Life In The Woods
I had thought to walk today but the weather was inclement. So instead, I sat with my friend Henry, with whom I have been communing for over forty years. Henry has much to teach me, being a writer who for more than two years lived on his own in the woods. Alone, he was never lonely, drinking down the joy that comes to those who are not afraid to withdraw into the silent spaces.
During his lifetime, two of Henry’s books were published, together with a few essays and a little poetry. So yes, you will understand, now, that Henry has passed on; I meet with him between the pages of his books.Like many of us who aspire to write, Henry struggled to be heard. Because no publisher would take his first book, he decided to self-publish a thousand copies – these days we call it indie publishing. There being no Internet back then, he self-distributed through bookshops. Though he never told me so, I’m guessing he awaited sales figures as eagerly as any self-published author. I get excited when I see someone has bought one of my books on Amazon, so I can easily imagine Henry, waiting for the post each morning, his heart beating fast, praying for news of sales.
I know exactly what he felt like: all that writing through the long evenings alone in the woods in that cabin by the pool; the excitement of finishing the final draft; the certainty that your book will soar – which deflates into despair when the agents and publishers don’t want to know; the careful eyeing of bank balances to see if you dare take the risk of publishing yourself (how dare they call it vanity publishing? There is no vanity – only desperate hope and terror); the decisions involved in proofing, typesetting, cover design; the surge of pride when the boxes arrive, and you see the first copy of your new volume. If Instagram had been around back then, I’m sure Henry would have posted a picture of his hand taking the first book out of the box –why not? Everyone else does!
A year after he published, news did arrive. With his heart thumping, he opened the letter, praying it contained an order for a further thousand copies; hoping that now, at last, the book would soar, that he would be the celebrated author he knew his writing deserved. In his mind’s eye he could see invitations to speak at podiums, sign copies on tours, be interviewed by the media. I am convinced that Henry had all those dreams. But they were dashed in a moment when he opened that letter. Of the one thousand copies, a mere 294 had sold. So, 706 were to be remaindered back to him.
What did Henry feel at that moment? He has never said, but we surely know anyway. The despair would have sat upon his shoulders like a bushel of lead. He would have sunk into his chair, crushing the letter in his fist, as he oscillated between hopelessness and anger. And he would have wondered what in God’s name he was supposed to do with his life, now that he had been exposed as the failure that, deep inside, he had always feared himself to be.
Later, when he had recomposed himself, Henry wrote in irony, ‘I now have a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labour? This is authorship; these are the work of my brain.’
Eventually, Henry recomposed himself and, as many of us do, went on to publish a second book. It fared only a little better. Ever the stubborn independent, he was imprisoned, briefly, for refusing to pay his country’s poll tax that was being raised for financing a war aimed at extending its slave-based economy. As a result of that imprisonment, he wrote an essay calledCivil Disobedience.
Henry died in 1862 at the age of forty-four, virtually unknown, believing he had made minimal impact on the world. To the extent that he was remembered at all in the years following his death, it was as a rather insignificant nature writer who shunned social contact, preferring to live alone in a remote shack (though, actually, he had spent only a little over two in that cabin by the pond).
Some thirty years later, a young Indian studying law in London was introduced to his writing and, in particular, to Civil Disobedience. Later, when resisting racism in South Africa, that Indian – Mohandas Ghandi – would build Thoreau’s essay into a philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience. Ghandi returned to India, led his country to independence and deliberately embodied an example of Thoreau’s philosophy ofliving simply and expounding the power of truth.
But it did not end there. For Thoreau’s rolling stone was destined to be turned into an avalanche. Just as Ghandi had put Thoreau’s philosophy into practice in South Africa and India in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so did Martin Luther King in the USA in the 1950s and 60s. Both acknowledged their philosophical debt to Henry Thoreau.
Thoreau wrote his book, Walden, during a two-year retreat in a self-built cabin by the edge of Walden Pond inMassachusetts, drafting it during daily walks through the woods. It was this, together with its being superficially read, that gave rise to his misplaced reputation as a nature writer. Walden is actually a profound exploration of the self, the devastation caused by materialism and the need for spiritual awakening.
Thoreau died without ever knowing that his writing would finally be understood, decades after his time. He never knew it would become a foundation for the freeing of nations and peoples, throwing off decades and centuries of oppression and servitude through the power of resolution. He did not know that it would become the corner stone of the life and philosophy of, arguably, the greatest pacifist leader in history.
Henry David Thoreau simply committed himself to the work he knew he had to do, confronted daily by the pain induced by hundreds of unsold copies of his books that filled his bedroom. He carried on because he was a man with a purpose. Henry David Thoreau was a philosopher and a writer. He is, and will always be, my friend and mentor.