glyph 579: Henry David Thoreau, Walden Pond . philosophy, life paths, essence of a good life


Thoreau's Upland Farm

The Upland Farm: Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life, by Peter Saint-Andre

Peter Saint-André takes us on a walk through Thoreau's thought. He's good company. The beginning:

1. Farm (February 7)

I rose above my common hours to go in search of Thoreau's farm: not the tiny house and lowland farm out at Walden Pond where he made the soil say beans, but the higher ground and upland farm of his inner life where he made his soul say being.

After a gap of decades, I dove again into Walden and found myself drawn back into Thoreau's world. But this time I was no mere sojourner; for several years I bathed my intellect in his books and essays, his poems and letters, and his massive Journal. Slowly I began to understand more and more clearly the aspirational experiments he pursued at his upland farm, the employment he engaged in on the higher ground of personal improvement and elevation.

By reading and re-reading, by writing and re-writing, I boiled down the sweet sap of his insights; yet I have not stopped at syrup, but have gone on to procuring a few pure crystals of sugar from the new life that stirs in the roots and stems and leaves of his writings. By relating eighteen encounters with Thoreau's life and thought, I have endeavored to embody the transcendent ideals that Thoreau pursued in all his works and days: the true poem of what he made of himself, the form and expression of his entire life, the integrated approach to living that he sought and found, the highest use that he discovered and perfected in his independent existence.

Unfortunately, Thoreau hid the approach to his upland farm behind a thicket of symbols and images. Thus I have found it necessary to seek the meaning of each word and line in his writings, conjecturing a larger sense than the common uses to which he is so often put: the hermit, the gadfly, the political activist, the environmentalist, the advocate for voluntary simplicity. Although he was all these at times, they do not explain him.

The essence of Thoreau's quest was to pursue some absorbing employment on the higher ground of his soul, to raise a crop that he could barter for heavenly products, to lay a foundation under the castle he had built in the air, to create a moral and intellectual kingdom within himself.

As in the Bhagavat-Gita, the classic of Indian philosophy that he so treasured, in Thoreau's mind the great field to be cultivated is the self, and the greatest achievement is liberation through self-possession, self-control, and self-mastery. Indeed, because the English word "farm" refers to a firm possession and because the Sanskrit word "dharma" refers to a firmly established way of living, it turns out that the upland farmer is a cultivator of dharma!

Yet, even though the upland farm is hard to find, Thoreau provides some clues regarding its location.
September 4, 2017

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