Breaking Bread with Thoreau

Thoreau’s puritanical background becomes even clearer in the chapter entitled “Higher Laws.” It begins with a confession of an attraction to his “wild side:”

I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good. The wildness and adventure that are in fishing still recommended it to me. I like sometimes to take rank hold on life and spend my day more as the animals do. Perhaps I have owed to this employment and to hunting, when quite young, my closest acquaintance with Nature.

and

There is a period in the history of the individual, as of the race, when the hunters are the "best men," as the Algonquins called them. We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected. This was my answer with respect to those youths who were bent on this pursuit, trusting that they would soon outgrow it. No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.

Having admitted to once having had such desires, he now begins to argue that these are “lower” instincts:

There is unquestionably this instinct in me which belongs to the lower orders of creation; yet with every year I am less a fisherman, though without more humanity or even wisdom; at present I am no fisherman at all. But I see that if I were to live in a wilderness I should again be tempted to become a fisher and hunter in earnest.

While I have personally given up fishing and would never have considered hunting, it’s hard for me to consider hunting and fishing as sinful. Instead, these seem to me merely to be personal choices.

I had never realized before that Thoreau was a vegetarian:

Beside, there is something essentially unclean about this diet and all flesh, and I began to see where housework commences, and whence the endeavor, which costs so much, to wear a tidy and respectable appearance each day, to keep the house sweet and free from all ill odors and sights.

I have to admit that when I’m forced to spend too much time cutting up beef or chicken for a dish I’ve been known to get a little queasy from the feel and smell of the meat. And I know if I had to kill my own food, I would probably eat only vegetables and fish. That, however, doesn’t mean I buy into Thoreau’s pseudo-scientific explanation of the superiority of a vegetarian diet:

I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind. It is a significant fact, stated by entomologists -- I find it in Kirby and Spence -- that "some insects in their perfect state, though furnished with organs of feeding, make no use of them"; and they lay it down as "a general rule, that almost all insects in this state eat much less than in that of larvae. The voracious caterpillar when transformed into a butterfly ... and the gluttonous maggot when become a fly" content themselves with a drop or two of honey or some other sweet liquid.

I really don’t think there’s much chance of my transforming into a butterfly, and I certainly try not to think of myself as a maggot.

Thoreau doesn’t futher his argument much when he says:

It is not worth the while to live by rich cookery. Most men would feel shame if caught preparing with their own hands precisely such a dinner, whether of animal or vegetable food, as is every day prepared for them by others. Yet till this is otherwise we are not civilized, and, if gentlemen and ladies, are not true men and women.

Surprisingly enough, I’ve never felt any particular shame when preparing a “rich” meal. In fact, quite the opposite. I pride myself on my cooking and on celebrating the company of good friends and family with a feast. Good food, when eaten in moderation, of course, is a joy, a celebration of life and even of Nature’s bounty when the fresh vegetables have just been harvested.

I do, however, completely agree with Thoreau when he points out that we are often unaware of our blessings and our successes:

If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal -- that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.

I am content with my life even when I seem to make only small steps toward improving it.

I’ll admit I’m fond of water, particularly when I’m hiking, but I’m not going to limit myself to water:

I would fain keep sober always; and there are infinite degrees of drunkenness. I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!

I consider it sinful to waste three bucks for a cup of coffee at a Starbucks, but if I ever imply that coffee and tea are sinful, it’s time to question whether aliens have taken over my body. It’s surely not me speaking.

To me, Thoreau undercuts his argument by overstating his case:

Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant's truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails.

Now, I would certainly agree “goodness is the only investment that never fails,” as long as you agree with my definition of “goodness,” but I don’t really see a world where there’s a constant war between “virtue” and “vice.”

Thoreau’s vision of two sides of human nature reminds me of the conservative Christian view that man is inherently evil and only belief in Jesus can bring salvation:

Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it. Man flows at once to God when the channel of purity is open. By turns our purity inspires and our impurity casts us down. He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established. Perhaps there is none but has cause for shame on account of the inferior and brutish nature to which he is allied.

He would be hard pressed to support his argument that “genius” or “heroism” are dependent on chastity, and his argument that we should all be ashamed of our “brutish nature” calls to mind Hawthorne’s delightful “The Birthmark,” which offers a rather different viewpoint.

Thoreau goes even further:

All sensuality is one, though it takes many forms; all purity is one. It is the same whether a man eat, or drink, or cohabit, or sleep sensually. They are but one appetite, and we only need to see a person do any one of these things to know how great a sensualist he is. The impure can neither stand nor sit with purity.

Enough, I refuse to be denied my right to sleep sensually! I’m surprised he doesn’t demand that we wear a hair nightshirt to bed just to insure that we never sleep too soundly. I just can’t believe we’re either pure or sensual. I’m even a little surprised that Thoreau, a would-be poet, reaches this conclusion.

Thoreau even manages to suggest that the New England work ethic is another sign of holiness:

In the student sensuality is a sluggish habit of mind. An unclean person is universally a slothful one, one who sits by a stove, whom the sun shines on prostrate, who reposes without being fatigued. If you would avoid uncleanness, and all the sins, work earnestly, though it be at cleaning a stable.

While I’ve been accused of being a Type-A workaholic, I sometimes wish I could just sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of my labor more. Take my word for it, it is no virtue to be driven to work.

I’ve heard devoted members of the Waldenlist dismiss Emerson’s criticism of Thoreau as petty and envious, but it’s clear to me why Emerson would say of Thoreau, “His virtues, of course, sometimes ran into extremes. It was easy to trace to the inexorable demand on all for exact truth that austerity which made this willing hermit more solitary than even he wished” and “I think the severity of his ideal interfered to deprive him of a healthy sufficiency of human society.” It is this "severity" and not his ideals per se that I, indeed, find objectionable. Instead of rejecting established religions, he seems to be endorsing the much older, monastic forms of religion.

Loren

I feel better about Thoreau today. In fact, I have included a recipe for bread that comes close to that which he baked with the exception of some ingredients not readily available to him. Fortunately for us we can pop this loaf in our ovens and not have to bake it on a shingle. Wait a minute, that sounds like fun...

Walden Wheat Corn Bread

This recipe from The Book of Bread by Judith and Evan Jones would make a nice addition to a reading of Walden in which Thoreau praises the activity of bread baking “before my fire outdoors on a shingle,” finding a dough consisting of “a mixture of rye and Indian meal most convenient and agreeable.”

1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
2 tablespoons honey or brown sugar
1 teaspoon coarse salt or 1/2 teaspoon table salt
3/4 cup corn oil
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups yellow corn meal
1/2 cups wheat germ
1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2-2 cups white flour, preferably unbleached
2 tablespoons butter

Makes one 12 inch round

In a large bowl let the yeast dissolve in the warm water along with the honey or brown sugar. Beat in the salt, oil, eggs, and milk. Then add the corn meal, wheat germ, whole wheat flour, and about 11/2 cups of the white flour to make a very soft dough. Cover with plastic wrap and set the bowl in a warm place for 45-60 minutes until it has swollen to about twice its volume.

Stir down the mixture and add a little more white flour if needed--you want a soft but not a runny dough. Melt the butter in a 12 inch iron skillet and when sizzling turn the dough into the pan, spreading it to even it out. Bake immediately in a preheated 425 degree oven for 20 minutes. Serve warm from the skillet.

Walden, Chapter 11, “Higher Laws”

It’s not about the Lexus

Idealism glows from every page of this chapter, and I cannot argue with the advocacy of living the simple life. I regret I find it impossible to live as Thoreau did--even Thoreau managed it for only two years.

Yesterday, I identified six “Higher Laws” which are developed in the chapter. The Laws are Become One with Nature, Outgrow Hunting, Become a Vegetarian, Learn to Love Water, Subdue Sensuality, and Take the Highest Road. Some of the Laws are simpler than others; none are easy to obey with any consistency.

BECOME ONE WITH NATURE

By now, readers, you are well aware of the wholesomeness of recognizing our places in nature. Thoreau has taken himself one step further, feeling his civilized shell slip from him.

I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for that wildness which he represented.

Once or twice, however, while I lived at the pond, I found myself ranging the woods, like a half-starved hound, with a strange abandonment, seeking some kind of venison which I might devour, and no morsel could have been too savage for me.

Before completely reverting to a more savage self, however, Thoreau makes us aware that he acknowledges his spirituality which along with the knowledge that we are mortal, sets us apart from the animals. He finds his savage and his spiritual instincts of equal value.

...an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men...and savage one, and I reverence them both.

The observation that those who live and work in the woods may know more about nature than the city expert who is sent to study the outdoors should be part of the coursework for every BLM worker.

Fishermen, hunters, wood-choppers, and other, spending their lives in the fields and woods, in a peculiar sense a part of Nature themselves, are often in a more favorable mood for observing her.

OUTGROW HUNTING

This sentiment would not have gone over well with my great grandfather, but it certainly makes sense to me. What is wrong with those people who continue to deer hunt?

I speak of fishing only now, for I had long felt differently about fowling, and sold my gun before I went to the woods.

I have been willing to omit the gun.

We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun;

No human being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.

He goes thither at first as a hunter and fisher, until at last, if he has the seeds of a better life in him, he distinguishes his proper objects, as a poet or naturalist it may be, and leaves the gun and fish-pole behind.

The embryo man passes through the hunter stage of development.

...yet with every year I am less a fisherman, though without more humanity or even wisdom;

BECOME A VEGETARIAN

No doubt Thoreau found the preparation of meat and fish wearisome because he was his own butcher and he lacked refrigeration. If I didn’t have access to Albertson’s meat counter and my new Frigidaire, vegetarianism would look good to me, too.

The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness;

...a little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth.

I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind.

I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.

LEARN TO LOVE WATER

It is amazing to me that Thoreau was so aware of dietary choices which would lead to good health. It is to our detriment that he is not more popular. Americans would not be facing the epidemic of obesity if we would read and follow Thoreau’s advice. Think how much money we would save on diet books.

I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!

SUBDUE SENSUALITY

In other words learn to contain desire, another example of the influence of Eastern religion upon Thoreau’s thought.

It is neither the quality not the quantity, but the devotion to sensual savors; when that which is eaten is not a viand to sustain our animal, or inspire our spiritual life, but food for the worms that possess us.

Even Thoreau admitted he would need a teacher to help him attain purity. Knowing about it and demonstrating it are two different things.

Who knows what sort of life would result if we had attained to purity. If I knew so wise a man as could teach me purity I would go to seek him forthwith.

Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it. Many flows at once to God when the channel of purity is open. By turns our purity inspires and our impurity casts us down. He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established.

...our very life is our disgrace...

All sensuality is one, though it takes many forms; all purity in one. It is the same whether a man eat, or drink, or cohabit, or sleep sensually. They are but one appetite, and we only need to see a person do any one of these things to know how great a sensualist he is.

If you would be chaste, you must be temperate. What is chastity? How shall a man know if he is chaste? He shall not know it.

That last sentence bothers me, but perhaps he means we may know when we are not chaste, but experiencing purity, at least, for any length of time is not possible for mortals.

TAKE THE HIGHEST ROAD

Physical labor was more a matter of ordinary living than it is now. Not very many of us work each day to exertion. That is what health clubs are for. But a hard day’s work or work out does make one feel better. Wiser? More pure? I must not be working out hard enough.

From exertion come wisdom and purity; from sloth ignorance and sensuality. In the student sensuality is a sluggish habit of mind. An unclean person is universally a slothful one, one who sits by a stove, whom the sun shines on prostrate, who reposes without being fatigued. If you would avoid uncleanness and all the sins, work earnestly, though it be at cleaning a stable.

Even during this “mean, moiling life” attempt to elevate the self above desire, above the ordinary, chaotic existence. Take care to refine yourself.

Nothing was too trivial for the Hindoo lawgiver, however offensive it may be to modern taste. He teaches how to eat, drink, cohabit, void excrement and urine, and the lie, elevating what is mean, and does not falsely excuse himself by calling these things trifles.

Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them.

They gently did away with the street, and the village, and the state in which he lived. A voice said to him,--Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? Those same stars twinkle over other fields that these.--But how to come out of this condition and actually migrate thither? All that he could think of was to practice some new austerity, to let his mind descend into his body and redeem it, and treat himself with ever increasing respect.

Practice some new austerity: Recognize one’s place in the universe, eat and drink simply, and conquer desire would indeed increase self-respect. It isn’t about the new Lexus, folks.

Diane McCormick

6 thoughts on “Breaking Bread with Thoreau

  1. Could you give me the origin of the quote regarding man flowing to God when his channel of purity is opened?
    Thanks

  2. Could you give me the origin of the quote regarding man flowing to God when his channel of purity is opened?
    Thanks

  3. I’m not sure what you’re asking. Are you asking where Thoreau got the idea from? If so, I really don’t know.

    But it is a direct quote from Chapter 11, Higher Laws, of Walden.

  4. Re:

    “I’ve heard devoted members of the Waldenlist dismiss Emerson’s criticism of Thoreau as petty and envious, but it’s clear to me why Emerson would say of Thoreau, “His virtues, of course, sometimes ran into extremes. It was easy to trace to the inexorable demand on all for exact truth that austerity which made this willing hermit more solitary than even he wished” and “I think the severity of his ideal interfered to deprive him of a healthy sufficiency of human society.” It is this “severity” and not his ideals per se that I, indeed, find objectionable. Instead of rejecting established religions, he seems to be endorsing the much older, monastic forms of religion.”

    As a long-time member of waldenlist — and one who stands much in admiration of Ralph Waldo Emerson — just want to say — don’t agree with the above comment. Not at all.

    In matter of fact — Thoreau frequently took the village children huckleberrying — often visited the Emerson house — made toys for the Emerson children — and — even during his Walden Pond years– frequently visited the village. As Emerson pointed out in his Thoreau eulogy — Thoreau was more unlike his neighbors in thought than in action.
    —Cheers, Gary

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