The Upland Farm

Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life

by Peter Saint-Andre

Chapter One: Farm (February 7)

I rose above my common hours to go in search of Thoreau's farm: not the tiny house and lowland farm out at Walden Pond where he made the soil say beans, but the higher ground and upland farm of his inner life where he made his soul say being.

After a gap of decades, I dove again into Walden and found myself drawn back into Thoreau's world. But this time I was no mere sojourner; for several years I bathed my intellect in his books and essays, his poems and letters, and his massive Journal. Gradually I began to glean the aspirational experiments he pursued at his upland farm, the employment he engaged in on the higher ground of personal improvement and elevation.

By reading and re-reading, by writing and re-writing, I boiled down the sweet sap of his insights; yet I have not stopped at syrup, but have gone on to procuring a few pure crystals of sugar from the new life that stirs in the roots and stems and leaves of what he affirmed. By relating eighteen encounters with Thoreau's life and thought, I have endeavored to embody the transcendent ideals that Thoreau pursued in all his works and days: the true poem of what he made of himself, the form and expression of the life he lived, the integrated way of life he sought and found, the highest use that he discovered and perfected in his independent existence.

Confusingly, Thoreau hid the approaches to his upland farm behind a thicket of symbols and images. Thus I have found it necessary to seek the meaning of each word and line and passage in his writings, conjecturing a larger sense than the common uses to which he is so often put: the hermit, the gadfly, the political activist, the environmentalist, the advocate for voluntary simplicity. Although he was all these at times, they do not explain him.

The essence of Thoreau's quest was to pursue an absorbing employment on the higher ground of his soul, to raise a crop that he could barter for heavenly products, to lay a foundation under the castle he had built in the air, to create a moral and intellectual kingdom within himself.

As in the Bhagavad-Gita, the classic of Indian philosophy that he so treasured, in Thoreau's mind the great field to be cultivated is the self, and the greatest achievement is liberation through self-possession, self-control, and self-mastery. Indeed, because the English word "farm" refers to a firm possession and because the Sanskrit word "dharma" refers to a firmly established way of living, it turns out that the upland farmer is a cultivator of dharma!

Yet, even though the upland farm is hard to find, Thoreau provides some clues regarding its location.

First, in Walden, he describes how wisdom dictates simplicity of living, independence of mind, grandeur of soul, and trust in yourself — and he associated these virtues with winter, autumn, summer, and spring. There are connections here, too, between these virtues and the stages of life outlined in the Vedic and Yogic philosophies of ancient India.

Second, living as he did in an agricultural society, Thoreau experienced the tensions between the seasons of nature and the seasons of man, and he knew that the ancient Roman writer Varro had categorized the latter as preparing, planting, cultivating, harvesting, storing, and offering for sale. The Roman link triggers associations with Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, who also influenced Thoreau in his younger days.

Third, his chosen vocation of natural philosopher led him to spend countless hours observing the botanical stages of seed, sprout, tree, flower, fruit, leaf, and bud; thus he naturally likened those stages to the organic expression of human potential, which must be actively cultivated in order for you to reach fruition as an individual.

Blending these hints, metaphorically we can visualize the upland farm as located somewhere between a college town to the east (where you discover self-trust in the springtime of your life), a commercial city to the south (where you pursue grand summer designs of achievement and happiness), a farming community to the west (where you retire from more active affairs and engage in independent, autumnal reflection), and a wilderness area to the north (where you renounce worldly concerns and conduct a life of wintry simplicity).

In his Journal, Thoreau notes that even after finding his upland farm, cultivating it was a deeply individual and often lonely pursuit. Not only narrow but rough is the road that leads to the upland farm — only a footpath wide enough for one. There are no mechanical contrivances to be had; instead the upland farmer must work alongside Nature while growing something even higher and better than what she provides.

The true harvest here is that rarest success: to achieve a balance between use and beauty, work and leisure, society and solitude, cooperation and independence, action and reflection, civilization and wildness, the real and the ideal, the practical and the transcendental — between the maintenance of your body and the maintenance of your soul.

Varro considered February 7th to be the beginning of the agricultural year; thus it is a fitting date to begin this journal of encounters with Thoreau — a record of apprenticeship to this master of the art of life, a calendar that outlines the cycles of the day and the year and of life itself. It is only through in-depth exploration that you can get to know Thoreau and to feel at home at his upland farm; yet this short book is only a pocket map of the terrain — a mere sketch of the contours of the land — and is no substitute for reading Thoreau himself in all his beautiful individuality. (A companion book of selections from his writings, Seasons of Thoreau, exists to help serve that purpose.)

Furthermore, the pure, hard crystals I have distilled here must be dissolved in the waters of your own life in order to be fully absorbed, and this is a matter of applying Thoreau's ideas and of solving some of the problems of life not only theoretically but practically — for his is a philosophy not only of words but of deeds. As Thoreau said: "We are shown fair scenes in order that we may be tempted to inhabit them, not simply tell what we have seen."

Next: Chapter Two: Seed

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