Thoreau’s Buddhism

Monday, June 24th, 2013

A presentation to the White Heron Sangha June 23 2013

Henry David Thoreau was born July 12, 1817 and died at 45 years of age on May 6, 1862. His name is a household word, especially among those of us who grew up during the 1960’s, when his two most famous works, Walden and “Civil Disobedience” offered compelling guides to non-conformity, self-reliance, appreciation of nature, reduction of one’s environmental footprint, opposition to war and injustice and spiritual quest.

Although not widely appreciated during his life, since the late 19th century Thoreau’s works have become classics, admired by later writers, assigned in schools, and the subject of a burgeoning scholarly industry. He produced more than 20 volumes in a dense and quirky literary style, at times pompous and bombastic, at others intimate and funny.

Thoreau shared a philosophical outlook with his patron and early teacher Ralph Waldo Emerson and others of his circle known as Transcendentalists.  Like the European Romantic idealists, they abjured organized religion but shared a reverence and love for Nature and espoused a spirituality grounded in personal experience of a higher, non-physical reality. They were excited by the novelty of Eastern religions whose texts and practices were beginning to be disseminated in the West during the early 19th century. Thoreau admired the austerity and asceticism of Eastern mystics. He probably died a virgin and earned a meager living as schoolmaster, lecturer and writer.

Unlike Emerson, he was an outdoorsman in practice as well as theory.  He developed the skills of surveying, farming, and construction and became a precise observer and recorder of natural phenomena like climate variation, the dissemination of seeds and the succession of plants. Later in his life he made significant contributions to the budding science of ecology and the early environmentalist movement.

Thoreau’s writings and example have exerted changing influences throughout my life. “Economy,” the first chapter of Walden, helped persuade me and my wife Jan to leave the ratrace and move “back to the land” from New York City in 1970 to try our luck at living the good life in the wilds of British Columbia by growing our own food and reducing our physical needs to the basics of shelter and clothing.



Nine years later and considerably disillusioned about Thoreau’s advice as it applied to a husband and a father and to my own capacities as a woodsman, I returned with my family to the States to complete an unfinished Phd dissertation. It’s topic was the relation of the pastoral ideal to the life cycle—in particular the irrelevance of that ideal to householders of middle age whose job it is to “hold up the world.” (more…)

Protected: Yom Kippur 2010 Morning

Monday, September 20th, 2010

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Monday, September 20th, 2010

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Botanical Surprises

Monday, September 13th, 2010

A doleful awakening on a foggy Sunday morning,  joints aching from the strain of lifting boxes of steel wires and forcing them into hard ground to hold Elect Jan Marx Mayor signs.  Looking forward to meditation for escape from the nattering in my head, then impatient for it to be over.  Not swimming enough because I wont use the Poly Rec Center in protest against that revolting expansion.

I wont let my alienation from the University–latest outrage disbanding the CSA- alienate me from Poly Land.  I’ve been wondering about the red blanket of vegetation on Poly Mountain since June.  Is it dried monkeyflower or buckwheat?

As soon as I slip into my West Coast Trail boots, my mood lightens and my legs urge me to get started, like the dog when he sees Jan lace her runners. I stride through the silent foggy streets, climb over the fence, and feel the spring of my footfalls through the grass.  The sensation of freedom in the question, which way to go? Feet find a trail of cracked soil showing through trampled grass pointing straight uphill.  Breathing muscles mobilized.  The absence of the forty-pound pack makes the steepening ascent effortless, and the mixture of tarweed and horsemanure pleasures my nostrils. The trail continues beyond the fence.  Two strands of barbed wire slack enough to allow me through.  The sun is a faint disk penetrating the fog, recalling its appearance at Klanawa River.

Perhaps I’ll go to the tree house and sit there and write.  I’ve done it before. The trail winds through the chapparal right to it.  A new resident?  Entering the secluded clearing under the great  oak, I see a  spade and a rake leaning against the twenty foot ladder that reaches the lowest branch.  Ten feet above the tree house a large improvised hammock hangs atop another ladder. As I stare I hear a sleepy “hello?” Not wanting to trespass, I say “Hi, my name’s Steven. I come here every few months.  Do you know E.C. the guy who built this house?”  “Yes, met him once,” answers a voice whose origin seems to be a pile of blankets in the hammock.  I ask if it’s OK to come up, and then mount the lower ladder. At the treehouse platform I see a mop of hair at the edge of the blankets above and try to build more trust.  Yes they know M, they’re his students.  I wrote in the guest ledger here on previous visits.  I climb the next ladder into the bedroom.  Two people snuggle under the blankets, K. and T.  They work with the same environmental organization I do.  I  built a hammock like that forty years ago for kids on our farm in B.C.

After fifteen minutes chat I descend the ladders and continue up the mountain,  serpentine boulders providing foot and handholds.  The fog  now just a ribbon draping Bishop Peak. The dark red scrub I’d been wondering about from the house and while approaching SLO on the freeway is neither monkeyflower nor buckwheat, but deerweed stalks, all the leaves and flowers gone. A huge exclusive patch, easy to walk through. Three years after the fire, it’s choked out all the poison oak.