Looking Back From the End of the World

What Thoreau can teach us about living life during—and after—the pandemic

Sunset over Walden Pond. “In Wildness is the preservation of the World,” Thoreau wrote. He lived on Walden from March 1845 until September 1847. (Tetra Images/ Alamy)
Sunset over Walden Pond. “In Wildness is the preservation of the World,” Thoreau wrote. He lived on Walden from March 1845 until September 1847. (Tetra Images/ Alamy)

Fifteen years ago, when my daughter was about to turn two, my wife and I took her on a trip to Walden Pond. As we approached the place where Henry David Thoreau’s cabin once stood, with my daughter riding up on my shoulders, I said to her: “That’s where the man lived who ruined your father’s life.”

Ruined in a mostly good way, I meant. I discovered Walden when I was 16 and never quite recovered. The way my life was ruined was that I began to question the values of the system I found myself in. “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind,” Thoreau wrote, and I hollered, “Amen!” In this way, Thoreau was like a more profound, less musical version of getting stoned and listening to Pink Floyd, but the effect was more lasting. I began to keep a journal in high school, and I keep one to this day. After college, the sentences from Thoreau’s book were still rippling outward through my life, affecting the choices I made. To hell with law school or any normal career. I would become a writer. I would value solitude. And I would move to my very own Walden.

I have been thinking about Thoreau as the COVID-19 virus sweeps across the country. The obvious stuff—he was America’s original social distancer—and the not so obvious. Thoreau can serve as a model of self-reliance, reminding us that pulling back from the world, which at the moment will save lives, has its less dramatic virtues. Having long been a corrective to our compulsive national habits of overbusyness and consumption, he can inspire just such a corrective now, but only if we try to dig below the cliché of him. Because, as it happens, Thoreau was not all flowers and acorns, and this man, who died at 44, had some profound and sturdy thoughts not just about nature but about death and disaster, too. There will come a time soon, after the pandemic has subsided, when we will try to make sense of what has happened, when we will tell a story about where we are and where we are going. And about how we have changed. For me, at least, Thoreau’s ideas will be part of that story.

Let me first issue a warning and disclaimer. I am wary of anyone who offers “lessons” from a moment of crisis. September 11 should have taught us that most of these immediate insights are disposable. And I understand that urging people to read Walden if they are sick and dying right now, or if they know others who are, is a little like the frontier priest pushing the Bible. On the evening I began typing this essay, my sister, who works as a palliative care chaplain at a hospital, texted me to say that she was tending two patients with COVID-19. One of them was 58, the other 37. By the next day, both had died and my sister was preparing “grief packages” for their families (the younger patient had a small child).

For so many people, this is a time of complication, distress, and worry—for the sick and dying, and for a long list of others as well. Friends who are at home trying to do their jobs, if they still have jobs, while taking care of young children. My mother, isolated in her nursing home, living out an experiment in solitude that is both unchosen and more extreme than Thoreau’s. My niece who was stuck in England, having just visited Spain, when things got hairy. The woman I work with most closely at the office, an “admin” in the lingo of academia, but back in real life, the co-owner of a restaurant who is seeing all her work to create a thriving business threatened. I made the mistake of saying to her, “We are all in the same boat.” We work very well together, get along splendidly, and almost never disagree. But at this she took offense. “No,” she said, “we are in very different boats.”

So, at the risk of preaching or oversimplifying, let me also say that Thoreau knew his words were not for everyone. He was the first to warn people not to follow his ideas unless they fit. “I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat,” he wrote, adding that “it may do good service to him whom it fits.” That said, for quite a few of us, this period of quarantine has required us to change our pace. Back in my normal life as a university department chair, I sometimes felt like I was playing the video game Space Invaders: emails and phone calls would come at me faster and faster as I tried to shoot down the incoming, row after row, in between the daily crises that don’t seem so crisis-like now. I’m still doing some of that, having become unexpectedly versed in Zoom and online teaching. But there has also been a definite slackening of my usual hectic pace, and the very fact that I don’t leave home slows things down even more.

Unlike Thoreau, I share my cabin with a wife, two yellow Labs, a cat, and a teenage daughter. I am lucky enough to have two houses here in coastal North Carolina where I can quarantine. One is our actual home, and one is the eight-by-10-foot writing shack I built on the creek behind our house. (Three guesses who inspired the shack.) The creek is called Hewletts, but you may know it by its television name, Dawson’s. And though our household has gotten along fine so far, there is plenty of time ahead for us to drive each other crazy. Yet here, too, the rhythm has changed, has become slower and, I like to think, deeper. I’m not trying to find a silver lining in a pandemic that has caused so much misery. Just saying that the nature of my days has changed and that there is something not entirely negative about that change.

Let me suggest, with no evidence at all, that others are feeling this, too, that for at least half of us, this is a time of enforced simplification. A time of enforced patience. And the pace of the time highlights what we left behind: the fast-break, fast-twitch pace and the desperation of our lives before.

Most of us have at least a general sense of who Thoreau was and what he was saying. Here, in modern bullet-point format, is some of what he told us in his thorny, brilliant, non–bullet-point prose:

  • “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand …” We spend our whole lives wanting more, never figuring out the basic arithmetic: we would be better off finding a way to be content with less.
  • “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” The desire for more things has direct economic consequences: we gain things but lose time.
  • “I have travelled a good deal in Concord.” We are always looking elsewhere for satisfaction, instead of wedging downward into the ground below our feet. We forget the thrill of home.
  • “I love Nature partly because she is not man, but a retreat from him. None of his institutions control or pervade her. There a different kind of right prevails. In her midst I can be glad with an entire gladness.” Nature is admirable in and of itself. We should celebrate it while cultivating a biocentric perspective. But there is a selfish anthropocentric bonus here, too: it turns out that human beings are healthier and happier when looking beyond the human.
  • “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” Wildness, which Thoreau never exactly defines and which perhaps can’t be defined, is vital. This quality contains uncertainty, awe, surprise, beauty, and something profoundly beyond the human.
  • “I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for that wildness which he represented. … I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good.” Here is wildness in its baser, simpler sense.
  • “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” Once we determine what is right, in our own estimation, we need to fight for that thing, even if it means we will suffer personally. And yet, the only thing we can truly govern, if we can govern anything at all, is ourselves.
  • “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” More humorously, if darkly: “When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.” So many of the pursuits we run between are just distractions. There is deeper satisfaction in deeper pursuits. Most of us lead lives unguided by thought.
  • “Let us … work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe … till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake …” We need to separate what is real from what is bullshit.
  • “Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.” We need to fight back against oppressive, crushing modern life. But we must also resist the paving over of joy and complexity by dogmatic liberal do-gooderism: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.” And: “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?”
  • “Every poet has trembled on the verge of science.” Science and art are not fighters in opposite corners but a unified whole through which to see the entirety of life.
  • “I walk toward one of our ponds; but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base?” You are not free until all are free.

There’s more, but that seems enough for a start. Simplify, after all.

“You don’t live in the real world,” my blunt, authoritative businessman father told me. He meant the world of money. Thoreau, in a voice every bit as authoritative as my father’s, asked why we think that this world of status, of dollars and cents, is the real one. It wasn’t that he was unaware of the importance of money—he named the first chapter of his great book “Economy,” after all. It was just that he saw our definitions of the world as unreal if they didn’t include anything beyond the human. To see only the human world is to be locked in a prejudice every bit as limiting as seeing one race as superior to another. It is to wear blinders that, while evolutionarily forgivable, block out all but the smallest slice of reality.

Any true definition of the real world includes wildness, and one part of wildness is unpredictability. Wildness tends to make a mockery of predictions. Who would have ever guessed that we could dramatically reduce our burning of fossil fuels and our rampant consumerism not through any efforts of moral reform but because of a disease? What the Al Gores and Bill McKibbens have preached for so long is now happening, not thanks to an evolved global environmental conscience but to a deadly virus. Already the relatively empty skies and streets are allowing the planet to breathe. What if we could do something willingly that is now being forced upon us?

The coming crisis of climate will make this one look like a gentle warm-up. The conclusions of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change paint a grim picture of drought, heat waves, rising seas, dangerous storms, failing crops, climate refugees, and erratic weather that will disrupt ecosystems and human life all over Earth. This is not a scenario for the future but the stark reality we have begun to face already.

There will be a time on the other side of this pandemic when the climate regains its place as the pressing problem. The way many of us are living now, I believe, is the way we will need to live in the future. We will need to shelter in place, we will need to move less, we will need to stop flying all over the globe.

In March, I learned that the book I had been writing for the past three years, which was due out this June, would be postponed. After my initial despair, I began to feel something unexpected: relief. Whatever the next two months would hold for me, they wouldn’t involve that massive psychological and physical buildup of a book release, an emotional state similar to that of Norse berserkers readying themselves for war. Instead of preparing myself for a book tour, I began working, to my own surprise, on a new book. Which leads me to the conclusion that it may be a bad time to be a writer if you want to publish. But it may be a good time to be a writer if you want to write.

Here, too, Thoreau provides a model. Early in Walden, he writes: “For a long time I was reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never yet seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains.”

He is referring here not to any magazine or newspaper but to his actual journal and the many thousands of words he wrote there. He insisted that the creation of the sentences, not their publication, was what mattered most: “A journal is a record of experiences and growth—not a preserve of things well done or said. … [Its charm] must consist in a certain greenness—though freshness—and not in maturity.”

His thoughts on writing are almost preposterously high minded, but if you dig a little deeper into his life, you learn that they were born of deep pain. To write for yourself and not for others sounds trite. For him, however, this was not an easy greeting card lesson, but one that he had bled for: his first published book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, was a commercial flop. In her recent biography of Thoreau, Laura Dassow Walls makes this bold statement: “The failure of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was the most consequential event in Thoreau’s life as a writer.” More consequential than his move to Walden Pond? Perhaps yes, at least with regard to his professional life as a writer. After that first failure, he was never in a rush to publish. He lingered over Walden, let it die and be reborn into something new. In modern parlance, he valued process over result. There might well have been a purely defensive aspect to this after that early failure, but in making that defensiveness a part of his larger philosophy, he turned the hurt into something fruitful. The tone of Walden is bracingly confident, but that does not mean he was confident in the world’s reaction. No matter. He would make Walden beautiful even if no one was going to buy it. He would do the same with the journal. He would never again confuse the idea of great work with the idea of great work being recognized.

Walls makes another argument that may be helpful in our moment: Thoreau went to Walden Pond not to escape the world but to confront it. He never claimed to be living in any sort of wilderness, and as Joseph Wood Krutch writes in his own biography, “Thoreau was not unaware of the comic element involved in a flight from civilization which took him only a mile from the edge of his native village, only one field away from the highroad, and only half a mile from his nearest neighbor.” What mattered, more than actual distance, was the experiment of living in a manner that matched his highest thoughts and ideals. Krutch writes: “Let others seek the North Pole or the sources of the Nile. Walden is just as far away if measured in terms of the only distance that counts.”

Walden, which is about withdrawing from the world, is in fact a very sociable book. (During our period of quarantine, many of us who have enjoyed a virtual cocktail hour with friends have discovered that these two opposites need not exclude each other.) The opening is aggressively defensive—“I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well,” he writes on the first page—and also explicit about the book’s purpose: “I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life …” As Walls points out, some of those inquiries were actually yelled down to him by people wandering the high road behind his cabin. “Hey, why do you live there in the woods all alone?” But he was not all alone. His woods were a social place, with a train, the great symbol of commerce and the changing times, running on the opposite shore of the pond.

We may think of Thoreau as a man in isolation, in retreat, but he was deeply entangled with his world and his times. He tended to look at things directly, without flinching, especially when addressing the issues that would set the country on fire a few years down the road. He wrote and spoke constantly against slavery, giving unsparing and angry speeches condemning it in the lyceums of Concord and nearby Worcester. Thoreau delivered his 1854 “Slavery in Massachusetts” address in front of an American flag draped in black and hung upside down, and he was the first public figure to defend John Brown after his rebellion against slavery in 1859. Thoreau didn’t just speak: he used his cabin to help escaped slaves, and his mother’s home was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Reading Walls’s book this winter, before the pandemic struck, I was already thinking about just how intensely relevant Thoreau is to our times. Back when I lived on Cape Cod, I became friends with the great nature writer John Hay, who was then in his 80s. “Strange to have come through the whole century and find that the most interesting thing is the birds,” he said to me during our very first walk together. “Or maybe it’s just the human mind is more interesting when focusing on something other than itself.” In turning our eyes beyond ourselves, we find not an answer but a mystery, and perhaps an eventual understanding that all we are is a part of that mystery. But it begins with the physical world, the thing itself, and we know this world the only way we can, through our bodies. That is where Thoreau’s idea of contact comes into play. Walls writes: “Here was the paradox: without matter, soul is without life; but to be a soul, embodied, means that only through a mortal body can a soul ‘contact’ the world.”

Having spent more time on the creek of late, I have noticed that something is going on during this time of isolation that is the opposite of isolation. This period of crisis for Homo sapiens is occurring during one of the great hinges of the year, the spring migration of birds from one hemisphere to another.

On Cape Cod, I could expect the ospreys back around my birthday, the Ides of March. Here, in North Carolina, they usually come by late February, and one of the last things I did before the world went on lockdown was to build an osprey platform behind my house, placing sticks and leaves up top, in the hope that the birds would decide to call it home. In the midst of this pandemic, I have been trying to observe my own simple rituals, and those include drinking a beer or two each evening while watching the action out on the marsh. Some would find this activity dull. But the first time I heard the high-pitched kewing of ospreys flying over the platform, I practically jumped with excitement. “Come on, come on,” I yelled. How could I lure them in? Perhaps I could smear fish on myself and do some sort of osprey dance out by the platform. When they flew off, I was bitterly disappointed.

As the spring sun extended its reign, the bird chorus of cardinals and warblers and Carolina wrens woke me earlier every day. Ibises and pelicans and the occasional bald eagle soared overhead. Down near the Cape Fear River, the sand began seething with fiddler crabs, revived after months of dormancy in the winter marsh. Hundreds of them, most with shells no bigger than dimes, scurrying up and down the low tide slope. They greeted me with their scuttling, and they sometimes turned around to ward me off with their oversize claws before racing away to their muck holes. There’s a lot of pausing, and then sudden speeding up, in a fiddler’s gait; they are at once hesitant and decided creatures. From the beach I would cut to the swamp, where the warblers lit the murky darkness with song. Pine and yellow-throated warblers, and the fluting of a wood thrush. Copperheads came out of the woods and sunned themselves on the paths. Finally in April, I saw my first painted bunting, a bird made up of patches of wild fauvist color—bluebird’s head, flaming belly, lime-green wings.

While I was noticing all of this, the world at large was celebrating a spring different from any it had known in years. The air in Delhi was described as “alpine.” The hole in the ozone layer shrank. Mountain lions roamed the snowy downtown streets of Boulder, Colorado. We filled our cars for half of what we did a month before. But who needed to fill the tank? Few drove any distance. Few planes flew.

It would be wise, but intellectually dishonest, to skirt another related issue: Would a culling of the human population make for a better Earth? This is always dangerous ground, just the sort of notion that environmentalists are accused of believing and spreading, proving once and for all that we crunchy types care more about spotted owls than human beings. But what it really comes down to, once again, is our inability to see beyond ourselves. I suppose any honest answer to my question would depend on your sense of empathy and on whether that culling would include you and those you love. I’ll leave the issue alone, but Thoreau wouldn’t have. He would have seen our squeamishness about the question as yet another example of our anthropocentric prejudice. Killing everything else in existence—Bengal tigers, ancient trees, whales, the atmosphere—is okay. But short of mass deaths, are there other ways we can restrain ourselves? Can thoughtful and deliberate action lead to significant change? I am not hopeful, based on the past millennium of human existence, but it is interesting to note that we can, in extreme cases, take extreme action.

The book of mine that was supposed to come out in June, by the way, is called Leave It As It Is. The title is a reference to Theodore Roosevelt’s speech about the Grand Canyon. But those words could also apply, it seems to me, to bats. David Quammen, whose book Spillover : Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, predicted just what is happening now, said in a recent interview with Orion: “A tropical forest, with its vast diversity of visible creatures and microbes, is like a beautiful old barn: knock it over with a bulldozer and viruses will rise in the air like dust.” He added, “Leave bats, in particular, the hell alone.”

But we won’t leave anything as it is, will we? It is not the sort of inquisitive monkeys we are, not the sort of monkeys we evolved to be.

How could a man so hell-bent on retreating from the world send out ripples to every corner of it? How could someone who claimed to hate nothing more than the news, and who managed to largely get away from human society and politics, have ended up—as anyone who ever played Trivial Pursuit can tell you—an inspiration for Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.? Thoreau’s abiding influence suggests something that runs counter to our news- and information-obsessed time. Is it possible that the best way to think about the world is not to always have your head stuck in it?

Thoreau lived in a time when the telegraph, which the American historian Elliott West calls our single most significant technological invention, was first used successfully, allowing human words to cross oceans in an instant. Millions celebrated this innovation. But not everyone thought this new toy was such a good thing. Thoreau, always the Luddite party pooper, wrote:

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. … We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.

The news that most interested him was in his back yard. The phenology of his hometown, when things bloomed and birds returned and animals awoke. (“I have travelled a good deal in Concord.”) Instead of flying to the Caribbean to be happy, walk down to a creek, wander in a nearby woods or a park. Explore what is close at hand. Likewise, don’t live your life lost in imagining the things you do not have but want. “We humans are an elsewhere,” my friend and former professor Reg Saner once wrote. We all suffer from what Samuel Johnson called the “hunger of imagination,” the insatiable craving to fill the moment with more than what is in it now, as well as the constant desire to seek what’s around the bend. Is it really possible to be content with less?

Thoreau believed it was, in part because he was not just intellectually but temperamentally well suited to resist this hunger. He ate little and drank no alcohol. As for sex—nada. It is easy to dismiss him as a mere prude. A Sunday school teacher. I am his temperamental opposite, and grew up in a big family of big eaters and big drinkers. I can never match his austerity; it would truly stretch the seams if I tried to wear his coat. But what I can do, and what we all can do if we choose, is a simple experiment of trying to live a life that more closely follows Thoreau’s ideals. This requires a little thinking. A little brooding. Maybe a walk or two. As I say, for many people this is a time of distress and tragedy. But soon, if we make it through this, we might want to consider whether some of the changes forced on us as we reside in place might be changes we want to keep.

“I love a broad margin to my life,” Thoreau wrote. The modern workplace has almost no margin. Busyness is our theme, and one of our small remaining pleasures is showing off our busyness badges to others. Thoreau saw what was coming in the form of that train hurtling by on the other side of the pond. The train has only sped up since, to the point where, for many of us, life is a blur. To escape, we travel to the next place, the next elsewhere. And even when we go to the woods, we too often take with us what Thoreau called our town minds. It requires discipline and work and the grooving of new habits to break from the busyness. To do less but do it well. One thing that nature teaches is that patience isn’t patience because it is easy. A great blue heron doesn’t stand still for a half hour peering into the water for a fish because it is fun but because it is effective. The task ahead requires patience and the hard changing of habits. Perhaps this time of crisis is giving some of us a head start.

Thoreau did manage to embody his ideas, not perfectly, but more than almost any writer before or since. That is why Walden is still an exciting book, a book of secrets and possibilities that can be found right here under our feet, and for some of us a sort of holy book. It is a challenge, a dare—a bet made that staying still and finding home can be exciting, even thrilling. A bet made that doing with less can be as satisfying as getting more. A bet made that the planet under our feet is something worthwhile and worth celebrating and preserving. A bet that, if more of us made it, could have great consequences for ourselves and our world.

It is said that, on his deathbed, when asked if he had made peace with God, Thoreau replied that they had never argued. As it turned out, he was very good at dying. “Thoreau’s friends were captured by the deep deliberation of his dying,” writes Walls.

Perhaps he experienced moments of panic—he must have—but everyone remarked on Thoreau’s calm, his lack of regrets. Walls makes clear that Henry wasn’t quite as obscure or unknown in his lifetime as legend has it. But though he loved the metaphor of the chrysalis, he had no way of knowing that his work would slumber for decades before awakening for millions of readers. His, or at least his reputation’s, rebirth began at his funeral, where Emerson, whom he had long drifted away from, said: “The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost.” The date was May 9, 1862, and that country, in its second year of a bloody internecine war, had other things on its mind.

It was another sort of rebirth, of regeneration, that obsessed Thoreau near the end of his life. Seeds were his obsession. On the Origin of Species was released in 1859, and Thoreau read it the following year, quickly understanding just how revolutionary a book it was. Darwin’s work dovetailed with his own studies, which focused on forest regeneration and seed dispersal. He wanted to find out how seeds spread and how one species replaced another. He had always understood the deep value in committing to and learning the details of local places, but now his studies grew even more local, intense, and particular. With diligence and exactitude, he recorded the phenology of his place: when the ice broke up, when the first bluebirds returned, when the milkweed bloomed—details that climate scientists are now studying as they note our own shifting seasons. In the early biographies of Thoreau, this period of the writer’s life was viewed as a time of drying up, in which he had moved away from the thrilling prose of Walden toward the prosaic study of science. Writers such as Walls and Robert Richardson have corrected this idea. Those earlier biographers had missed what Henry was up to. Inspired by Darwin and others, he was digging deeper, moving away from the easy nature of his mentor Emerson. As Walls puts it, he was fully awake during these studies, “as awake as he had ever been at Walden Pond,” and this “sent him back outdoors day after day throughout the fall of 1860, writing in a kind of ecstasy of nature’s bottomless vitality.” That writing occurred not in any published book, but in his journals, that great seedbed of his thought and work.

The seeds of his own work would disperse far and wide. He couldn’t know that this work would spur entire movements, or that his sentences would be read and regarded as vitally relevant, while those of his more famous contemporaries would go unread. He couldn’t know that for some of us, more than a century and a half after his death, he would remain very much alive.

Not long ago, a friend posted on social media that what he would really like to do away with during these times is the imperative voice. I get it: the imperative is the voice of those do-gooders at Thoreau’s door whom he wanted to run away from. But it is also the voice of Thoreau. Henry is all imperative. All musts and should. Even when not explicitly didactic, he speaks in what I’d call the implied imperative. He is one of our deepest thinkers, but at the same time, he is the worst ranter in your dorm room after his second bong hit. And though you could say that his words are prescriptive, it really depends on us, his readers, how we take them. The prescription, it turns out, might be one we need to fill. Thoreau is astringent medicine. But for now, he is necessary medicine.

As with any great figure from the past, we can take what we want and throw the rest away, only wearing the clothes that fit us. I find a lot from Thoreau that I feel I can put to use in these dire times, yet I wouldn’t want to shelter in place with the man himself. He would no doubt look down on my lax and slovenly ways. He wouldn’t want to join me for my nightly cocktail hour down at the shack. “Water is the only drink for the wise man,” he preached. Whatever. I, a child of excess, will never pare down my life to so austere a core. But at the risk of claiming to be learning those easy lessons that I discounted at the beginning of this essay, and with the foreknowledge that we will one day look back on this pandemic as just another event—as we couldn’t believe we would with 9/11, but have—this period will mark a turning point, for me at least. I’m not saying I’m going to succeed, but I am going to try to do with less. And I’m going to make even more of a commitment to turning my thoughts outward, toward the natural world, toward the mystery, a mystery that includes the human but is not subsumed by it. I’m going to try to slow down my life and slow down time, knowing I will fail. I’m going to do the work I love and care about, not merely the work that the world rewards me for. And finally, I am going to try to remember that the work is important for what it is, not for how the world regards it.

This essay is adapted from his latest book, Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Gessner is the author of 12 books, including Leave It As It Is; Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight; All the Wild That Remains; and the forthcoming A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World. He teaches at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he founded the journal Ecotone.


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