I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there.  Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare more time for that one.  It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Reading Walden

Title page of one edition of Walden with Thoreau's portrait

After more than two years at Walden’s Pond, Henry David Thoreau left his little cabin in the woods.  His experiences there are a reminder to me to follow my dreams and the urgings of my heart.

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment:  that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Writing these weekly Thoreau posts has become something of a habit.  And as Thoreau observes in this week’s quote, we are creatures of habit and find comfort in them.  Habits do bring a reassuring structure to one’s days.

But this post concludes my year of reading Walden.  I think I will be at a bit of a loss for a while as I move away from Thoreau Thursdays to new projects.  But I, too, have several more lives to live, and it’s time to move on.

My life feels quite satisfying when I structure it as a series of personal projects, and part of the fun is finding something I can be passionate about and devote my energies to during the finite time I have left in this world.  I want to continue to challenge myself to not just repeat past successes, but to step into the uncertainties beyond, to push my boundaries, and to explore the unfamiliar.  I will move forward bolstered by the gifts I’ve received from reading Thoreau this past year.

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

The Layers
by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principles of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angles
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

The end of the road for Thoreau Thursdays

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The closest photo I've got of a castle in the air -- Mont St. Michel, 2002

Mont St. Michel, 2002

“Humanity does not require inspiration, the companion not just of poets and novelists but also of musicians, painters, not to mention some scholars and clergymen and even those who write (wrote) wonderful long letters, because it’s accompanied by euphoria, bliss (although it is).  We need it above all because it raises us above the petty network of empirical circumstances that make up our everyday lot and confinement.  It lifts us above the quotidian so that we can scrutinize the world attentively and ardently.”
— from A Defense of Ardor: Adam Zagajewski Essays, translated by Clare Cavanagh

“We spent our lives making livings.”
— Jonathan Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Perhaps one of my biggest failings is not having big enough dreams.  I was never encouraged as a child to think big, in fact, “You think you are so big” was a common criticism you wanted to avoid being aimed at you.  Now that I am older, I think about lost potential and buried talents.  And it grieves me to think I may have squandered my gifts on making a living.

Of course, it is not too late to plant a castle in the air, to dream big.  And then to build the necessary foundations, stone by stone.  And at my age, I’ve learned a few lessons about how to go about this:

  •  It takes dedication and hard work.  Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, says that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything.  Or, as Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”
  • Falling short is normal.
  • Success come to those who don’t quit.  Rewards come to those who persist and persevere.
  • Don’t wait for inspiration.  Results will come out of the process of work, work, and more work.
  • Don’t spread yourself too thin.  Make your foundation-building work the top item on your daily To-Do lists.
  • The journey is the destination.

I like the dual message of Thoreau’s quote this week — have big dreams and castles in the sky but not without building strong foundations to support them.

P. S. One of the bloggers I follow, Adrienne at the Whiteley Creek Bed & Breakfast in Minnesota, recently recounted how Thoreau’s quote about castles in the air applies to her life.  You can read her post here.

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Drummers, Shadle Park H. S. Pipeband, Tieton Highland Days Parade

This week Thoreau’s quote again celebrates individuality, but it is also a call for tolerance.  I think I am a fairly tolerant person, but the bigger challenge for me is to embrace differences.  Surely enjoying the company of people who are different from me will enrich my life in ways I cannot predict.

If I want to continue growing as a person, I must stretch myself — find the opportunities and lessons in the hardships that come my way, invite conversations with people who are not like me, travel to places outside my comfort zone, and use  my imagination to bring me closer to understanding and acceptance of the world I live in.

At the same time, I must find the beat of my own drum, even if it takes me out of step with the conventions of the day.  This is a lot to reflect on!


“Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Wrapped pennies

“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.  It is not so bad as you are.  It looks poorest when you are richest.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

“For I don’t care too much for money
Cause money can’t buy me love.”
— John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Can’t Buy Me Love”

When you are struggling with paying yet another bill and trying to save for your next car or retirement, it is easy to forget that money does not buy happiness.  When you do stop to think about what is important in life, it’s the intangibles like love, satisfying work, or communication that most improve the quality of your life.  And these “necessaries of the soul”  can accrue to even the poorer among us.

Here are a few of my favorite things that can be had for no money.  What would be on your list?

  • walking barefoot on a sandy beach where the waves lap the shore
  • a hot shower
  • listening to the gleeful giggles of children
  • getting lost in a good library book
  • finding a hand-written letter in the mailbox
  • spooning in bed
  • the smell of freshly baked bread
  • an unexpected snow day
  • a comfortable rocking chair
  • cradling a baby in your lap
  • beach combing for pretty shells
  • the scent of lilacs
  • birdwatching
  • tree watching
  • cloud watching
  • loving and supporting my family




“One attraction in coming to the woods to live was that I should have leisure and opportunity to see the Spring come in.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Watercolor sketch of spring crocuses

“Walden is melting apace.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

“They were pleasant spring days, in which the winter of man’s discontent was thawing as well as the earth, and the life that had lain torpid began to stretch itself.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The spring equinox arrives this year in Seattle on March 19th at 10:14 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.  Like Thoreau, I especially enjoy welcoming this new season and watch with interest the changes that mark the transition from our cold winters.

Seattle springs are long, drawn-out affairs.  The changeover from winter is very gradual and the blooming and blossoming moves forward in progression over many days and months.  We do not have the extremes of weather like the Midwest and our four seasons are not so pronounced:

“Seattle spring was a delicate flowering of the pale gray winter — a pastel prelude to the pale yellow summer which flowed gently into the lavender autumn and on into the pale gray winter.  It was all very subtle and, as we wore the same clothes the year around . . . we were never season conscious.”
— Betty MacDonald, The Egg and I

I will try to stay attentive to these subtle seasonal changes and celebrate each new arrival —  crocuses, daffodils, longer days, rhubarb, asparagus . . .  Welcome Spring!


“At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.  We can never have enough of nature.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Feeling the awesome grandeur of the wilderness along the old Alaska Highway

Contemplating the mystery of Exit Glacier, Alaska

Glacier Bay National Park

What is wilderness but untamed nature.  Living in the city, I get my contact with nature in small, mostly tamed doses.  This is good therapy.  But touching the untamed wilderness brings a heightened sense of the mystery and hugeness of the universe, a sense of awe tinged with fear.

I’ve traveled to several of the country’s national parks, but none evoked this sense of grandeur quite like my trips to Alaska.  So much of that vast land is still wild and inaccessible.  I felt fortunate that there were a few roads and cruise ships that could take me to the edges of that unexplored wilderness so that I could stand humbled by the spirit of that wildness.

How lucky we are that there are still wild places to stir our hearts and souls.


“Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it.  We need the tonic of wilderness. . . . “
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Vast wilderness on the lonely road from Glennallen to Paxton, Alaska

Mountains near the remote old mining town of McCarthy-Kennicott, Alaska

Holgate Glacier calving into Resurrection Bay, Alaska

Glacier Bay National Park

“The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”
— Richard Louv, The Nature Principle:  Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”
— John Muir, from John Muir and His Legacy by Stephen R. Fox

Immersion in Nature is an antidote to the stress of our contemporary lives.  Nature comes in many forms, from well-maintained city parks, to gardens, to campgrounds, to back country wilderness.  I am appreciative of the gifts of nature I find in the city, but I long for travel to the wilds of our national parks and forests.  Those opportunities seem few and far between.

My memories of wild places evoke some of the same restorative benefits of actually being there — winter in Yellowstone, cruising in Glacier Bay National Park, and RVing through Alaska, watching the sun rise from atop a great sand dune in Namibia.  These are just some of the memories I can call on when I feel the need to escape the stresses of my city life.

What are your special wild places?

“How can you expect the birds to sing when their groves are cut down?”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Wintering robin on the apple tree outside my window

I like to think of Thoreau the bird-watcher.  His world around Walden’s Pond was filled with the sights and sounds of birds, and many of his writings noted their activity.  He came up with some very imaginative descriptions, for example the barred owl as “winged brother of the cat” or, “The hawk is the aerial brother of the wave . . . ”

I don’t see many bird species in the city of Seattle.  I am at a disadvantage as a bird-watcher because I have significant hearing loss and I can’t hear most bird songs anymore.  But I try to pay attention.  The two most common birds in my life are crows and gulls.

Crow with blue-black feathers at Green Lake

Urban crow

California gull with distinctive dark ring on beak and polka-dot wing tips.

Thoreau was an early ecologist, and he very aptly linked the loss of habitat with the eventual decline of bird populations.  We’d do well to heed his cautionary quote.

“The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. . . . The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening.  It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Tinted morning clouds

A quiet February dawn at Green Lake

Sunrise tints reflected in the waters of Green Lake

“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success.  All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Thoreau reminds us that it is the small things that make a life, the accumulation of small moments.  I’ve come to realize that chances are slight that I will write an award-winning book, have a screenplay written about my life, paint a masterpiece, or accomplish some Nobel peace prize-winning deed.  My satisfactions and accomplishments are small.  I don’t mind living small moments, but I want to live them deeply and appreciatively.  I don’t aspire to greatness, but to ordinariness.  I hope to leave a small footprint, or none, when I die.

What will be the harvest of your life?

“It is a vulgar error to suppose that you have tasted huckleberries who never plucked them.”
—  Henry David Thoreau, Walden

In Washington we have an abundance of blackberries rather than huckleberries.

“The fruits do not yield their true flavor to the purchasers of them.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

How poor Thoreau would find me, a city dweller, who procures virtually all of my food from supermarket shelves.  And while our neighborhood farmers’ markets give us access to locally grown food, we simply buy it with our coins.  How rarely do we plant, nurture, harvest and preserve our own food.  According to Thoreau, we are missing out on the true flavor of food when we do not grow or pick it with our own hands.

Having grown up on a farm, I still hold a deep appreciation for the hard work that goes into bringing food to the table.  I’ve butchered chickens, so I understand the life that was once vibrant in my packaged chicken quarters.  I’ve milked a cow by hand, so I remember the source of my glass of milk.  I’ve made my own blackberry jam from hand-picked berries, so I can appreciate the work behind a jar received as a gift.

Snapshot of me milking our family's cow in 1972, forty years ago!

Much is lost when we forego laboring with our own hands, for the value of the work is not just the finished product, but also the feelings of artistry, productivity, and self-worth built along the way.  And it is true that we savor the end product more when we’ve created it ourselves.

One of my colleagues gives our library staff jars of her homemade blackberry jam each Christmas, and each spoonful bursts with the tastes of summer and Shirley’s shared joy in nature’s abundance.  Everything that is in a jar of Shirley’s jam is what Thoreau is alluding to in this week’s quote.

Shirley's jam on breakfast scones

Homemade jam from hand-picked blackberries

Sweet goodness

“The advantage of riches remains with him who procured them, not with the heir.  When I go into the garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands.  But not only health, but education is in the work.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson