Feb 4, 2011

A Thoreau For Our Day

I guess I'm still dwelling on the whole yesteryear when we were disconnected enough with everyone electronically that the mundane around us didn't seem so...mundane. But can you be a successful writer today and not be plugged into email, TV, cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, etc.?

I suppose that depends on your definition of "successful." I do know this--you can be a great writer without all those things. And isn't being a "great" writer success, in and of itself?

My dad introduced me to a great writer last week while I was down visiting my folks in Southern California. He handed me a well-thumbed book of essays entitled "Passion Below Zero: Essays from Last Chance, Idaho" by David Hays. Mr. Hays had decided to withdraw from society, much as Thoreau did when he went to Walden Pond, and share his observations and lessons learned from such a solitary life in a very small, weekly paper he puts out. Since the essays are so short, I hope you don't mind my sharing the first with you here. I think it will be well worth the few minutes it takes to read. It may even prompt you in your own writing. He wrote it in 1989 and titled it, "A New Beginning."

I suppose I am a peasant. Complicated things that excite others merely confuse me. I am a large, square-bodied, graying man who is stubborn as a stone, though steady enough in purpose and principles. Elegant devices and sophisticated machinery with many shining buttons befuddle me. I can find my way up the mountain in a blizzard, but were you to open the hood of my truck I could not find the fire wall without a map. Perhaps it comes of being born sturdy in the full heaviness of spring, of poor people who were close to the land but never owned any; who were never idle long enough to gather into themselves the complexities and subtle emotional patterns we are so fond of in modern life. I know the mind of a hawk and can read the moods of bears, but I become lost on the trail to another human's heart.

Mine is a very fine life, blessed by the absence of anguish or tragedy and filled with the comfort of knowing my own boundaries. I have a small newspaper that is enormously enjoyable to run and, I am told, fun to read. I write this on a porch I have known for years though it now sits on land new to me and it, a gentle bench looking over a quiet swale groved in young aspen. My companions are an old black cat--with me since I came to these mountains--and a bestiary of other species, compatible in their calmness. This is a secure place. The door is rarely closed and no one is caged, or obligated, or here because they cannot be somewhere else. Some stay, some migrate in their time and season, and some are merely passing through and resting at safe harbor. All are welcome and abide the house rule that none eats the other or becomes wickedly critical of another's ways. But there is a quiet sadness at evening or by moonlight, for none of us are paired; partnered in that wonderful duality of like kind that so energizes and excites the outside world. We are solitaries, bonded merely by trust and familiarity rather than passion.

Perhaps that is why our life in and around this small cabin is uncomplicated and even often serene. Without the sophisticated complexities of courtship, the daily rhythms fall into dignified habits of "please" and "thank you" between the furred ones and the feathered ones and the slightly balding, quiet owner. Without the gasping gush of hormones and the fierce territorial mating displays, we can all live beside the other in polite, if sexless, companionship. None go hungry or cold, none are required to be brutal or unkind, none have to be sorry for hurtful things done while being driven by despair. It is the peace of passivity, the self-control of the monk who has denied the other Half of a Whole so pregnant with madness.

So I have chosen the simplicity of the peasant, at least for the moment, just as those on my porch and in the tree by the east window have chosen to make the arena of life smaller; to tidy up the problems and duties, to each farm a garden for one, partnerless. We may not know the ecstasies of joining with a mirrored flesh or the deep mingling of shared old age, but we know each other well enough to sense connection and not feel alone. I look out at the land with recognition: fireweed for coming autumn, chokecherry for cough, the coon in the ripe huckleberries, the high kestral seeing through the trees to the distant river, the woodrat turning securely in its bed in the loft, the season told on by the wind, the time by the moon. It is a very fine life.

Yet on a night very recently, I heard one of the wounded companions (it will heal), keening softly in the cabin's single chair. It cried softly, so as not to disturb the others, for the mate now lost and gone. It was very cold that night. I was very cold that night.

One last note: After I posted the above, I decided to find out if Hays is still up on that mountain, writing. I was sad to learn that he took his life two years ago, as announced in this article. Perhaps the solitary life is not such a good thing after all. I am certainly grateful for my connections to all of you.


  1. Thank you for sharing Hays' work, it is beautiful. Sometimes we all need some peace and quiet but eventually a person needs the company of people.

  2. Wow, nice post. I have heard of him but have not read his work. I am intrigued now will read more. How sad to write of beauty and still end your life. It does make me grateful for the simple happiness I have in doing dishes, scrubbing my kids dirt off them and putting my feet up at the end of the day. I have noisy beauty.

  3. Thank you for sharing this, Tanya. I loved reading about this man, and felt a great deal of emotion in learning about the end of his life. He was a fascinating person.


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