Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Me and Thoreau and My Dad


On Henry David Thoreau’s 205th birthday 


Thoreau is an author I love. 

When my daughter was a kid, I would reel out these Thoreau quotes on every occasion whether we were making vegetable soup or going to a funeral.  I would have a quote, and I always acknowledged my quotes.  "Like Thoreau used to say ..."

I thought I was giving her gospel that would help her in all circumstances.  It would be the universal clock that Melville writes about somewhere--right in all longitudes and latitudes.

I was wrong--but have never learned how wrong.

I taught Thoreau’s book Walden for years and expected students to say, "Yeah, this makes sense." They never said that.

Students hated him. Hated it.

He goes so much against their grain, and against the grain of any practical person. 

I was reading a review in the New Yorker about some book from Oxford U Press about technology in the 19th century, and the reviewer points out that Thoreau was the anti-modern.  The whole world wants to go forward into the 20 century and then the 21 century--except Thoreau.  He wants to take us all back to the 18th century!

People don't want to be farmers--lead simple lives.

Let me tell you a story and then I'll stop.

My father grew up on a farm in Poland--my mother did too.  My dad then spent 5 years in Germany as a Slave Laborer, and 6 years as a refugee.  When he and my mom finally came to America, they were offered the opportunity to work on a farm in upstate New York, make a living and settle there.  They stayed on the farm there long enough to pay off their passage over from Germany.  

Then, they moved to Chicago (3 million people, coal dust in the air, not a cow in sight [they have some now at Lincoln Park Zoo]).  My parents worked in factories, double shifts, never took vacations.  There was nothing rural/bucolic about their lives there.  I once asked them, "Why didn't you stay on the farm in Upstate New York?  The trees the cows the quiet"

My mother said, "Are you kidding?"

Working a shift and a half everyday in a factory where melting plastic burnt their arms and chemicals scarred their lungs was better than working on a farm.


I know I could never live on a farm.  Not now.  It's no country for old men.  I can barely keep track of the garden in my backyard, the leaves of grass in my front.  

But I know I can still read Thoreau, and dream about the forests beyond the garden in my backyard.  


The photo is one I took of Walden Pond about 10 years ago on a Saturday afternoon in early September.

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