January 2nd, 2018

Thoreau, Minks, and Muskrats

When I first read Walden for a book report in the eighth grade, the famous quote “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” stuck with me. I knew quiet desperation. It seemed like Thoreau’s words captured everything my thirteen-year-old self knew and feared.

I had Thoreau confused with James Thurber when I started reading. Walden was hard going for a kid caught in a pre-adolescent Heinlein reading spree, but Thoreau captured me. My father had spent the preceding summer in a state mental hospital fighting off suicidal depression. His return to the farm a few weeks before I turned thirteen caught in my throat. Walden helped me get it down, although some spots in my gullet are still raw.

Thoreau talked about problems I could understand. I don’t now remember reading these lines when I was thirteen, but I know I understood Thoreau when he wrote “From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.”

I knew minks and muskrats. Three mink farms were within 3 miles of our farm and I had seen the sleek brown streaks of escaped minks roaming the woods and fields. My father trapped muskrats in the crick to the north of the farm when he was a kid. I set Dad’s collection of traps a few times. The only thing I ever caught was a hapless field mouse that I skinned and whose hide I salted but never got around to tanning. I saw several muskrat lodges along the crick, but the rats were elusive and fugitive minks were too smart to be trappable.

But oh how I envied those minks and muskrats! Like the lilies of the field, they never spun, toiled, or knew clutching desperation.

Since the eighth grade, I’ve read Walden several times. Thoreau is not as easy for me to take now. From years as a corporate wonk and manager, I tend to dismiss anyone who chokes on decisions that must be made, right or wrong even though I frequently choke myself. Sometimes I feel an evasive strain in Thoreau’s words, but he is so eloquent, so logical, I can’t dismiss him. Instead, I listen and realize he often says the things that I wish I had said myself.

I conclude that I may be a whiner myself. Well.

A decade or so ago, my wife made me a lavish Christmas gift of a complete reprint of the 1906 edition of Thoreau’s journals in 14 volumes. I’ve made it a practice each morning to read an entry from the journal from some year corresponding to the current day. I often lose control and read much more than a single day’s entry. I jump around between years. And I neglect the practice for weeks on end, but eventually I come back.

There is a new edition of the journals now which is said to be much better edited than the one I have. I’m a Thoreau reader, not a scholar, so I don’t know, but I have gained a lot from my old reprint. I read Thoreau’s journal in the dim hours before sunrise when I am still muddled with sleep and building my resources for the moment when Albert, the border collie who owns me, drags me out to walk in any kind of weather with complete disregard for my state– or lack of state– of mind.

I am an early riser, but not a lark, I need a few hours to take a run at the day before my thoughts clear and flow freely. Fortunately for my weak mental state, Thoreau tends to be candid rather than persuasive in his journal. When he is persuasive, he is usually showing off how he could be persuasive if he were convinced of the truth of his assertions. His tentative stand is protection in weak moments from the strength of Thoreau’s intellect. Without it, I am afraid I would be futilely at his bidding, setting up a riderless underground railroad or some other half-baked version of a 19th Century project in the 21st Century.

The journals are not polished like Walden, but they are a textbook for finding brave minks and muskrats.

These are my thought today on Thoreau. I would love to hear other people’s impressions of Thoreau if they care to share a comment.

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