Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Thoreau and I

In order to make myself feel even more inept, I decided to re-read Thoreau’s Walden, that story of a man who built his own cabin and lived in it two years, so far from his fellow man that a child wandering in the woods would have to walk an entire mile to find him… unless he was walking on the Walden Road, of course… but that’s as may be… I had read Thoreau in high school, and as I remember, my classmates and I made much of him. We were impressed by his statement, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation”. Now, thanks to the Internet, that is no longer the case -- now they are desperate loudly in your face! But Thoreau wrote many other sentences. A couple paragraphs down from that very famous one, he writes (and I quote): “Old people did not know enough, once, perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled around the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase is.” Now, unless I am going senile at a very young age, Thoreau seems to have neglected his mycology before trying to eat off the land. I hadn’t realized they had those kind of mushrooms in Connecticut, but live and learn…

I, of course, am hoping to glean my own sapling wisdom from my land, though I am perhaps a bit more connected to “civilization” (which is quite obviously not the same thing as civilized nation) than he was. Still, in the past six months, I have racked up an impressive number of solitary hours, and even weeding out those hours spent contemplating the very practical questions of how to plug leaky shed roofs and how to clear out the ex-mouse nest behind the oven (it was a very ex-mouse), I have devoted quite a bit of time to contemplating the Universe, civilization and The Big Questions. Mostly I do this with an ice pack on my back, or while rubbing arnica on the new bruises, but -- and this is the important point -- I am doggedly pursuing those questions and writing down my results. I’m also deeply pondering what kind of bug is devouring my strawberries (unless it’s one of those tiny stray black holes that quantum science has been looking for).

And sometimes I think my friends aren’t quite as grateful that I have dedicated myself to this pursuit in their behalf (I’m guessing Thoreau’s little group had the same response - “gee, thanks, David - you’re sitting there contemplating the Universe while I’m just slaving at the bank; can’t tell you how grateful I am”, etc. ) When I do manage to get hold of friends by phone or email, they seem, well -- pre-occupied. “Yes, true, the fallacy of the linearity of Time could be important, but I’ve got to get back to these overdue taxes,” they say, or “Right, right - did I tell you I’ve got two sick dogs and we’re meeting at work tomorrow to see if they’re gonna lay us off?” Which leads me to believe, with David T., that it requires a period of de-coupling from civilization before we are properly able to stand outside of it. I say “outside”, but I acknowledge my freezer of beef, the baseboard heaters and internet connection, not to mention visits to the chiropractor… but then again David was much younger than I am, and his friends dropped over more often [hint].

Here are some of the deeper questions that have occurred to me in this rich silence (broken only by the sounds of the leaf blower neighbor, the metal recycler across the river and local hot rods):”Is this increasingly visual culture losing its ability to form linear thought?“ “Is this perhaps a move toward holistic thinking that might break through the illusion of linear Time?“ “Did I eat all the cookies?” and “Are those damn scientists gonna black-hole us to oblivion with that damn particle accelerator?” I’m not the only one worried about the last one - it’s all over the internet. So I was intrigued and -- what’s the opposite of reassured? -- to find out that there are at least five more REALLY BIG science projects that aren’t as “sexy” (the author’s words) as the particle accelerator, aiming to really get into the Big Questions - like “What’s inside this planet?” (the Big Drill - and right on a major oceanic fault line, mind you!), and “Have any nearby stars blown up?“ (the Big Nova Alarm Box for detecting supernovas in our galaxy - at least a half hour before we all “detect” it by being wiped out)… the others have been mercifully wiped from my memory. I can assure you I am doing much less harm as I work the Big Questions… but then, I didn’t get the billion dollar grants, either. But it’s peaceful today in my garden - no noticeable supernovas or stray black holes, but I’m keeping an eye on the strawberries, just in case.

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