Friday, July 24, 2009

`Of What I Already Have Some Inkling'

So often, despite his flighty Transcendentalism, posturing and dubious politics, Thoreau makes great personal sense:

“I am, perchance, most and most profitably interested in the things which I already know a little about; a mere and utter novelty is a mere monstrosity to me. I am interested to see the yellow pine, which we have not in Concord, though [French botanist François André] Michaux says it grows in Massachusetts; or the Oriental plane, having often heard of it and being well acquainted with its sister, the Occidental plane; or the English oak, having heard of the royal oak and having oaks ourselves; but the new Chinese flower, whose cousin I do not happen to know, I pass by with indifference. I do not know that I am very fond of novelty. I wish to get a clearer notion of what I already have some inkling.”

That’s from Thoreau’s journal entry for Aug. 6, 1851, when he was 34 and hardly an old man (chronologically, he had no chance to become an old man). Thoreau’s mind was as wide and venturesome as any I know but it was focused on the vital and near-at-hand: “I have travelled a good deal in Concord,” he writes in the third paragraph of Walden. I contrast this with a woman I know who is fond of saying “Change is always good.” She’s older than Thoreau at the time of his death but has not lived half as much. For life to transcend mere pulse and respiration, it must be mindful and attentive, not novelty-seeking. It’s not a matter of shunning new experience -- that will arrive inevitably – but braiding the new to the old and assaying it, a lifetime’s accumulation of weighed experience. Thoreau again, from his journal three weeks earlier, on July 16, 1851:

“Berries are just beginning to ripen, and children are planning expeditions after them. They are important as introducing children to the fields and woods….During the berry season, the schools have a vacation, and many little fingers are busy picking these small fruits. It is ever a pastime, not a drudgery. I remember how glad I was when I was kept from school half a day to pick huckleberries on a neighboring hill all by myself to make a pudding for the family dinner. Ah, they got nothing but the pudding, but I got invaluable experience beside! A half a day of liberty like that was like the promise of life eternal. It was emancipation in New England. O, what a day was there, my countrymen!”

I didn’t play catch as a kid and don’t play catch with my kids. It bored me and still does, as does anything to do with sports. But today or tomorrow we’ll spend hours in the blueberry patch, filling buckets. Like Thoreau, I loved berry picking as a kid. Behind our house in suburban Cleveland was a sprawling plot of fields and woods. Dense thickets of blackberries grew there. We harvested casually during the day as we played, and on summer nights, after dinner, carrying sauce pans, we picked for hours, until after the sun had set. It was hot, the mosquitoes were viscous and we shredded our arms on the thorns. Sweaty, itching and purple-mouthed, we “got invaluable experience beside!”


Fran Manushkin said...

Your kids may be too old for this, but there's a wonderful picture book,, JAMBERRIES, that celebrates berry picking. It's by Bruce Degen.

R. T. said...

Since someone has already mentioned a book for children, I cannot help but mention the following:

Robert McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal
(A Caldecott Honor Award Winner for Best Illustrated Children's Literature)
Ages 4 to 8

As FM says about JAMBERRIES, this book may not be age appropriate for your children, but it nevertheless deserves to be remembered within the context of your upcoming blueberry adventure.

Anonymous said...

Whoah, blog revamp alert!!!