This is a chapter from SCREE, a memoir of my recent sojourn to Harvest, Alabama. It is influenced, in part, from my readings about Thoreau.
A WALK WITH HENRY DAVID
It’s about an acre. Let us start by the creek over here. The bridge makes it charming and it runs with brim. Over here is a retaining wall we had put in to prevent flooding but it may not be long enough, “BO” Carlisle informed us, and he has grown up in the area, hunted on this very land as a young boy. It was depressing to hear that as we spent an awful amount on that wall for flood protection. He is a kind and reliable grizzled old coot who knows how to fix things well, but I cannot understand what in the world he tells me because it is all mixed up in Alabama patois. Follow me here, Henry. As you can see we have set aside areas for planting about trees, using mulch, and before the deck there is a planted area we will have pruned. The property has oaks and poplars and one old oak that may have been growing when you were a sapling yourself. In the front we will plant boxwoods with roses of several hues against the river rock walls, lending something Irish to the house. My wife is Irish and there is something to this home that speaks of the Old Sod. I cannot name particular flowers, but Nina can and she is well versed about the names of trees; pretty good with recognizing and calling out birds that come to our feeders. Put up a feeder for Hummingbirds of late, but no arrivals so far. Maybe in early May. I am trying not to be intimidated by your presence and breadth of knowledge so I have given this some thought. I just want to share with you what it is to be in the 21st century, my time, my life. Like sowing seed, allow me to spread my feelings and concerns with you. You are under no obligation to answer; perhaps it would be better if you just remained silent as we walk my acre. I always have a lot to say. I have lived 76 years, longer than you did, Henry, yet you wrote a great deal, volumes worth, said a great deal, lived deeply. After all that writing, your sentences are you. I am not comparing, just saying. I don’t compare, a little something you need to know about me. This lovely thing here is an azalea bush, snowy white. Across the way is a pink one but unless I was told I could not say as I am not only color blind but color ignorant. You might say it is a metaphysical kind of condition, because you and I can both enjoy the beauty of that azalea but cannot agree about its color. Much like assessing people, you might say.
In any case I’d like to start off with ruminations, I think of myself as a deer, a ruminant creature. For the life of me I cannot grasp what this existence is. There, I said it. I am speaking of getting up in the morning and it is in your face; I don’t mean all the things we have to do from washing our face to eating breakfast and going off to work. I don’t know if you had a 9 to 5 job, Henry. Back to my point. Before anything else, theories, philosophies, religious dogma and doctrine, conjecture, histories, what is it to be alive? An Eastern philosopher who came after your time said that “the word is not the thing itself.” It blows my mind, slang from my century, Henry, meaning awesome and incomprehensible. I can’t grasp this daily awakening, being. Insects, birds, all animal life, are awake and yet we are the only species, or so it seems, that can contemplate existence. Yet we shunt this daily wonderment aside and go about our daily life and “live” a split. You say as much in your writings. Your Walden is much about awareness and the awakening to existence. It is here that I am stymied, for all else follows, family, ambition, love, and death. Oh, that. It is a swing that we need painted and was left here by the previous tenant.
I just wade (how can anyone of us resist? into this river of life, doing things, becoming rather than being, a world of difference in my mind, getting degrees, getting married, making mistakes, competing (what a waste that is), all willy-nilly as if pushed or shoved by the wind while all others of my kind are in the same race. Yet you purposely removed yourself from the race which tells me, Henry, you saw or realized something that I have a little knowledge of. Nevertheless, once you left the race I think you came back to the original question: What is existence? What do you have to say, Henry? Sorry, I broke the rules. Please don’t answer, allow me to question. Oh that sound you hear is from the road. Yes, it is noisy, constant and repetitive, a product of modern civilization; it is not the clop clop you are used to. I remember reading about you in that you liked to listen to locomotives in Concord, especially the far away whistles as you abided in your shed; if so, traffic is caused by portable little engines. We call them cars.
So there is existence. And from that flows everything. The trouble in my time is that we are confused, even addled, and time is divided into segments, “used,” and I feel divided, torn, incomplete, silly and inane – so discomforted and ill at ease as I try to get through all this human nonsense. In my time I have decidedly marched to the sound of a different drummer. I go my own way, sometimes castigated for that. Well you know that, the ongoing battle you had with the local tax collector, Staples. Let us sit on the swing for a while. I was born exhausted, Henry. Aren’t we all, my friend? I feel dry inside, rusted. And after all this living we die. It is a dreadful hoax, a solemn charade by a dreadful god somewhere in space sitting on a couch and smoking a cigar, sending out smoke rings like a fat capitalist, Mr. Oblivious. Henry, I can’t even articulate my ennui. It is much more than feeling quiet desperateness, we have so much more to contend with in this time. You may contest that.
Anxiety, dread, fear, angst, the denial of death are the embalming fluids I slosh in each day. Did you feel any of that in your time? Stupid of me; of course, you did, just different times, different concepts and terms, but the same old slosh of being alive. You can see busy Capshaw Road from the swing. It is much too busy, but I can always retreat into the land. Like you I can go to the woods, but that is not the answer. It is another question. You went to the woods but I feel you really revisited yourself there. I believe you just reassessed what you already knew about yourself. You were well formed before the two years at Walden. I often wonder how you experienced the awakening of intelligence.
I have you here for only a short while so allow me to cut to the chase. I seek no answers from you, that would be a waste of time for both of us, however, perhaps you can help me pose better questions. In my life I practiced as a psychotherapist, a kind of medicine man of the mind — your mentor, Emerson, smacked of that, a confessor, a paid friend, what men of high intelligence have always sought out in the great books of the ancients throughout the centuries, like Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, or in your case, the Buddha. And I fully realize that the healer needs as much healing as the healed, but it is this very unused camaraderie among our species that brings so much grief and tomfoolery. Allow me to work harder at what I want to share with you, Henry.
For me the holy trinity is worry, love and death. I feel insecure as I speak to you because what I want to define readily escapes definition and leaves in its wake a ripple only telling me that something was present or there, like a frog’s jump in a creek, but I have to start somewhere. That oak tree that has caught your eye is very old and it has seen many generations inhabit this land. I take pleasure in that tree, it is a gift to me. About worry. At times I call it anxiety or angst. You directed a lot of your writings to those of us who have fallen prey to the great disabler.
When I read Walden I see all the signposts you erected for the lost and strayed. To simplify our lives, assuredly, lessens anxiety. Here, the 21st Century, it is has gotten so drearily perverse that we spend time reading manuals in order to run, operate and use our tools; we cannot go directly to what we want to accomplish; even our cars are arrayed with instructions, park, reverse, neutral, drive and a whole host of warnings such as an idiot light. Your friend, Emerson, had much to say about the deficiency of Western man’s bag of tools. We are constipated with all kinds of education and instruction. Our very technology works against us, foments anxiety and the younger generation assumes that the older by necessity will catch up; sometimes; often not. All that societal pressure. The knot of it all, Henry, is that we are caught up in time and overrun by the young technically breathing down our necks. Even Walden by the uninformed runs the risk of becoming a manual; people run to Walden Pond as if a scent of it or the sight of it would transform them. Yes, 21st Century man wants to be “transformed.” What did your century want of itself, Henry?
In addition to the befuddlement that existence presents to us, I am befuddled by the continuing contingences of being alive, such as worrying. Henry, did you ever concern yourself about who would take care of you when you were frail and old? Alas, you died so young, just in your forties. So, in many cases, worry is fear and I know that well. I live too much, at moments, in the future but I assume your transcendentalism, to use a word from your time, kept you “centered” and present. I am working on that but always a struggle. Worry is corrosive to my very soul. Combined with knowing that existence is temporary I wonder why I compound fate’s felony with additional misdemeanors. So I know life is hard by the very definition, but why do I add to it? To what end is worry? I see it as an emotional infection, a symptom of being alive, except I seem to have an extra dose to contend with. I confess it is idiosyncratic.
Yes, of course, we intend to plant wildflowers. We have several beds about the land that will serve that purpose even though I couldn’t name a flower if I had to. There are a great many things in my life that I cannot name that impact upon me, often in dramatic ways, such as death. I feel as I speak to you there is a film or filter between us which is solely of my own making. I cannot seem to get at what I want to say manifestly. It is a sense that all lies beneath the surface, latently. I have experienced this all my life. I come up short here, Henry. Rarely do individuals, perhaps in your time as well, engage one another about what counts although in Walden one can hear you shout at us as if you were a common scold as to what has to be done. I still bear your scratch marks across my brain and both your powerful hands pumping my heart to action.
My wife has prepared a little lunch for us, hard-boiled eggs, an artisanal bread you might like – she bakes, jam, butter, spring water and I hope it suffices as I know I need to take a break. She knows of you Henry and lunch is made simple in your honor. Here is a napkin.