Thoreau by the Aegean

In a session of the 1986–7 senior laboratory at St John’s College in Santa Fe, for reasons that I do not recall, our tutor asked us students whether we had any heroes: for it was said that young people of the day no longer had heroes. None of the students at the table named a hero. I myself refrained from telling how I had once named a hero, when asked to do so in a high-school French class. This hero was the Buddha.

In recent times, I have listed my favorite writers as Somerset Maugham, Robert Pirsig, and R.G. Collingwood. I might add Charlotte Brontë and Mary Midgley to the list. I cannot add the Buddha, because he is not a writer. If my list were of writers and thinkers, I still could not add the Buddha: I cannot know him or any other thinker well enough, except through his own writing. But now I would add Henry David Thoreau.


I have now read Thoreau’s Journal, in the 667-page abridgement by Damion Searls, published in 2009 by New York Review Books. The original Journal is ten times longer; but Searls claims to have preserved the flavor of the whole, insofar as it can be preserved in an abridgement. I discovered the book on the shelves of Pandora Books in Istanbul. I can read a lot of what Thoreau says in the Journal to be in accord with my own thinking. On May 6, 1858, Thoreau writes:

No exercise implies more real manhood and vigor than joining thought to thought. How few men can tell what they have thought! I hardly know half a dozen who are not too lazy for this. They cannot get over some difficulty, and therefore they are on the long way round. You conquer fate by thought. If you think the fatal thought of men and institutions, you need never pull the trigger. The consequences of thinking inevitably follow. There is no more Herculean task than to think a thought about this life and then get it expressed.

I cannot unpack all of this now. I myself would not equate vigor and manhood. But I have been exercised about so-called “brain-to-brain communication.” I would say that what I am trying to engage in right now is “brain-to-brain communication”: communication between my brain and the brain of the reader. There is no other kind of communication, but brain to brain. What is meant by “brain-to-brain communication” seems to be communication effected without moving a muscle. Such communication may indeed be possible; but there is no communication without mental exertion. You cannot just have a thought and let the electrodes and the computer pull it out of you. You have to express it: you have to push it out. Thoreau would seem to agree.


A reason why I have sometimes stayed away from Thoreau is that he lives in a lost world. I read Walden in the eighth grade; but since then, when I have picked it up to read it again, I have sometimes stopped, because his admonitions no longer make sense. We cannot do the things for ourselves that he tried to do for himself. In the Journal, he describes keeping himself warm in winter with the driftwood that he himself has collected. When adding an odd-shaped stick to the fire, Thoreau can remember the time when he first picked up the stick.


Most of us live too far from the deposits of wood that Thoreau could take advantage of. Perhaps some few persons can still live as Thoreau tried to; but Thoreau himself could not quite succeed. At some point of the winter, his collection of wood was used up, and he had to buy a cord chopped by somebody else.

I am not subscribed to Lapham’s Quarterly, but I have arranged to receive its electronic notices. A recent one of these had the following from Walden:

One says to me, “I wonder that you do not lay up money; you love to travel; you might take the cars and go to Fitchburg today and see the country.” But I am wiser than that. I have learned that the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot. I say to my friend, Suppose we try who will get there first. The distance is thirty miles; the fare ninety cents. That is almost a day’s wages. I remember when wages were sixty cents a day for laborers on this very road. Well, I start now on foot, and get there before night; I have traveled at that rate by the week together. You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare and arrive there sometime tomorrow, or possibly this evening, if you are lucky enough to get a job in season. Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day. And so, if the railroad reached round the world, I think that I should keep ahead of you; and as for seeing the country and getting experience of that kind, I should have to cut your acquaintance altogether.

If I lived by this philosophy, I could not live where I do now, on the other side of an ocean from where I was born. I might not have met my spouse, because I did this in another country from where I was born. On the other hand, when I went from Washington to spend a semester at the Fields Institute in Toronto—the semester when I came to know Ayşe—I did consider bicycling there. On a pleasure trip, or rather a “personal challenge” trip, I had already bicycled from DC to Ontario, a couple of years earlier. (I continued on to meet my mother in Michigan, and I drove back to Washington with her.) Returning from Toronto to DC by bicycle in January would be a challenge. I moved to the Fields Institute and back in rented cars, with two bicycles strapped to the back.

If driving and flying are cheap now, it is only through the squandering of the eons of life that have taken carbon from the air and made the planet livable for us. Now we are busy putting the carbon back into the air, making the planet unlivable again. Thoreau is a reminder that another way of life is possible, even a richer way of life. He did not live his way of life out of fear of Global Warming. He lived simply, simply out of preference.

I might name Thoreau and the other writers on my list as my friends. Nature was Thoreau’s friend. Nature is mostly what he talks about in his Journal. He rarely mentions books. He writes occasionally about his dreams, in the narrow sense of dreams that he has when he is asleep. I kept a dream journal for a while when I was in Santa Fe, though I do not know what I got out of it. Thoreau does little with his own dreams, besides note them.


I recently spent two weeks teaching a course at the Nesin Mathematics Village. The Village is the most supremely beautiful place for living that I know. The surrounding hills are cultivated for olives, peaches, cherries, grapes. The Village itself is constructed with brick, wood, and stone. Waste water is cleaned and recycled to the gardens of the Village. I know that there is reinforced concrete in some Village structures; but I do find myself more or less satisfied by the façades of stone, quarried from the back side of a nearby rocky eminence. I am also satisfied to be able to get away from the Village for two or three hours, one one of the several loop hikes that I have found. Likewise, Santa Fe was satisfying for the opportunity of hiking up Atalaya Mountain between breakfast and lunch on a free morning.

I cannot say that I “commune with nature” on my hikes. I do observe nature, but not very carefully, as Thoreau would. He could spend a day, standing in one spot, watching frogs. Most of my own hikes from the Math Village pass through or near the village of Şirince. The day after one of these hikes, I tried to follow the same route in reverse. I got lost, looking for the right dirt road out of Şirince. I ended up wandering in a trackless olive grove, until I could spy my route in the distance. My thoughts must have been elsewhere than my surroundings, on the previous day. I had not properly noticed my actual route. I had not reached the goal of awareness that I believe the Zen Buddhist aims for. But this had not really been my goal.

Writes Thoreau on January 3, 1858:

About, in his lively “Greece and the Greeks,” says, “There are the most exquisite delights to be found in Greece, next to, or perhaps before, the pleasure of admiring the masterpieces of art,—a little cool water under a genial sun.” I have no doubt that this is true. Why, then, travel so far when the same pleasures may be found near home?

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Why indeed? I am in the fortunate position of already making my home near Greece anyway. Before the Math Village, I had the pleasure of reading Thoreau on the seaside north of Lesbos, at Assos, where Aristotle once lived. Now, after the Village, I read Thoreau on the seaside east of Lesbos, at a resort in the modern farming town of Altınova, “Golden Plain.” The meadows and woods that Thoreau walks through may be nothing like the sand and the sea of the Aegean coast. Perhaps the sea is like a big Walden Pond. And the genial sun is the same one.


2 Trackbacks

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