fade irrevocably out of my mind even now that I speak and endeavor to recall them, and recollect myself. It is only after a long and serious effort to recollect my best thoughts that I become again aware of their cohabitancy. If it were not for such families as this I think I should move out of Concord.