The Fat of My Experiences

December 30, 2013

Winter in the garden: decaying leaves hanging like a row of furry bats

Winter in the garden: decaying leaves hanging like a row of furry bats

“If the writer would interest readers, he must report so much life, using a certain satisfaction always as a point d’appui.  However mean and limited, it must be a genuine and contented life that he speaks out of.  His readers must have the essence or oil of himself, tried out of the fat of his experience and joy.”
— Henry David Thoreau, from Winter: The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, vol. 8, December 23, 1856

More advice to ponder from the seasoned writer and thinker, Henry David Thoreau.



Wings Like Green Moths

September 12, 2013

“They are nearly two inches long by one-half inch wide, with veined inner edges to the wings like green moths, ready to bear off their seeds.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Faith in a Seed

Watercolor sketch of maple leaves and seeds

Watercolor sketch of maple leaves and seeds

“In all our maples, a thin membrane, in appearance much like an insect’s wing, grows over and around the seed while the latter is being developed within its base. . . . In other words, a beautiful thin sack is woven around the seed, with a handle to it such as the wind can take hold of and it is then committed to the wind, expressly that it may transport the seed and extend the range of the species, and this it does as effectually as when seeds are sent by mail in a different kind of sack from the Patent Office.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Faith in a Seed



Ripening raspberries

Ripening raspberries

“Some of the raspberries are ripe, the most innocent and simple of fruit, the purest and most ethereal.”
— Henry David Thoreau, from The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Vol. 6, Summer (July 2, 1851)

Raspberries with blue sky

Raspberries with blue sky





Dark mornings, house aglow

Dark mornings, house aglow

Winter is a quiet, contemplative time

Winter is a quiet, contemplative time

I do think that readers and writers and poets like winter, that quiet contemplative season.  (However, I’ve noticed that painting and drawing are more of a challenge because of the lack of light.)  Writer Timothy Egan recently wrote an interesting blog post about just this theme of creativity in winter — you can read it here.

“I love the winter, with its imprisonment and its cold, for it compels the prisoner to try new fields and resources.  I love to have the river closed up for a season and a pause put to my boating, to be obliged to get my boat in.  I shall launch it again in the spring with so much more pleasure.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Journals,December 5, 1856

“Such is a winter eve.  Now for a merry fire, some old poet’s pages, or else serene philosophy, or even a healthy book of travels to last far into the night, eked out perhaps with the walnuts which we gathered in November.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Journals, December 9, 1856

Winter is the Best Time
by David Budbill, from While We’ve Still Got Feet

Winter is the best time
to find out who you are.

Quiet, contemplative time,
away from the rushing world,

cold time, dark time, holed-up,
pulled-in time and space

to see that inner landscape,
that place hidden and within.

Fallen maple leaves with raindrops

Fallen leaves at Lake Chelan State Park

“Adding a leaf’s breadth to the depth of the soil.”

“How pleasant to walk over beds of these fresh, crisp, rustling fallen leaves — young hyson, green tea, clean, crisp, and wholesome!  How beautiful they go to their graves!  how gently lay themselves down and turn to mould!  — painted of a thousand hues and fit to make the beds of us living.  So they troop to their graves, light and frisky.  They put on no weeds.  Merrily they go scampering over the earth, selecting their graves, whispering all through the woods about it.  They that waved so loftily, how contentedly they return to dust again and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of the tree and afford nourishment to new generations of their kind, as well as to flutter on high!  How they are mixed up, all species, — oak and maple and chestnut and birch!  they are about to add a leaf’s breadth to the depth of the soil.  We are all the richer for their decay.  Nature is not cluttered with them.  She is a perfect husbandman; she stores them all.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Journals, October 20, 1853

Fallen maple leaf on pavement, already starting to decay

Autumn is that elegiac time of year, and fallen leaves are its emblem.  I recently read (in a blog I follow called “The Improvised Life“) about an intriguing art installation by Jane Hammond consisting of handmade leaves, each inscribed with the name of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq.  This memorial sculpture is called Fallenand it seemed fitting to share it with you today, Veteran’s Day, when we honor all service men and women, living and dead.  You can follow the links to read more about this piece of art and see it installed in its last exhibition.

“Everyone must take time to sit and watch the leaves turn.”
— Elizabeth Lawrence

The turning of the maple leaves

“Thoreau is a first-class noticer, and he is our most articulate observer. He understood the power of and the need for directed attention carried out with the utmost intensity. He understood that we are what we give our attention to, and, long before William James put it in words, Thoreau understood that “attention and belief are the same fact.” Finally, Thoreau doesn’t just give you one autumn, he gives you the way to see every autumn.”
— Robert Richardson, “Fall Poetry:  Why Thoreau Adored Autumn,” Huffington Post online blog, October 3, 2012

Robert Richardson, in this week’s Huffington Post article, calls Thoreau “our finest writer on autumn.”    He remarks not only on Thoreau’s gorgeous descriptions, but praises even more Thoreau’s amazing powers of perception: “Like Zorba the Greek, Thoreau saw every thing every day as though for the first time. We all walk out into the same multitudinous world, but who among us sees as much as Thoreau did?”

My goal this year is to see autumn with “Thoreau eyes.” It’s a worthy habit to cultivate, I think.

“Nature will bear the closest inspection.  She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.”      — Henry David Thoreau, Journals, October 22, 1839

An insect’s view of a maple leaf

Scrutinizing maple leaves


Leaves of a yellow buckeye tree

“This is June, the month of grass and leaves. The deciduous trees are investing the evergreens and revealing how dark they are. Already the aspens are trembling again, and a new summer is offered me. I feel a little fluttered in my thoughts, as if I might be too late. Each season is but an infinitesimal point. It no sooner comes than it is gone. It has no duration. It simply gives a tone and hue to my thought.”
— Henry David Thoreau, journal entry June 6, 1857

How fleeting the seasons are.  How fleeting life is.  I read this quote in one of the blogs I follow called Anecdotal Evidence: A Blog about the Intersection of Books and Life.  At the time Thoreau wrote this passage in his journal, he would live only long enough to see four more Junes.

I often think about death and the brevity of one’s life.  Sometimes I think about writing a “Death blog” to share my collection of quotes and poems about this final passage.  I believe that thinking about my eventual death helps me to appreciate the time I have, helps me to stay focused on living each moment more deeply.

Summer seems like an odd time to contemplate death, but as we all know, people die every day.  Every year we unwittingly pass the anniversary of our deaths — we just don’t know the date yet.  Here is a poem that reminds us of that:

For the Anniversary of My Death
by W. S. Merwin

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what




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