I had every intention yesterday of helping to celebrate the inaugural World Fitness Day with Jane Fonda, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and Ludacris (among others). Catching an early weekend Marta train to the Georgia Dome, standing in line behind several thousand other people in the will-call line, and after all of that working out with two plastic water bottles as hand weights, going for the burn for 45 minutes, and out.
Instead, I opted for a later, more leisurely start, and tagged along with my husband and a friend of ours in the opposite direction, 20 minutes or so by car, to Arabia Mountain, where there are still those rare, brilliant red, lichen-like spring flowers to be found on the granite outcroppings, and then a short easy hike through the fully-leafed preserved woods to our own Southern sort of Walden pond there. It is, unlike many New England so-called ponds, really pond sized, but called a lake nonetheless, and like all other lakes in this state, man-made, a damned up basin with rusted, New Deal locks.
Not safe for swimming. No fishing allowed, but as we sat on the rocks, smooth shale, resting and watching the clear water, my limbs worked and stretched, my mind no longer racing, and there was nothing to do but to notice everything (or so it seemed): the overcast sky, the pines, the insect-chewed bark and fallen branches, the ripples. And unfortunately, the more than occasional burst of gunfire from the DeKalb County rifle range nearby.
And the birds, always the birds — the cawing in the near distance, a circling hawk, and the one gliding male duck, making his effortless, uninterrupted solo journey the length of the lake, calling out periodically. Adding my own sketchy observation to birding reports I had just read in a weekly Wild Georgia column, spottings of a rarely seen little blue heron, two orchard orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, migrating, gray-cheeked thrushes, hundreds of them winging north.
On this less than placid but good enough Saturday mid-morning, I recalled the passages by Thoreau in one chapter of Walden, wherein he made his own vivid notes on birds whose lives intersected with his.
A poetic surveyor, using natural facts, as nature philosopher Alfred Tauber wrote in Bostonia, the Boston University Alumni quarterly, as a painter uses oils, to compose a vision of nature and his particular place in it.
Hear this description of a visiting loon:
His usual note was…demoniac laughter, yet somewhat like that of a water fowl, but occasionally, when he had balked me most successfully and come up a long way off, he uttered a long-drawn unearthly howl… this was his looning… at length, having come up fifty rods off, he uttered one of those prolonged howls, as if calling on the gods of loons to aid him, and immediately there came a wind from the East and rippled the surface, and filled the whole air with misty rain, and I was impressed as if the prayer of the loon answered, and his god was angry with me.
The loon was painted into Thoreau’s picture, the center of Walden Pond on a stormy afternoon, not as an objective fact, but reworked, once recorded, as a character in a profoundly personal encounter on Thoreau’s own journey of self-cultivation and discovery.
While Thoreau claimed a kind of separate seeing of the environment around him, in his book Thoreau on Birds, just recently brought back into print, reminding us “there is a world in which owls live,” what we call wildness a civilization other than our own, he regarded himself and has come to be regarded, Tauber says, as a literary man, caught up in the metaphysical, the spiritual importance of his studies of the natural world. His work was not tied, not to objective scientific observation as we now know it, rather to his unwavering individual quest for beauty and meaning, and differentiation — his own right to conscience, his own location in the larger scheme. Every day as he lived it on Walden Pond.
Truth is, according to one of his journal editors, Thoreau never did acquire much skill in the diagnosis of birds seen in the field, in fact was often mistaken when it came to identifying birds and interpreting their habits, and yet, his ardent and faithful recording of birds in the area around Walden Pond moved him to demand that birds be accepted in their own country. Of the dead body of a great blue heron, shot by a neighbor, he said “I am glad to recognize this bird as a native of America — why not as an American citizen?” Why not animals recognized as citizens, why not rights for birds? A compassion that came from his sense of an interdependent universe in which all beings love one another. An harmonious, romantic, and passionate sense of what could be just a random collection of species, instead an interdependent web.
Search for truth and meaning. The right of conscience. The interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. All core principles of our Unitarian Universalist faith, and yet if my growing years in this tradition were anywhere near the norm, Thoreau was not there, at least not on Sundays.
While there was a piece of driftwood on the altar in one of my childhood congregations, our hymnal readings contained only one from Thoreau, and my father and brothers fled the windowless sanctuary most weeks for worship in the salt flats or in one woods or another, counting birds, finding spirit in the wild.
Thoreau died of tuberculosis May 6, 1962, in Concord, Massachusetts, eight years after writing Walden. He had been battling the disease for many years. Christened a Unitarian with family ties to the Concord congregation, Henry had long since deliberately disconnected from any church membership, before others, including twenty some Unitarian ministers, found themselves under increasing attack for their shift in sensibilities and beliefs.
Our colleague, Rev. Barry Andrews, one of our primary Thoreau scholars, in his sermon written on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Walden‘s publication, spoke about this work, and others by Thoreau’s fellow Transcendentalists, as a form of modern day scripture, an alternative to the truths in biblical text to which the liberal Protestant, but still exclusively Christian, Unitarians of their time still adhered, the proof found in miracles and all. Thoreau, and other young challengers of a young Unitarianism, critiqued what they saw as too much focus on what they termed “lifeless things,” not enough on the inward pious life and what some call direct, mystic experiences of the divine. Too much dependence on the senses, and not enough on the intuitive. A religion of dry bones and a thin porridge of pale negations.
Andrews tells us that Thoreau — and his fellow Transcendentalists — were often scolded for their religious views, considered too pantheistic — worshipping the spirit that revealed itself in and through nature, shocking some by their elevation of Buddha and interest in other forms of Eastern religion.
Critiqued and marginalized on one hand for their rejection of what might indeed be called Unitarian creed and on the other for what was seen as a Romantic rejection of the new secular scientific methodology, Thoreau and his colleagues found more of a retrospective home outside of our religious fold.
For years, Barry Andrews tells us, more conservative Unitarians sought to exclude Transcendentalists and their teachings and writings on the basis of their rejection of (or more accurately their religious expansion beyond) Christianity, even while the philosophy and its practices gained acceptance, even adherents. Within a short time, fewer and fewer identified this way.
A decade following his death and then before the turn of the 20th century, much of Thoreau’s writing, including his journals, had been published by the second, fading generation of Transcendentalists, influencing many public figures outside our faith community, including literary giants Marcel Proust, William Butler Yeats, and Ernest Hemmingway; naturalists like John Muir and David Brower, and American psychologist B.F. Skinner, who carried a copy of Walden with him in his youth and in 1945 wrote Walden Two, a fictional utopia about 1,000 members of a community living together inspired by the life of Thoreau.
Since the beginnings of the ecology movement and then what has been called a spiritual revitalization movement in the 1980s, a new “transcendentalism,” a mysticism, a theology of interdependence and immanence, has been steadily growing with UUism, described in one associational study as a slightly updated version of the spirituality espoused by Thoreau and others. It focuses on attaining direct intuitions of oneness and relatedness with nature or the divine. More than a quarter of us now identify this way.
As we rediscover Walden and its author, as we delve once more into this source of our living faith, Barry Andrew writes that there is a natural congruence between Unitarian Universalism and Transcendentalism, a source of a uniquely and authentically UU spirituality, with its possibility of a rich, deeper inner life and a stronger sense of religious identity.
Praise be to Thoreau.