News and Tribune

January 6, 2013

CUMMINS: Before deliberation, you have to simplify


— If things don’t change, I’m going to go live at Walden Pond. I like living a lot, but it’s much nuttier than it used to be. Keeping up with the ultra-modern stuff is ridiculous. It binds your nerves into ticking time bombs. Not only that, the government has lost all sense of who, what, why and where they are. I’m considering walking away from all of it, as Henry David Thoreau did 166 years ago.

Marching to his own drumbeat, Thoreau thought the government was not only stupid, but ruthless, so he defied it. When Congress assessed a poll tax and he refused to pay, they jailed him, but released him the next day when a friend paid the tax. He thought that if you disagreed with a tax, don’t pay it, which sounds like a good idea to me. Say I withhold a tax, what can they do, tax you to jail me?

 After Thoreau’s incarceration, he wrote “Civil Disobedience.” The lengthy diatribe explained, “They who (in 1846) have been bred in the school of politics fail now and always to face the facts. Their measures are half measures and makeshifts merely. They put off the day of settlement indefinitely, and meanwhile the debt accumulates.” He believed, “That government is best which governs least.” Heard that before? His work inspired others, most notably, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to employ civil disobedient (nonviolent) measures to gain freedom and equality for their people. Here’s the deal, I will not use violence against my government, if they discontinue violating me.   

Thoreau had had enough. His take on government and society: “Still, we live meanly like ants; though the fable tells us we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, clout upon clout, a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simply, simplify! Let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.” When you scurry to the top of your anthill, they push you off.

Thoreau’s friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, offered some land he owned on Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau built a little cabin there and moved in, because he “wished to live deliberately, so to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Don’t ridicule him for wanting to escape from, as he said, “talking through a telegraph and riding 30 miles an hour,” on a railroad. He said, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides on us.” Thoreau preferred to walk and wrote a 37-page essay called “Walking.” Henry David, times have changed, and don’t you know that the Net and Wi-fi simplify? To prevent facing friends, we now let Facebook do our work. 

“Walden” is a remarkable and delightful book. Thoreau lived there deliberately for two years. He lived in “Nature,” observing it every day, during every season and was enchanted with every species of fish, animal, plant and tree. “Instead of calling on some scholar, I paid many visits to particular trees.”

Remembering that God made nature before experimenting with the nature of man is what drove him to Walden. Not that he gave up on the human race he discovered the nature of nature by living in and observing the essence of it. For example, he wrote two pages describing the antics of squirrels in winter, and later their different behaviors during other seasons. “Usually, the red squirrel waked me in the dawn, coursing over the roof, as if sent out of the woods for this purpose.” His descriptive accounts of nature’s gifts reveal awe, amazement and joy at its purest.

Time for him was, “the stream I go a-fishing in.” Time for me is no time to fish, because I’m too busy trying to simplify. 

Simplicity has gone the way of solitude, which requires plugging something in your ear canals. I, too, observe the squirrels, but they’re outside my window, as are the multitudes hurrying by to catch a fast train. The squirrels go to the woods whenever they want to, and I’d follow, but have so little time to deliberate. My furnace is on the blink, and some other things. Maybe I’ll make a friend who has a little piece of property stuck off in nature somewhere.

Contact Terry Cummins at