I enjoy a somewhat Thoreau-like existence, living in a cabin in the Adirondack woods about a mile from a small town. This frugal, fairly self-sustaining lifestyle means plenty of physical labor and ample quiet time for writing. Like Henry David Thoreau, I foolishly thought my immersion into nature might shield me from political matters. I tried to expunge such thoughts by chopping wood but soon found my axe needed grinding.
My world had changed; the forest seemed less attractive, the mountains less appealing, my prose less worthy. As Thoreau wrote, “I dwelt before, perhaps, in the illusion that my life passed somewhere only between heaven and hell, but now I cannot persuade myself that I do not dwell wholly within hell.”
For the past year, I have lived with the sense of having suffered a vast and indefinite loss, not knowing what ailed me. At last, I came to the same conclusion as Thoreau, I had “lost a country.” The founding principles of democracy, of truth and justice and freedom, were being walloped.
Thoreau despised the injustice of slaveholders from southern states capturing black men and women in Massachusetts. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 had forced local law officers and citizens to assist with the captures, which Thoreau considered kidnappings. “The site of that political organization called Massachusetts,” he wrote, “is to me morally covered with volcanic scoriae and cinders.”
Today, the White House and the US Capitol are sites of an unprincipled inferno. But if the majority (of state electors) elect the Devil, the minority will have to obey the elected candidate, trusting that at some time, by some vote casting, perhaps, they may reinstate a ruler with morals. “Will mankind never learn that policy is not morality,” wrote Thoreau, “— that it never secures any moral right, but considers merely what is expedient, chooses the available candidate, — who is invariably the Devil, — and what right have his constituents to be surprised, because the Devil does not behave like an angel of light?”
Though repelled by evil words and deeds, some citizens slide downhill a little way, or a good way, believing they will surely come to a place, by and by, where they could begin to slide uphill. “But….there is no such thing as sliding up hill,” wrote Thoreau. “In morals the only sliders are backsliders.”
I, too, am surprised to see principled people ignoring hypocrisy, lies, and two-facedness, and other people simply going about their business as if nothing has happened. How can they close their eyes to the pandemonium? “It is not an era of repose,” wrote Thoreau. “We have used up all our inherited freedom. If we would save our lives, we must fight for them.”
Courage and inspiration for the battle can sometimes be realized in nature, so Thoreau walked toward a pond. Yet he wondered what beauty he might find in nature when men are so wicked? “We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them…. The remembrance of my country spoils my walk.”
Later, Thoreau spotted a white water lily. “It is the emblem of purity. It bursts up so pure and fair to the eye, and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth.”
The flower alleviated Thoreau’s despair of the world. “What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower!” The time might come when man’s deeds would smell as sweet as the lily.
The flower, being produced annually, suggested what kind of laws prevailed and ruled the world. If fair actions had not been performed, the lily would not smell sweet. “It reminds me that Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise. I scent no compromise in the fragrance of the water-lily…. In it, the sweet, and pure, and innocent are wholly sundered from the obscene and baleful.”
People of virtue should not compromise or backslide either. Slavery, servility, obstruction, and hate produce no sweet scent to charm the senses. “They are…offensive to all healthy nostrils.” They should be buried, or perhaps “even they are good for manure.”
Though it is -10 degrees this morning, I have faith that beneath the ice-crusted snow the manure is turning to fertilizer and the interminable water lily will again emit a sweet scent in the country’s air.
Note: All quotes are from “Slavery in Massachusetts” by Henry David Thoreau, 1854.