October 27, 2010


I never read Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden Pond when I was in college. The book was part of the curriculum, but I skipped it. At 19 studying the words of a guy who spent his time observing ants didn’t mean much to me. I was absorbing ideas from my classmates who came from all parts of the country and the world. I recall sitting in one young man’s dormitory room, listening to his rant on why art should not imitate. “We have cameras to do that,” he explained when I looked blank. The thought was a revelation as I’d always assumed a painted flower should look like a real one. Another revelation was that money couldn’t buy happiness. I knew the homily but not until two of my privileged classmates committed suicide did it have any meaning. Experiences like those made Thoreau’s world too remote to merit my attention.

I didn’t pick up his book again until I was 40, while I was recuperating from surgery. Having run out of reading, I surveyed my college volume, now heavy with dust, and thought, “Why not?”  After I’d read, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately and see if I could not learn what it had to teach…” I was hooked. So much of what he wrote was like water falling on parched land. Yes, yes. That is how life should be lived, simply, and with respect for the environment. I admired his aversion to the coming technology of his day for, like him, I wondered if the speed and ease with which we communicate makes us think or talk any more sensibly.

Thoreau’s two years in the woods altered his point of view irrevocably. Among his lessons was the simple one: “to want but little.” Freed from a desire for “things,” he felt liberated. Once, he stopped to observe his neighbor’s prize cows and seeing them, he rightly wondered: Does the farmer own the cows or do the cows own him?

Thoreau awakened in me an inner voice. My link with nature had always existed, as it does for everyone. To discover it, I needed to listen.

Of late, a number of scientists have been listening. From Japan two studies reveal the link between humans and trees is more than metaphor. They’ve discovered a walk through the woods exposes us to phytoncides – aromatic oils that fight off colds and viral infections. What’s more trees lower our pulse rates and the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies and with greater effect than a walk through city streets. In addition, an English study has found a stroll through a park elevates mood and bolsters self-esteem (Ladies Home Journal, November 2010 pg. 173).

Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918) knew by intuition what science now affirms: our experience with trees is almost mystical. His poem “Trees” is disparaged by critics and yet it lives. Few among us are unfamiliar with, “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.” Great art or not, his words reminds of what we know, internally.  Robert Frost felt that mysticism too and said it with more art:

              “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” (“Birches”)