Blogging Walden #3: Solitude; immeasurable in miles; points in space & exertion of the legs

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The cabin where I live sits seven miles from town, and from the porch in summer there are no neighbors visible. In winter, when the trees between us have lost their foliage, across a large pasture a distant farm can be seen. And in mornings, when the air is still, I can here the cries of an infant coming from the farmhouse, which is a new sound and was not there the year before.

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My neighbor is a farmer and we have met just twice, both times at the hedge between our properties. Once, discussing his fence, and a second time shooing away a pair of trespassing hunters.

In the years I've lived here, many people have expressed concern about my isolation and solitude. There is something about being alone which frightens many people—though I suspect at heart some of those are truly frightened of themselves.

But I am never lonely here--at least, no moreso than when I am in town--because I never consider myself alone.

Henry David Thoreau's Walden is in some ways a treatise on solitude—and so it makes a certain kind of sense that the chapter actually titled “Solitude” would be among the book's shortest. And in it, Thoreau essentially argues that the solitude so many seem to fear is in fact merely misperception.

To say Walden is a naturalist book is some kind of an understatement. But woven into it are ideas that one might broadly call “eastern” – musings on duality and existence and the thin lines between who we are and who we are, and if we are.

Thoreau essentially makes two points in this chapter. The first is that in many ways solitude does not exist--particularly in nature. And second, the society we use to subvert our solitude is in many ways a cheap salve that is only surface deep.

"There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has his senses still."

Thoreau does make that caveat: if you're not thinking straight, you can get lonely. He says it happened to him--once. A few weeks into his stay at Walden, he started to doubt whether being around people wasn't necessary after all. 

"In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since."

Sometimes I wonder if Thoreau didn't eat a lot of mushrooms.

Thoureau argues that most people see solitude as a function of distance, when it is actually about sharing the same mental space.

"This whole earth we inhabit is but a point in space ... no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another."

But the next section really jumps out to me because Thourea starts to get into some interesting ideas. Check this out:

"By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent. We are not wholly involved in Nature. ...

"I only know myself as a human entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I than it is you."

That's Thoreau in the mid 1800s. Here's a more recent Alan Watts in the 50s: 

"The individual is separate from his universal environment only in name. When this is not recognized, you have been fooled by your name. Confusing names with nature, you come to believe that having a separate name makes you a separate being.”

And then Walpola Rahula, from his book What the Buddha Taught:

"According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of a self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of 'me' and 'mine', selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism,and other defilements, impurities and problems."

It's all the same energy. We are. Any separateness or distinctness is misperception. No Me, no You, Us or Them. No distance. No past or self.  And if that's true, there's no solitude. 

Was Thoreau the first eastern philosopher in America? Eh. Probably not. But he starts to get at it, in parts. Most of the book is very much rooted in the here and now and nature, but in Solitude he touches on some questions are central to other ways of considering the world.

Posted on June 2, 2018 .

Blogging Walden #2: Sounds -- 'a vibration of the universal lyre'

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Nature is not quiet.

It's easy to forget that, since it is quieter than many things. City life is loud: The sounds of many modern lives lived on top of one another. When you live in a city, you think of nature as quiet.

And in winter, it can be. The cold twists the humidity out of the air and forces all the birds to warmer climes. It creates a silence  that hollows out space.

But once spring arrives, the woods become a cacophony. My desk sits next to a window, and though it is a cool morning I have it open to listen to the sounds. I can hear at least a half dozen different songbirds, the wind in the trees, and some cows in the distance.

In "Walden," Thoreau devotes an entire section to the sounds he hears in the woods. Though it's just 15 pages (in my copy*, anyway), it is a dense section of the book with sentences that have a winding life of their own. There is a lot of excellent writing here that I am often tempted to--and do--skip past. It's just a bit much sometimes. Take for instance how Thoreau describes the "dismal scream" of a screech owl:

" It is no honest and blunt tu-whit tu-who of the poets, but, without jesting, a most solemn graveyard ditty, the mutual consolations of suicide lovers remembering the pangs and the delights of supernal love in the infernal groves. "

It's not the sort of snappy description that moves the plot along. And there is a lot of writing like it: from the baying of dogs to the screams of a whistle, Thoreau takes his time. He is unrushed. ... it's not the type of writing I am accustomed to reading these days and it can be difficult to slow myself down. I often feel my eyes skipping past these lengthy paintings of sound. ...

Which is fine. Not every line or page or chapter of each great book will enthrall all readers.

Still, there is much in the "Sounds" section to linger over. Take this line early in the chapter, where Thoreau is setting the scene for us. He is describing how he worked outside, but how the worked flowed naturally with the days and seasons rather than taking effort:

"The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished."

Here, his words echo the classic Chinese text, Tao Te Ching:

"Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering."

Is Thoreau a Taoist? I'm not sure his staunch individualism meshes well with Taoism, but both writings focus on the idea of co-existing with a natural way. When things unfold as they should, it's not work. 

Really, I should not be so critical of Thoreau's "Sounds" chapter. But the ideas and thoughts I enjoy most are not about the sounds he heard but his ideas of individualism and life. He advocates living a simple life, unfettered by unnecessary wants, with a focus on the daily and common.

"... my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel. It was a drama of many scenes and without an end. ... Every track but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track, then."

Thoreau didn't eschew other people, but he also didn't think much of society's excesses and the idea of working long hours to afford unnecessary luxuries. Which makes a lot of sense to me. Wanting less is one way to have more, so long as you're ok with with "more" meaning time, independence, security and self-determination , as opposed to more stuff.

"All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre ..."

Maybe Thoreau was being cryptic or metaphorical with this last comment here, but I tend to think not. A flock of geese -- just about the noisiest form of nature around here -- flew over my head earlier this month. Their bleating squawks had announced their arrival, but just as they flew over they were silent and I could hear the beating of their wings, but just barely, which created a buzzing effect that hit me like a physical vibration.

He may take a while getting to it, but Thoreau knew what he was talking about. 

 

* I'm reading from a Signet Classic edition that also includes Thoreau's epic "Civil Disobedience" essay and a forward by the great poet W.S. Merwin. Read his beautiful poem "For the Anniversary of My Death."

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Posted on May 22, 2018 .

Blogging Walden, #1: 'What's the news?' ... We need Thoreau now, more than ever

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It may come as no surprise that a writer living in a small cabin in the woods likes Henry David Thoreau. Despite a lot of recent criticism heaped on the man and his work, I continue to think he was a genius who penned amazing treatises on solitude, nature, justice and self determination.

That's not to say the guy was perfect. But I feel a certain kinship to the naturalist writer who once accidentally burned 300 acres of woods when a campfire got out of control.  He also had a tendency to annoy people, didn't mind contradicting himself, and could be kind of an ass.

Much of the criticism surrounding Thoreau centers on his seminal work "Walden," where he writes about living a life of simplicity near the shores of Walden pond outside Concord, Mass. He describes building his own cabin, growing beans and aiming to live so simply that he avoided the need for basket-selling or most other forms of work. ... What drives people nuts is that Thoreau did not actually live so simply as he describes in his book. He was located a short distance outside of town, frequently went in to socialize, lived on borrowed land and in general was not so separate as a reader might think.

As a self-described part-time hermit, however, Thoreau's approach makes perfect sense to me.

The primary problem with Walden, is that it was written 1846 and in the proceeding 172 years language has evolved quite a bit. Which is to say, Walden can be difficult for modern day readers--and to boot, huge chunks of it are boring. Nobody cares what your beans cost, dude.

Recently, I've been re-reading the book. Slowly. Forcing myself to linger on pages that give me trouble, making notes to look up out-of-date phrases or words, and underlining any passage which speaks to me.  Making a study of it.

Walden has become a morning ritual. I wake up, put the kettle on, make the bed and straighten the cabin, make coffee and sit down to read. Sometimes I make it a dozen pages before the demands of the day come knocking. Other times it's just a single page, or two.

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I don't understand why Thoreau has drawn such ire. The process to make a thing, and the thing itself, often are different. And the man never claimed to be a hermit. He kept three seats:  "I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society."

We need Thoreau--perhaps more than ever. 

His work is a reminder that simplicity and solitude are important. That our internal lives are vital to our ability to live in a community. He does talk about withdrawing, but he also specifies it must be done in a way that is fair and just.

"Hardly a man takes a half-hour's nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, 'What's the news?' as if the rest of mankind has stood his sentinels."

That sounds remarkably relevant to today's 24-7 news cycle. It's easy to feel you must be invested in the outrageous news du jour, that you are obligated as a member of society to be constantly outraged.  But Thoreau reminds us that this isn't true, particularly in this passage from his essay "Civil Disobedience:".

"It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it thought no longer, not to give it practically his support."

And bear in mind, that's the opinion of a staunch abolitionist. For all Thoreau's critics, few will deny he was consistently and emphatically on the side of justice when the topic of slavery was discussed.

So if Thoreau wasn't a hermit living solely off the land, what was he? He explains it all in the early (and decidedly non-boring) pages. In particular, these two passages:

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

and then ...

"My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles."

In Walden, I do not find either excessive claims or admonitions. What I see is an experiment. A struggle to balance the realities of a more advanced, modern, fast-paced society, against an internal pull towards solitude when the values of the individual and society do not align. That makes a lot of sense to me.

Posted on May 19, 2018 and filed under Books, Writing, Essay.

Review of two 12v light bulbs -- Sunthin v. Chichinlighting

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 7 watt Sunthin bulb draws about 450 milliamps.

7 watt Sunthin bulb draws about 450 milliamps.

I've been spending more time thinking about the cabin's energy use: how to reduce it and how to supply it. The new solar panels are working great, despite not really having a sunny day since I put them up. And the second battery means I have enough energy stored, if the sun doesn't shine for a day or few.

Lighting is one of my major power needs, and so I've installed two 12 volt lighting fixtures wired directly to the battery. Going directly to the battery means no inverter is needed just for light, which is more efficient. 

Initially I purchased a pair of Chichin 3 watt bulbs (three!?!). As you can see in the photo, these drew a paltry 250 milliamps. I've got a pair of batteries totaling about 210 amh, so if the bulbs worked they would have run until about spring.

However.

The Chichin bulbs turned out to be a big waste of time, as they began flickering within two weeks. Despite their efficiency, not a good buy.

I'm now using a pair of 7 watt Sunthin bulbs. These are much brighter and still only draw 450 milliamps. They definitely appear more than twice as bright as the 3w bulbs, only need 80% more energy, and have continued. 

The Sunthin bulbs have a soft, warm color to them so it doesn't feel like you're hanging out in the emergency room or a police interrogation cell. Would recommend. 

Posted on March 13, 2018 .

New hobby: modding Opinel knives

Hobby, project, obsession ... any of those.

I had a lot of pocket knives growing up, but until recently, I'd never heard of Opinel. It's a very basic French-made knife. They're made to cut salami or to get tossed into the tacklebox, tool kit or kitchen drawer. Someone called it a "picnic knife." The blades are well made, particularly the carbon steel, but they lack any sense of ... style.

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Having never worked with wood before, all of this is new to me. I've been reshaping the blades with a dremel, cutting them into shorter and more dramatic lengths. And then bringing down handles, reshaping, staining and sealing.

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I've been doing some very basic leather work as well, and am making small cases for the knives. 

I've been buying them used on eBay, which is fun in and of itself--trying to see how low a price you can score. There are always dozens of used Opinels for sale, and a new one is less than $20 anyways.

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Posted on February 27, 2018 .

Forward Motion

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Momentum & The Woodpile

This is my third winter in the cabin. And I've gotten better at them each year, learning the necessary little tricks to staying warm off the grid.

But one of the biggest "tricks" is simply having enough wood for the stove. And on that, I messed up.

For the first time since moving here, I may need to buy firewood. So far I've chopped my own, mostly by clearing out trees that have been dead for many years already. Plenty have toppled; some are standing dead. There's no shortage of dry wood on my land.

So what the hell happened?

You could probably just call it laziness--and that's certainly true. Still, I thought it was close, thought I might have had enough cut. But that brutal cold snap we had--for a week temps ranged from -6 to 26-- made quite a dent in the woodpile.

So now I may buy wood, which seems like a waste. What kind of homesteader in the woods buys firewood?

I just never got started on the woodpile. Not really. Sure, I cut and split a lot of wood but it was in fits and starts and I never really picked up steam.

Inertia may be the most powerful force in the world. Not just physical, but also emotional and artistic and educational inertia. Woodpile inertia.

There's a lot of inertia in writing. Getting started can feel impossible, but once you get going it gets easier. You're in first gear when you write those opening lines. But once you get moving, the story writes itself.

I've heard of writers who stop in mid-sentence, so that it is easier to pick up again.

A body in motion stays in motion. A body at rest ...

Posted on January 21, 2018 .