Tag Archives: Henry Thoreau

On civil disobedience

When I went off to college, I immediately got involved with the movement to do away with nuclear weapons; I was a religious pacifist, I was attending a Quaker college, it was a natural thing to do. Some of the other students were planning to engage in civil disobedience, and I began to consider doing so myself. I wrote to Pat Green and asked his advice. Pat had been the assistant minister and the youth advisor at my church, and I remembered that he had talked about being arrested for engaging in civil disobedience while protesting the Vietnam War. “Somewhere in the FBI files,” Pat had said, “there’s mug shots of me wearing one of those conical Vietnamese hats.”

By then, Pat was the minister of the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Birmingham, Alabama. He wrote back quickly, and said he would not advise me to engage in civil disobedience. He felt his arrest had not had any effect on United States war policy; the only thing it had done was to give him a criminal record; the price paid was not worth the end result. Maybe he thought that he had to say that to a seventeen year old kid, but I doubt it: Pat was terribly sincere, and I think he really meant what he said.

Two and a half years later, I saw some friends of mine getting arrested trying to blockade the entrance to Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. That same weekend, I also saw that the greatest effect of our protest at Seabrook was to polarize opposition, and reduce the possibility of meaningful dialogue about nuclear power plants. I was at Seabrook, partly for the adventure of it, but also because of a dawning systems-level understanding that the nuclear power industry was intimately connected with the nuclear weaponry, not least because of the possibility of weapons-grade materials getting stolen by terrorist groups. That kind of understanding had no place in the rough-and-tumble world of protest politics, where often the most that happens is that people yell at each other and get ten second interviews with the news media.

I just went and re-read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” I had forgotten how deeply personal it is. I had also forgotten how deeply spiritual the essay is: Continue reading

Rapt in a Revery

This story is part of a work-in-progress, a book of stories for liberal religious kids. The sources for this story are Walden by Henry David Thoreau, and The Days of Henry Thoreau by Walter Harding. I wrote this story for use in worship services, but I have also used it in Sunday school classes (slightly modified) to introduce a unit on meditation.

Rapt in a Revery

I thought you might want to know what a spiritual practice is, so maybe you can talk about it after Sunday school with your parents. A spiritual practice is something you do regularly that helps you get in touch with something larger than yourself. For example, some people sit and meditate for a spiritual practice. Some people do yoga for a spiritual practice. Some people pray for their spiritual practice.

Well, I don’t pray, and I don’t do yoga, and I don’t sit and meditate. I do a different kind of spiritual practice, a spiritual practice that many Unitarian Universalists do. But first I have to tell you a little story….

Way back in 1845, a man named Henry David Thoreau was living with his mother and father and his sisters in a big house in Concord, Massachusetts. Henry worked for his father in the family’s pencil-making business. Henry’s family all went to the Unitarian church in town. Henry himself preferred the Universalist minister to the Unitarian church, but Henry basically stopped going to church once he grew up. Then one day Henry decided that he needed some time to himself, to get in touch with something bigger than himself. I would say it this way: Henry wanted some time to do intensive spiritual practice.

He went to his friend Waldo Emerson, and asked Waldo if he could build a little cabin out in the woods, on some land Waldo owned that was right next to a pond named Walden pond. Waldo said, Of course! So Henry spent a few months building a cabin for himself, and then he went off to live in the woods. His cabin was only a mile or so from his family’s house, and he still went home regularly to eat dinner and spend time with his family. But mostly, Henry lived out in the woods alone, and worked on his spiritual practice.

Henry’s spiritual practice was to spend time in Nature. One of his best ways of spending time in Nature was to sit quietly outdoors, doing nothing, just watching the natural world. Here’s how he describes it:

“Sometimes, in a summer morning, … I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant roadway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.”

I can see the whole thing in my imagination: a warm sunny day, Henry sitting on the front step of his cabin, looking out over Walden Pond, “rapt in a revery” — and when Henry says, “rapt in a revery,” he means that he is just sitting quietly, not really thinking of anything in particular — he is simply sitting and watching and listening to the world of nature around him, lost in wonder at the beauty of the natural world.

Sometime you should try doing this yourself. On a nice day, find yourself a comfortable place to sit outdoors — maybe leaning back against a tree. Pick a place where you can see and hear the natural world — it could be in your back yard, if you have a back yard — pick a place with trees and grass and birds and sky and clouds. You just sit there — you don’t have to do anything — you don’t have to think about anything — and see if you can lose yourself in sitting, watching, and listening to the natural world. See if you can lose yourself in something larger than yourself.

Henry Thoreau could sit like that all day, but he had had lots of practice. You try it for ten minutes or so at first. Maybe you’ll find you like it — sitting like Henry Thoreau lost in wonder of the natural world. Maybe that will be your spiritual practice — a real genuine Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice.

Not for the faint of heart

If you live in Boston, you might have read the recent article in one of the freebie tabloids about Hank Peirce, now the minister at the Unitarian Universalist church in Medford, but formerly a roadie for a number of punk rock bands back in the 1980’s. The article did not mention that Hank did a number of punk rock worship services at the Middle East Cafe in Cambridge, then one of the best places to hear punk music — when I asked Hank about those worship services, he said he did a fairly standard order of service (sermon and all), but with a live punk band providing the music.

Are you with me so far?

Punk rock has its all-too-evident weaknesses, but don’t forget its strengths: a do-it-yourself aesthetic, and a willingness to integrate avant-garde visual art and music into a popular format. Wouldn’t that be fun to try with worship services? Not for the regular worship services we attend every week, perhaps, but as a sort of incubator for innovation in worship. Our Unitarian Universalist worship services could stand some innovation. I came across a music video in which that do-it-yourself aesthetic of punk rock is applied to a mix of musique concrete, performance art, and postmodern ironic self-reference — and I can’t help but imagining a worship service with this kind of punk rock [Link].

OK, I can see that I lost you there.

But as a Transcendentalist, I do believe that humor, odd juxtapositions, unexpectedness, can lead us to confront reality in new ways, shock us out of our complacency and our set ways of being to see (finally) a little bit of truth. Or, as Henry Thoreau brutally puts it:

If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.

Annie Dillard writes that we should wear crash helmets when we attend a worship service, because if we ever actually unleashed the powers we claim to call on, we’d need them. Or if we ever actually confronted the reality of life and death, we’d need them. Even if you don’t like punk rock, a punk rock worship service would be preferable to a complacent worship service.

Some other time I’ll explain why worship services should incorporate a fair amount of boredom in order to be authentic.

Three unrelated conversations

The drive up from New Bedford north towards Boston took me through the flat south coastal plain of Massachusetts. Along the highway through the plain, red maples seem to be the dominant trees where the ground is a little lower than the surrounding terrain; white and red oaks, and white and red pines, where the ground is a little higher. The red maples were bright with reds and yellows and oranges; in the lowest ground where I could see there was a swamp many of the trees were already bare. The oaks were still mostly green, although here and there a branch with brilliant red leaves stuck out of the dark green of the oak and pine woods; and here and there I saw a white oak fringed with brownish gold leaves.

I had lunch with dad, and we talked mostly about photography. Dad, who is an avid photographer, has been using digital cameras for the past three or four years. But recently, he said, he’s turned back to using his old single lens reflex film camera, a classic Pentax K-1000. He stood in the window of his condo in West Concord and used four different cameras to shoot the same picture of a sugar maple in full autumn color: three different digital cameras, and the K-1000. He got the film processed commerically, and he printed the shots from the digital camera using the same paper and printer. Then he compared the images all four sources. His conclusion: the images from the film camera had better color saturation and richer reds than any of the digital images.

Photo buffs would probably say that images from a professional-quality digital camera printed on a top-notch printer could surpass the images from commercially-processed film. But that’s not the point; dad was comparing images from cameras he had access to and that he could afford. Forget the photography buffs; dad and I agreed that film cameras are superior. We got into a satisfying discussion of which color film is best, and how both of us would kind of like to get back into a darkroom to print black-and-white film.

Dad had to go off to teach a computer class, so I went birding at Great Meadows. I worked my way down the central dike, stopping now and then to scan the water for ducks. Another birder, a man carrying a high-end telescope, was making his way down the dike at roughly the same pace as I. Somewhere in the middle of the dike, I said to him that I had got some sparrows, and he came down to see. We wound up talking while we waited for sparrows to break cover and come out where we could see them.

He asked where I lived, and I said New Bedford, and he told me about a house that his grandparents had had on Hawthorne Street in New Bedford. I said I hadn’t seen any ducks yet this year on New Bedford harbor, and he said that the wintering ducks had already started moving in to the Barnstable area. He lived down on the Cape during the warm months, and had just moved back up to his house in Weston on Tuesday. He asked how it happened that I was in Concord that day, and I said I grew up in town, and it turned out that his daughter had married a man who was best friends with Steve S—- who had lived down the street from us when I was young.

We finally saw Swamp Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows (and I was pretty sure I had also seen an immature White Throated Sparrow). But most of the ducks we saw were Mallards. “It’s so quiet out here,” he said. “Listen to those geese. I can even hear that tika-tika-tika sound they make when they’re feeding.” He scanned the ducks with his binoculars. “Twenty years ago, you’d see ninety percent Black Ducks and only a few Mallards. Now it’s the other way around. I used to shoot ducks,” he continued. “What I liked was using the calls to bring the ducks, and working with dogs, and being outdoors. I ate everything I shot. But I stopped in 1982, and haven’t been duck-hunting since.” He put his binoculars up to his eyes for one last scan of the lower pool, hoping to see the Pintails he had thought he had seen earlier; and then he headed back to Weston.

I spent another two hours at Great Meadows. I walked way around to the other end of the lower pool, where I did see eight or a dozen Pintails half obscured in the middle of some wild rice. An hour later, up at the sewage treatment plant, I did see a flock of White-Throated Sparrows, along with a Palm Warbler bobbing its tail, and some other sparrows that I couldn’t be sure of because it was getting dark by then.

It was still too early to brave the traffic on the drive into Cambridge. I decided to stop at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. They had moved Sophia Peabody Hawthorne’s body back to Concord, to rest beside her husband Nathaniel Hawthorne, from where she had been buried in England, and I wanted to visit the new grave. Across the path, a man was crouched down, taking a picture of Henry David Thoreau’s grave in the dim light; a woman stood next to him watching. I asked if he was a fan of Thoreau, and he allowed that he was. I told them why I was there. The man asked where Louisa May Alcott’s grave was, and I pointed it out.

They said they had driven ten hours to get here today, and I asked where they were from. “London, Ontario,” said the man. And now as I listened for it I could hear the faint accent of central and prairie Canada: the slight differences in the vowels, especially “o” sounds, and the more precise consonants. “We already have snow on the ground up there,” said the woman. “What’s the climate like here?” I said that we used to have snow on the ground for most of three months, but it was definitely getting warmer. “What with global climate change, you’re probably living in the right place,” I said. “Soon your climate will be temperate.”

As we walked back towards town, we wound up talking about North American politics, particularly the way that both Steven Harper and George Bush have strong ties to the religious right. “But it’s a minority government,” said the man. “Canada is still pretty much liberal,” he continued in his soft Canadian accent. “Harper’s going to have to moderate his views or he could wind up facing an election.” The woman added, in what was not quite a non sequitur: “After all, Elton John came to Canada to get married.” I told them I was counting on the Canadians to hold out against the influence from the south. What I didn’t say was that as a religious liberal, I actually do worry about the United States turning into a theocracy of the religious right, and it would be nice to have a place to flee to.

Transcendental change in liberal religion?

I don’t usually post my sermons on this blog, because for me the sermon is a spoken genre that doesn’t translate well into written form. But people at church seemed to like this sermon, so I thought, what the heck, maybe you might like it. And this sermon is for you, no matter what flavor of religious liberal you happen to be.

Be warned: if you were in church this morning, I usually ad lib 20-30% of the sermon, including most of the funny bits — so this is different from what you heard today.


The first reading this morning is from the book Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, from the chapter titled, “Sounds”:

What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.

I did not read books the first summer [I lived at Walden Pond]; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better than this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time…. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.

The second reading is from the Hebrew prophets, the book of Isaiah, chapter 24, verses 5 and 6:

The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt….

Sermon — “Transcendental Ecology”

In case you haven’t noticed, the historically liberal churches have been shoved off to the margins in the United States. Historically liberal churches such as the Episcopalians, the Congregationalists, the Methodists, the northern Baptists, the Disciples of Christ, the Presbyterians, the Quakers, and yes the Unitarian Universalists, have been losing members and influence for some forty years now. We used to be at the center of things. Forty years ago, during the Civil Rights movement, when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called on church leaders to come stand beside him, we in the historically liberal churches went and stood. Some religious liberals even died for Civil Rights, including two Unitarian Unviersalists: Rev. James Reeb, and Viola Luizzo. At that time, we engaged with the outer world, and our opinions actually mattered.

Since that time, Unitarian Universalists and all the other historically liberal churches have been steadily losing membership and influence. (We Unitarian Universalists have actually been gaining members in the past twenty years, at about one percent a year; which however is not enough to keep up with population growth but at least we’re not shrinking like all the other liberal churches.) I sometimes feel that we religious liberals have spent the last forty years in a kind of a daze; we have spent the last forty years gazing at our navels. Sure, individual religious liberals work harder than ever to make this a better world — but as a group, as a liberal religious church, we are far from the centers of power and influence.

Of course, you know who is at the centers of power and influence. While we religious liberals have been gazing at our navels, the Religious Right, a loose coalition of many of the fundamentalist churches, some of the evangelical churches, televangelists, billionaires, and other conservative Christians, has gained in power and influence. The Religious Right has enormous influence in Congress and in the White House. The Religious Right is extremely well-funded. The Religious Right has charismatic preachers, some of whom have built churches of upwards of thirty thousand members. We are shrinking and increasingly irrelevant; they get to elect presidents.

I think it’s time for us to change. For the past forty years, we religious liberals have been coming to our beautiful church buildings, politely sad because global warming and massive species extinctions are destroying living beings that we consider sacred. Perhaps we even gently wring our hands, and we say we don’t quite know what to do. We know that environmental destruction is a religious issue. We know that one of the roots of the ecological disaster we face today is the simple religious fact that Western religion has mis-interpreted that passage in the Bible, the one where God gives us dominion over all other living beings, to mean that we can rape the earth and destroy at will. We know, too, that the Religious Right is happy for their God to have dominion over the United States, and for men to have dominion over women, and for men in the United States to have dominion over all over living beings — and when they say dominion, they don’t mean it in a nice, polite way, they mean domination. We religious liberals know all that, and when we leave our beautiful churches after coffee hour, we seem to forget all this until we next come to church, maybe four weeks from now. We conveniently forget that the ecological disaster we are now facing has deep religious roots.

I think it’s time for us to change. We no longer have the luxury of sitting quietly in our beautiful liberal churches. We no longer have the luxury of chatting politely with our friends at coffee hour about everything except the religious roots of the ecological crisis (to say nothing of the religious roots of gay-bashing, the religious roots of the widening gap between rich and poor, and so on). We no longer have the luxury of being able to separate our polite religion from the rough-and-tumble of real-world events; we no longer have the luxury of hiding our religious faith from the world.

So I’m going to try to set an example here this morning. I’m going to speak here publicly about my deeply-held religious faith, a religious faith that drives me to try, against all hope, to save what’s left of the natural world from further destruction. Maybe what I say seems a little raw; maybe I’m making one or two people feel uncomfortable. We have gotten out of the habit of speaking of our deeply-held religious beliefs here in our liberal churches; we have, in fact, gotten out of the habit of being religious. But that’s what ministers are for: to set the best example we know how to set, and to call people to be religious.

So let’s talk religion — to start us off, I’ll talk about my own deeply held religious beliefs.

I’m a Transcendentalist. When I was about sixteen, I had a transcendental experience. I was sitting outdoors at the base of Punkatasset Hill in my home town of Concord, Massachusetts, with my back against a white birch tree. There was this alley of white birches that someone had planted along an old farm road, and the fields on either side were still, at that time, mowed for hay twice a year. So I was just sitting there on a beautiful late spring day, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of the oneness of everything. I mean, this was an overwhelming experience, I really don’t have the words to describe it. Since then, I’ve had numerous other transcendent experiences, some more powerful than others.

What do these transcendental experiences mean? Well, I suppose I’m still trying to make sense out of those experiences. When I was about twenty, I found William James’s book Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he describes the various mystical experiences that people have. James said that perhaps a quarter of the population have mystical experiences of one sort or another, and in his descriptions of the various kinds of mystical experiences I could see the outlines of my own mystical experiences. But James’s book didn’t tell me about the meaning of my mystical experiences.

I found something of the meaning of my transcendental experiences in a book by my fellow townsman, Henry Thoreau. I had always disliked Thoreau when I was a child; when you grow up in Concord, and go to the Concord public schools, you get force-fed Thoreau and Emerson, and Alcott and Hawthorne for that matter. I don’t take well to force-feeding and so dismissed Thoreau. But at last I found that Thoreau’s book Walden probably described what I had been experiencing better than anything else, especially when he writes:

I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, …until by the sun falling in at my west window… I was reminded of the lapse of time.

I discovered that I, too, love a broad margin to my life. That broad margin is a margin to my life in which I have the time and the space to be able to be rapt in a revery, to reflect on the ultimate meaning of the universe. It is also a margin to my life where I can reflect on the difference between real religion, and religion as it is imperfectly practiced in the world around me.

When I have been able to sit “rapt in a revery,” I have come to the inescapable conclusion that there is a unity which binds all human beings together, which binds all living beings together — which, indeed, binds us human beings to the non-living world as well, to the sun and the moon and the stars above and the rocks under our feet.

I can put this into scientific terms if you’d like: all parts of the ecosystem are interconnected, these interconnections can be modeled in terms of systems theory using feedback loops and non-linear relationships; and to harm one part of an ecosystem will have wide repercussions throughout the ecosystem. I find I am quite comfortable with scientific language. I can also put this into the language of Christianity if you’d like: God’s creation consists of earth, moon, sun, and stars; of the ocean and all the creatures that live there; of the birds of the air; of the plants that grow and the animals that live on the earth; of human beings. And to harm one part of God’s creation is to do violence to God. I find I am reasonably comfortable with Christian language. Or if you like, I can also put this into the one of the dialects of neo-paganism, which might sound something like this: the Goddess who is Gaia, earth mother, mother of all that lives; the Goddess who is the Moon Goddess who sets the rhythms of the seasons; it is she whom we love and must respect, and to harm the ecosystem is to harm the Mother Goddess. I find I am reasonably comfortable with neo-Pagan language, too.

Right now, the specific language is less important than the fundamental underlying insight. In fact, we could even put this in words that the Religious Right might recognize:

The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.

(Right after that, by the way, Isaiah goes on to say why the earth has become polluted: it’s because his people have twisted and mis-interpreted their religion.)

Yes, we have broken our covenant, our promises, to the earth. I am told by some religious liberals that in speaking this way, I’m not being decorous, I’m not being polite. (Funny how you don’t hear the Religious Right saying to each other, “Now be polite!”) But my religious faith sets me on fire; I’m not polite. I know that my faith can transform the world; I know that my faith can change the religious attitudes that lead to dominion theology and global ecological catastrophe; but I am told by some Unitarian Universalists that I am not polite, because I’m trying to change this nice comfortable little religion we’ve had for the past forty years.

Maybe that’s the problem: mine is not a comfortable faith. I have not been made comfortable by having transcendental experiences that cause me to sit rapt in a revery on a summer morning; I have not been made comfortable by the religious realization that my contribution to global warming and habitat destruction is morally wrong; I have not been made comfortable in the knowledge that our churches must grow quickly or sink into complete and total irrelevancy as the Religious Right gains more and more influence in the United States; I am not comfortable knowing that it is up to me and other religious liberals to combat the misguided religion of domination that is the Religious Right.

I suspect that I’m probably passing along some of my discomfort to you. I keep challenging you, I know; I am not the warm, cuddly pastor that I would kind of like to be. I would love to be able to stand up here week after week, and be able to preach warm, comforting sermons. I would love to be able to sit with you each week and pass on comfortable religious thoughts as you live out your life. It would be so much easier if we could just keep on with our small, comfortable little church; for after all, growth just means more work for us. I wish I could be a warm comfortable cuddly pastor, in a nice relaxed sleepy little church; but I don’t think either you or I have that luxury.

My friends, the world is changing around us. Very rapidly. Ten years ago, I would have laughed at the idea that these United States could turn into a theocracy run by a Religious Right who distorts Jesus of Nazareth’s message of love into a message of prejudice and intolerance, who use the Bible to justify ecological disaster. Ten years ago I would have laughed at this idea; now I believe such a theocracy is a remote but all-too-real possibility. It will be a theocracy based on a religion of domination: men dominating women, the rich dominating the poor, straight people dominating gays and lesbians, and above all humanity dominating and destroying the rest of the natural world. Because, they will say, it is God’s will.

If such a theocracy comes, it will not be comfortable to be a Unitarian Universalist. If such a theocracy comes, we in the liberal churches will have no one to blame but ourselves. We have let our religion become optional, sort of like joining a country club, or supporting National Public Radio. We have let the Religious Right steal the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus and the other Jewish prophets away from us. We have let the political liberals to completely separate environmentalism from religion. We have let our churches dwindle in size, even though we are told that our churches get more newcomers and visitors, relative to our size, than the churches of the Religious Right. And we have been coming to church when we feel like it, staying comfortable, looking always inward.

My friends, I know that many of you are facing serious personal challenges. There are people in this congregation who have are facing so much that they don’t have any energy left over for anything except staying alive. But that, too, is a very different thing from having a country-club church; when life is that overwhelming, you are not in a position to have a safe comfortable religion; life is not letting you have safety and comfort. If we could start remembering that the world is not a comfortable place for most people, maybe we could offer each other a lot more comfort.

I’d like to invite you to join me in remaking liberal religion; in remaking this liberal church. I invite you to be on fire with your liberal religious faith. I invite you to feel your religion so deeply that when life overwhelms you, your religion becomes a source of strength. I invite you let your religious convictions of love, compassion, and justice draw you into passion and commitment to heal the world. I invite you to be moved by your deeply-held religious belief that all living beings are sacred, that the whole ecosystem is sacred.

If we did that, this church, First Unitarian in New Bedford, would once again become a force to be reckoned with. As it stands now, a few people are impressed with our beautiful building, and maybe with our past exploits; but aside from that, our little congregation of less than a hundred people is safely ignored. But if we choose to do so, we could change the world.

Where has your Muse gone?

I happened to be reading in Henry Thoreau’s Walden today, and this passage caught my eye:

When I first paddled a boat on Walden, it was completely surrounded by thick and lofty pine and oak woods, and in some of its coves grape-vines had run over the trees next the water and formed bowers under which a boat could pass. The hills which form its shores are so steep, and the woods on them were then so high, that, as you looked down from the west end, it had the appearance of an amphitheatre for some land of sylvan spectacle. I have spent many an hour, when I was younger, floating over its surface as the zephyr willed, having paddled my boat to the middle, and lying on my back across the seats, in a summer forenoon, dreaming awake, until I was aroused by the boat touching the sand, and I arose to see what shore my fates had impelled me to; days when idleness was the most attractive and productive industry. Many a forenoon have I stolen away, preferring to spend thus the most valued part of the day; for I was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days, and spent them lavishly; nor do I regret that I did not waste more of them in the workshop or the teacher’s desk. But since I left those shores the woodchoppers have still further laid them waste, and now for many a year there will be no more rambling through the aisles of the wood, with occasional vistas through which you see the water. My Muse may be excused if she is silent henceforth. How can you expect the birds to sing when their groves are cut down?


This week, I somehow committed myself to preaching a sermon on Henry Thoreau’s Walden. I think I’m going to connect Walden to ecotheology. Not that Walden is a work of theology (or of philosophy), but I think the book has implications for ecotheology.

Henry James wrote that Thoreau is worse than provincial, he is parochial — in other words, Thoreau is so focused on his “parish” that he isn’t even aware of the “province” or region in which he lives. James is right on the mark, although in the postmodern world being parochial may be a compliment rather than the indictment James meant it for.

Others have criticized Thoreau for being worse than parochial. Communitarians have accused Thoreau of being far too individualistic, to the point where Walden becomes a manifesto for rampant individualism. From a theological viewpoint, the communitarians might criticize Thoreau for encouraging individuals to think it is possible to do religion on your own without a religious community. You might call this “bootstrap religion” because you pull yourself up by your own religious bootstraps.

But I’m not sure it’s fair to accuse Thoreau either of excessive individualism or of parochialism. It’s hard to accuse him of excessive individualism when he devotes chapters of Walden to subjects like “Visitors” and “Former Inhabitants.” He may be shy and introverted, but he recognizes his debt to other people. And it’s hard to accuse Thoreau of being parochial when he quotes widely from religious texts from around the world, including such works as the Bhagavad Gita and the Confucian Analects. Rather than being parochial, he is expanding his conversations beyond the Protestant Chrstian tradition — which is farther afield than Henry James went.

Indeed, from a theological viewpoint Thoreau goes beyond individualism or traditional parochialism — because he expands his religious thinking beyond God and humanity to include all of the natural world. It’s a radical step he takes: he equates Nature with the transcendent. I’d say he equates God with Nature, and then goes further to imply that the divine is immanent in all beings, and even in inanimate objects such as rocks or bodies of water. So rather than taking a stance of radical individualism, Thoreau seems to extend subjectivity beyond humanity and God to all of Nature.

I don’t know how this train of thought is going to turn into a sermon, but it sure is fascinating.


Sitting at lunch, we wound up talking about monasteries. (Don’t ask me how, the conversation went every which way.) One of us had a book showing two monks playing cards, but in silence, not talking. The question came up, What is silence?…

Silence is not talking, not just absence of sound, you understand. There’s something powerful about not talking. Silence is the strongest sound. Someone lived in the wilderness for more than 35 years, rarely seeing or talking with another person. Better to live in Thoreau’s cabin, at least then you could walk the mile into town (as he did) and talk with your family and friends.

One of us turned to another and said, You wouldn’t like silence, you like to talk. We laughed, that was true of us all, we all like talking. (Even though I’d like to try silence, for a while, just to find out.)


Met dad at the Monsen Road unit of Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. We brought binoculars and spent some time looking for birds, but we spent far more time talking.

The Refuge staff continue to tweak their management practices in Great Meadows. This year again, both the upper and the lower impoundments have almost no water in them.

The lower impoundment (northerly, or downstream relative to the Concord River) is substantially drier right now, with the only water visible being in the ditch that leads north from the central dike. Many of the familiar plants remain despite the lack of water. The surface of the water in the ditch is covered with duckweed; cattails continue to flourish along the central dike and the east and west sides of the lower impoundment; and some purple loosestrife continues to flourish even though the water levels have been managed at least in part to try to do away with this invasive exotic. More remarkable to me was what appeared to be quite a fair amount of wild rice plants. I am not secure enough in my identification abilities to be sure it is wild rice without actually tasting the grains when they are mature. Nevertheless, I don’t remember seeing this plant before at all in the lower impoundment, and it covers a good proportion of what used to be open water in the lower impoundment. Presumably when the impoundment is flooded again, the seeds of this plant will provide another food source for migratory waterfowl. In the mean time, the growth of the wild rice (or whatever it is) makes the area look far more like a meadow than a drained pool.

The upper impoundment still looks like a drained pool. The cattails fringing the central dike and the east and west borders, and the mass of cattails in the southern half (or upstream half relative to the Concord River) retain their familiar boundaries. A few scraggly loosestrife have sprung up in the middle of the open area, the now-dry pool. We could see the leaves of pond lilies far out in the middle of the open area, where there was still a sheen of water on the mudflats — along with scores of shorebirds and a flock of Cedar Waxwings just visible in the binoculars. I saw some water chestnut floating in the central ditch — an invasive pest on which the current water management practices seem to have made substantial impact. A Great Blue Heron stalked the margins of the central ditch, thus provingsome small fish still haunted its waters.

We walked up the dike between the river and the upper impoundment, towards Borden’s Ponds, and saw pond lilies in beautiful butter-yellow bloom in the mud flats of the impoundment. Along the river, we saw lots of cardinal flowers, now in their glory. Dad took a number of photographs of cardinal flowers, and of the Great Blue Heron when we were returning. To be honest, though, we didn’t spend much time looking at either plants or birds; mostly we had a good long talk.

On August 22, 1854, Henry Thoreau took a walk in Great Meadows. This was 3 days after Ticknor and Fields published his book Walden. He wrote in his journal:

Pm. to Great Meadows on foot along bank….

This was a prairial walk. I went along the river & meadows from the first–crossing the red bridge road to the Battle Ground…. There are 3 or 4 haymakers still at work in the great meadows–though but very few acres are left uncut. Was suprised to hear a phoebe’s pewet-pewee & see it. I perceive a dead mole in the path halfway down the meadow. At the lower end of these meadows–between the river & the firm land are a number of shallow muddy pools or pond holes where the yellow lily and pontederia–Lysimachia stricta–Ludwigia spaerocarpa &c. &c. grow where apparently the surface of the meadow was floated off some srping–& so a permanent pond hole was formed in which even in this dry season [there was a serious drought in the summer of 1854] there is considerable water left…. In one little muddy basin where there was hardly a quart of water caught hald a dozen little breams and pickerel only an inch long as perfectly distinct as full grown….

Saw a blue heron–(apparently a young bird–of a brownish blue) fly up from one of these pools–and a stake driver [bittern?] from another–& also saw their great tracks on the mud & the feathers they had shed. Some of the long narrow white neck feathers of the heron. The tracks of the heron were about six inches long.

Here was a rare chance for the herons to transfix the imprisoned fish. It is a wonder that any have escaped. I was surprised that any dead were left on the mud but I judge from what the book says that they do not touch dead fish. To these remote shallow & muddy pools–usually surrounded by reeds & sedge–far amid the wet meadows–to these then the blue heron resorts for its food.

This is a description of the results of landscape management in 1854, a century and a half ago. There were no dikes in Great Meadows then, and no attempt to provide open water as resting places for migratory waterfowl in spring and fall; instead the land was managed to produce hay for livestock. In 1854, there was no need to manage the landscape in order to minimize the incursions of invasive exotic plants such as purple loosestrife and water chestnut — those plants have only come to the Great Meadows in destructive numbers within the past thirty or forty years. The Great Blue Heron and the yellow pond lilies and the shallow pools filled with small fish remain constant.

And human beings continue to spend time in the Great Meadows. Dad and I didn’t see any hay makers, of course, but we passed four young people, summer employees of the Refuge, and their pickup truck on the central dike. One of them scanned the upper impoundment with binoculars while the other three talked, and today I found myself more in sympathy with the conversation than the observation.