Saturday, December 15, 2007

Thoreau's Flute

from American Transcendentalism Web:

"This poem was written by Louisa May Alcott, who may well have been in love with Thoreau. It appeared in the Atlantic in the summer of 1863."

We sighing said, "Our Pan is dead;
His pipe hangs mute beside the river;
Around it wistful sunbeams quiver,
But Music's airy voice is fled.
Spring came to us in guise forlorn;
The bluebird chants a requiem;
The willow-blossom waits for him;--
The Genius of the wood is gone.

Then from the flute, untouched by hands,
There came a low, harmonious breath:
For such as he there is no death;--
His life the eternal life commands;
Above man's aims his nature rose.
The wisdom of a just content
Made one small spot a continent,
And turned to poetry life's prose.

Haunting the hills, the stream, the wild,
Swallow and aster, lake and pine,
To him grew human or divine,--
Fit mates for this large-hearted child.
Such homage Nature ne'er forgets,
And yearly on the coverlid
'Neath which her darling lieth hid
Will write his name in violets.

To him no vain regrets belong
Whose soul, that finer instrument,
Gave to the world no poor lament,
But wood-notes ever sweet and strong.
O lonely friend! he still will be
A potent presence, though unseen,--
Steadfast, sagacious, and serene;
Seek not for him--he is with thee.

Where I Lived and What I Lived For

As I have suggested before on this blog, the following words changed my life:

From Walden, courtesy of the Thoreau Reader:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."

Still we live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion. Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment. The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain. If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon. And when they run over a man that is walking in his sleep, a supernumerary sleeper in the wrong position, and wake him up, they suddenly stop the cars, and make a hue and cry about it, as if this were an exception. I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again."

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"Where I Lived and What I Lived For" Post #2

From Walden, courtesy of The Thoreau Reader:

Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow. As for work, we haven't any of any consequence. We have the Saint Vitus' dance, and cannot possibly keep our heads still. If I should only give a few pulls at the parish bell-rope, as for a fire, that is, without setting the bell, there is hardly a man on his farm in the outskirts of Concord, notwithstanding that press of engagements which was his excuse so many times this morning, nor a boy, nor a woman, I might almost say, but would forsake all and follow that sound, not mainly to save property from the flames, but, if we will confess the truth, much more to see it burn, since burn it must, and we, be it known, did not set it on fire — or to see it put out, and have a hand in it, if that is done as handsomely; yes, even if it were the parish church itself. 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 had stood his sentinels. Some give directions to be waked every half-hour, doubtless for no other purpose; and then, to pay for it, they tell what they have dreamed. After a night's sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast. "Pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe" — and he reads it over his coffee and rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito River; never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark unfathomed mammoth cave of this world, and has but the rudiment of an eye himself.

For my part, I could easily do without the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it. To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life — I wrote this some years ago — that were worth the postage. The penny-post is, commonly, an institution through which you seriously offer a man that penny for his thoughts which is so often safely offered in jest. And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter — we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications? To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. Yet not a few are greedy after this gossip. There was such a rush, as I hear, the other day at one of the offices to learn the foreign news by the last arrival, that several large squares of plate glass belonging to the establishment were broken by the pressure — news which I seriously think a ready wit might write a twelve-month, or twelve years, beforehand with sufficient accuracy. As for Spain, for instance, if you know how to throw in Don Carlos and the Infanta, and Don Pedro and Seville and Granada, from time to time in the right proportions — they may have changed the names a little since I saw the papers — and serve up a bull-fight when other entertainments fail, it will be true to the letter, and give us as good an idea of the exact state or ruin of things in Spain as the most succinct and lucid reports under this head in the newspapers: and as for England, almost the last significant scrap of news from that quarter was the revolution of 1649; and if you have learned the history of her crops for an average year, you never need attend to that thing again, unless your speculations are of a merely pecuniary character. If one may judge who rarely looks into the newspapers, nothing new does ever happen in foreign parts, a French revolution not excepted.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


You might not have been able to tell from my previous post of October 3rd that I had not yet finished Russo's new novel. But, alas, it doesn't matter because, although there were plenty of surprises, the book delivered in every way.

This novel is remarkably conceived and executed. Many times I felt that the author was going out on a tangential limb (and taking readers with him), one which we would all regret scaling. But, invariably, each limb would weave effortlessly into a web of other branches laid out previously with either reckless abandon or great faith, quite possibly both.

The main character of this transcendent novel, Lucy Lynch is, like his father, a terminal optimist and a believer in the idea that what you see in life is pretty much what you get. Despite his mother Tessa's continuing attempts to teach them both that one cannot always trust people, that life is full of nasty surprises, that a healthy cynicism is necessary to survival and that the depressed little upstate town of Thomaston, New York is no place to thrive or get a sense of life's possibilities, the two go about their own lives contentedly and creating a kind of oasis for their friends and family.

The oasis comes in the form of "Ikey Lubins" a corner market that Lucy's dad, Lou, buys in a moment of what most people, including Tessa, would call an act of stupidity. Tessa declares that she will never step foot inside the store and, for a long time, she doesn't. But, inevitably, Tessa's intelligence and common sense are necessary to the store's survival.

A wonderful book. I recommend it!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Power Concedes Nothing

"Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation
are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.
They want rain without thunder and lightning.
They want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters.
This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one;
or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.
Power concedes nothing without demand.
It never has, and it never will."

-- Frederick Douglass

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


I have become a fan of Richard Russo's writing, to the point of cornering him at a book festival here in Ann Arbor and demanding to know when his next book would be published. I had devoured all of his previous works.

Finally released in September, his newest book, The Bridge of Sighs, is both a natural continuation of his brilliant examination of smalltown American life and in marked contrast to his previous efforts; the contrast lying in a kind of sea change in his exploration of family life. In virtually all of his previous works the protaganist is haunted or hounded by a father who is the antithesis of the loving and/ or ineffectual figure of American myth and television. Russo's fathers are, typically, rascals, drunkards or bullies, sometimes embarassing and often frightening, even in death. The parents are, inevitably, divorced, estranged or locked in some tragic relationship from which there seems to be no escape.

Typical, also, is the almost exclusive focus on the father/son relationship, stained and traumatized as it is by that of the parents. And, while those dark themes are ever-present in this new novel, Russo seems to have miraculously stumbled onto an opposite set of circumstances where a son loves and adores his father, where the feelings are mutual, where the reality of the apple not falling far from the tree is not quite as bitter as it is sweet. And, to Russo's great credit, his gift for creating characters, relationships and situations that ring true and move the reader are as evident in this new, almost idyllic world, as they are in his well catalogued explorations of loneliness and tragedy.

I say "almost idyllic" because, in fact, there is plenty of pain, darkness, fear and violence to counter any sense of romanticized family life. Again, to his credit, Russo does not shy away from the realities of racism, violence, poverty and classism in American life. Wheras, previously, Russo masterfully wove humor and irony into his tales of abject loneliness, he now brings in the most painful of realities as counter-point to this uplifting story of Lou C. (Lucy) Lynch and his love affair with his own,imperfect life.

More to come on The Bridge of Sighs,...!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Ultimate Weakness of Violence

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate…Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

from SABBATHS 2001

Sit and be still
until in the time
of no rain you hear
beneath the dry wind's
commotion in the trees
the sound of flowing
water among the rocks,
a stream unheard before,
and you are where
breathing is prayer.

Wendell Berry

Friday, March 23, 2007

My Life Has Been The Poem

"My life has been the poem I would have writ, But I could not both live and utter it." - Thoreau

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Alphabet Seeds

She writes a poem
A day
And cuts it up
Into pieces
Scattering the letters
Into the wind
And praying
That the "p"s will take root
And the "q"s will land on fertile soil.
She dots her "t"s
And crosses her "i"s,
Not unlike
Crossing one's fingers or
Knocking on wood
While listening for pings
And waiting for a response.

Gravity Happens

A bead
of water forms
on head of faucet

but surely until

It drops
as it becomes
a drop

and stops,
splashing into
a teacup.

Gravity happens.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Downhill All the Way

Susan and the kids and I went skiing up in northern Michigan last week. We had a lot of fun. We had an opportunity to stay at Camp Michigania, on Waloon Lake, just south of Petoskey and 30 minutes from Nubs Nob Ski Center. It was the first time Susan and I had gone cross-country skiing in about 18 years and the first time any of us had gone downhill.

Max, who's 14 years old, really took to the downhill (it's a lot easier than uphill) and convinced me to bring him back the next day. He and I took a couple of runs down the easy beginner slope to get our blood going. Of course, I fell at the foot of the slope, right near the load area for the ski lift and lay there like a ladybug on it's back trying desperately to get up. Meanwhile, Max went up the lift without me. Another kid came over and asked if I was OK. I said, yes, but I couldn't get up. Finally, I realized that I would need to take off one of my skis. That made the process immeasurably easier. I got up just as Max was finishing his 3rd run.

Meanwhile it was getting very windy and snowing quite a bit. Some severe winds and storms had been predicted. We went on to the "advanced beginner's" slopes. They were lots of fun; just the right level of challenge, but Max quickly wanted to go on the intermediate slopes. I pleaded with him but he was insistent and started down a "blue slope". I quickly decided that I would be negligent in my fatherly duties if I didn't follow him down. What if he fell and hurt himself? About a quarter of the way down I realized that I wouldn't be doing him any favors if I broke my neck. Of course, at this point, it was too late. I fell twice on the same run down. The good news was that, now,I knew how to get back up.

We parted ways for awhile and I went back to the beginner's slopes. The ski-lifts were getting pretty rough, wind blowing them left and right. I am used to having ice form on my beard but I had never experiennced significant ice on my eyebrows. The wind was biting my face. I would get off at the top of the lift and find myself starting off on a thick slab of ice with a very small but significant slope and the wind blowing snow in my face so that it was as much of a challenge to see as it was to stand up. I couldn't understand why the slopes were still open, but, of course, this was the second time in my life on a ski slope. What did I know?

At one point, Max and I got off two different lifts which left us off at the same part of the mountain, about fifty feet away from each other. No matter how hard I tried, I could not make any progress toward him, as I was going against the wind. Fortunately the wind blew him to me. "OK, Max, this is it", I said. "This is the last run. It's getting too dangerous". "Ahhh, c'mon Dad! It's not dangerous!", was his reply. We went around and and around about this as the wind howled around and through us. After a while we parted ways again and took up the debate at the bottom of the hill. Finally I agreed that, if he let me buy him some goggles so that he could see, he could make two more runs down. He agreed, with the caveat that I let him pay me back for the goggles. Finally, after his last run, we returned our rented skis and headed out back to the cabin. About 5 miles down the road I turned on the radio. "Nubs Nob", the DJ announced, "is closed due to severe winds".

Bob Fisher is a novice skier and a Home Buyer's Agent in Ann Arbor, MI

Friday, March 9, 2007

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night, at the least sound
In fear of what my life
And my childrens' lives may be
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests
In his beauty, on the water
And the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still waters.
I feel above me the day blind stars
Waiting, with their light.
And, for a time, I rest
In the grace of the world
And am free.

Wendell Berry

Who'd have thought that a poem about despair could be so inspiring. But, really, this poem is about a kind of release from despair.

When I was in High School, I wrote this:

How frustrated and helpless I am.
You ask why
And, so do I.
And, then, I go outside
For a walk
And Mother Nature's cold,
Cold wind
Blows all my cares
Right through me.

Wendell Berry was infinitely more articulate and, when I was introduced to "The Peace of Wild Things" it took me a while to see that he was expressing something that I had tried to express ten or 15 years earlier. I think that the common theme is nature's healing power and it's ability to help us transcend the tendency to "tax our lives with forethought of grief".

Thursday, March 8, 2007


I just discovered this account by Ralph Waldo Emerson about Henry David Thoreau (a hero of mine since the day I accidentally did my homework in High School). All I can say is "Hooray" for the, then, president of Harvard! I laughed until I cried.

"On one occasion he went to the [Harvard] University Library to procure some books. The librarian refused to lend them. Mr. Thoreau repaired to the President, who stated to him the rules and usages, which permitted the loan of books to resident graduates, to clergymen who were alumni, and to some other residents within a circle of ten miles radius from the College. Mr. Thoreau explained to the President that the railroad had destroyed the old scale of distances, — that the library was useless, yes, and President and College useless, on the terms of his rules,— that the one benefit he owed to the College was its library, — that, at this moment, not only his want of books was imperative, but he wanted a large number of books, and assured him that he, Thoreau, and not the librarian, was the proper custodian of these. In short, the President found the petitioner so formidable, and the rules getting to look so ridiculous, that he ended by giving him a privilege which in his hands proved unlimited thereafter." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

I also just discovered this website:
I recommend a paragraph a day for sanity's sake.