Tuesday, January 18, 2011

`The History of His Barn Floor'

The day started with an aphorism from Nicolás Gómez Dávila, “Don Colacho”:

“We should only encourage someone to do something that is worth doing because it is worth it. Goodness for goodness’s sake, truth for truth’s sake, art for art’s sake.”

So evident, so common-sensical, so rare. Ours is the mercenary species, equipped to know truth and act on it but predisposed to self-seeking, to getting our way regardless of consequences. Don Colacho says “art for art’s sake” but he’s not writing as a hot-house aesthete. When press-ganged into a cause, art is no longer art and truth is in jeopardy.

Last month I wrote of George Minott, Thoreau’s neighbor, “the most poetical farmer.” On Monday I heard from one of Minott’s descendants, a 22-year-old law student. She read my post and gave Mary Elkin Moller’s Thoreau in the Human Community to her father for his birthday. She writes:

“My dad, a writer himself, has long known of the connection, but many of the passages Moller cites were new to him. The subject line of this email is a paraphrase of Thoreau's description of [Minott] and was new to my dad and his father… A vague sentiment, perhaps, but a powerful one: `He does nothing with haste or drudgery, but as if he loved it.’”

Nothing vague about it. Some people all the time and all of us at least occasionally live as though our lives consisted of “haste or drudgery.” This was anathema to Thoreau, who writes in the second chapter of Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…”

The passage about Minott occurs in Thoreau’s journal for Oct. 4, 1851:

“Minott is, perhaps, the most poetical farmer—who most realizes to me the poetry of the farmer’s life—that I know. He does nothing with haste and drudgery, but as if he loved it. He makes the most of his labor, and takes infinite satisfaction in every part of it. He is not looking forward to the sale of his crops or any pecuniary profit, but he is paid by the constant satisfaction which his labor yields him. He has not too much land to trouble him, - too much work to do, - no hired man nor boy, - but simply to amuse himself and live. He cares not so much to raise a large crop as to do his work well. He knows every pin and nail in his barn. If another linter is to be floored, he lets no hired man rob him of that amusement, but he goes slowly to the woods and, at his leisure, selects a pitch pine tree, cuts it, and hauls it or gets it hauled to the mill; and so he knows the history of his barn floor.”

The formidably bookish Thoreau adds: “Though he never reads a book,--since he finished the `Naval Monument,’ he speaks the best of English.”

Cranky, wayward Thoreau saw in Minott a man who did “something that is worth doing because it is worth it,” and followed his understated example. Minott’s descendant adds in her e-mail:

“I also wanted to mention my new appreciation for the novel Stoner [by John Williams], which I first heard about, of course, from you. In contrast to law school, where my study is so often done in both haste and drudgery, I bought the book in October and read and reread it with longing and wonder. Now, I often find myself reading passages aloud, alone on cold Iowa nights, and every few pages having to look up and catch my breath. What sort of feeling is this, I ask myself, and then in deep warmth it comes to me that I am in love, just as Archer Sloane said. I am 22, ever lost in scenes of inarticulated beauty, and, like William hearing Shakespeare, unable to speak, his fingers unclenching their hard grip on the desk-top, I can say little more. The novel is dear to me, perhaps my favorite fiction, if such a thing can be said about one who has read so few. My deepest thanks to you for this gift.”

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