Monday, October 01, 2012

`This Seems a Very Manly Man'

Thoreau tells the story of meeting an elderly neighbor, Brooks Clark, while taking an afternoon walk in the woods. It was October, already cold, and the man was barefoot. In one hand he held an axe; in the other, his shoes. In the shoes, the old man carried apples and a dead robin. Clark, who Thoreau says is “now about eighty,” explained that the robin’s wing was broken when he found it, so he put the bird out of its misery. He found the apples in the woods and had nothing else to transport them in but his shoes. In his journal entry for Oct. 20, 1856, Thoreau writes: 

“They were queer-looking trays to carry fruit in. How many he got in along toward the toes, I don't know. I noticed, too, that his pockets were stuffed with them.” 

Thoreau, a prime specimen of New England eccentric, never patronizes the old man. He admires his oddness and Thoreau-like indifference to social proprieties, his compassion for the injured bird and his practical solution for hauling apples: 

“He appeared to have been out on a scout this gusty afternoon, to see what he could find, as the youngest boy might. It pleased me to see this cheery old man, with such a feeble hold on life, bent almost double, thus enjoying the evening of his days.” 

Thoreau died five and a half years later, age forty-four, and never enjoyed his evening. Had he avoided turning into a cranky old man, forever lecturing his fellow Concordians, and if the war didn’t drive him crazy, and especially if he ever relaxed his solitary defensiveness enough to meet a compatible mate, Thoreau might have found he had a gift for old age. He notes that Clark has an “old wife”  with whom he will probably share the apples and the story of how he found them – an unusually human insight for Thoreau. He was self-reliant, never emotionally needy, and knew how to enjoy himself – all prerequisites for a satisfactory old age. One can easily imagine Thoreau carrying home apple- and dead-bird-filled shoes, whether to a spouse or a solitary room. He concludes the journal passage: 

“This old man's cheeriness was worth a thousand of the church's sacraments…It was better than a prayerful mood. It proves to me old age as tolerable, as happy, as infancy…If he had been a young man, he would probably have thrown away his apples and put on his shoes when he saw me coming, for shame. But old age is manlier; it has learned to live, makes fewer apologies, like infancy. This seems a very manly man.” 

So too, Thoreau. No one can deny he had “learned to live,” at least according to his own wayward lights, and no reasonably good man ever made fewer apologies.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a religious man who is about to begin the journey of old age, I'm inclined to learn how to be oneself and live well from Soren Kierkegaard. Like Thoreau, SK was fully eccentric and died in middle age (42). Or there is the simple wise, advice of Captain Ned Cuttle, in Dicken's novel, Dombey and Son: "What cannot be cured, must be endoored"