Down the Green   2 comments

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In “Down the River with Henry Thoreau,” Edward Abbey writes of taking his copy of Walden along “in an ammo can” on a Green River float trip in November 1980. Throughout the essay, as his party drifts through Labyrinth Canyon, Stillwater Canyon, and beyond, Abbey’s thoughts play between “one of the sweetest, brightest, grandest, and loneliest regions” in the United States and his rereading of Thoreau. Typically iconoclastic, even when dealing with another iconoclast, Abbey discusses Henry’s sex life, imagines a marriage between Thoreau and Emily Dickinson, and quotes or comments on some of what he deems to be the pertinent ideas of Concord’s famous “village crank.” The upshot: “The deeper our United States sinks into industrialism, urbanism, militarism,” the more urgent our need to read, reread, rethink the questions posed by Thoreau about our “economy,” our ways of living. Thoreau, Abbey finds, near the end of Labyrinth Canyon, “becomes more significant with each passing decade.”

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This came back to me recently as I was writing a lecture on Walden. The book is difficult for many readers to understand, given Thoreau’s interest in complexity, his facility with paradox, and, frankly, our limited skills of interpretation — in fact, a worry about “reading” occupies a good portion of Walden. We too frequently “read,” Thoreau laments, in order to serve a “paltry convenience,” too busy to think through intricate issues and tangled problems, hastily concluding this or that about a work’s meaning or worth then “desperately” (a keyword in Walden) rushing on to the next thing. And such thoughts were occurring to me just as Black Friday had moved to Black Thursday — “holiday” sales were ramping up, must-have or must-give items were proliferating wildly. I imagined a rustic-clad vagabond commandeering the store microphone: “Attention shoppers: a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone!”

A brief pause — utter silence — and the barcode scanners again begin bleating.

How can we carefully attend to a book that promotes personal economy and “deliberation” (another Walden keyword, a proposed antidote to desperation) when, all around us, every form of media, from the cell phone to the movie screen, from the newspaper to the blogsite spreads the word that Things Must Be Bought, supporting a vast system of getting and spending? If that weren’t troubling enough, Thoreau also suggests that desperation in the marketplace maintains worldwide systems of injustice, inequality, and waste, exacerbating tensions and precipitating war. Walden proposes that if we want to have a better world, we will need to think better; to think better, we will need to slow down, reflect, and consider the consequences of our ways of living: What are the costs — to ourselves, to others, to the planet — of the pursuit of luxuries and superfluities? What do we really need to live a good and just and full life?

Tis, as they say, the season. “Goodwill toward men”? Goodwill is more than a store where goods go that are no longer needed. “Peace on Earth”? Peace is more than a wish, more than a state. Peace is created by our smallest actions, what we do and how we do it, wherever we are.

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Posted December 6, 2012 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

2 responses to “Down the Green

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  1. Less is more

  2. Peace and goodwill to you too.

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