The Upland Farm

Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life

by Peter Saint-Andre

Chapter Ten: Magnanimity (August 6)

Previous: Chapter Nine: Cultivating

Ever attuned to the course of the seasons, Thoreau was keenly aware of the longer and cooler nights of August, when the year starts to descend the long slope toward winter. A new urgency accompanies this afternoon of the year: no longer can you afford to postpone the fulfillment of your hopes in a future and anticipated nobleness; instead it is past time to pursue a true life and to take courage in reaching for high flourishing, noble ambition, riotous growth, overflowing life, and a faster progression toward your ideal.

Thoreau called this magnanimity, in its ancient sense of grandeur of soul. He knew that the anima is the vital spirit, which forms the basis for character and personality. To be great hearted and high minded is to give no thought and have no need for mere ornament, but to accept an invitation to be what you are — something noble and worthy. The upland farm will produce nobler crops, and better repay cultivation in the long run.

The great challenge, in the afternoon of life, is to nurture an atmosphere of perpetual morning, to sustain the great expectations of your youth, to reinvigorate and reform the very medium of your existence, to maintain your life with dignity and sincerity, to burst the bonds of despair and realize the full grandeur of your destiny, to find elevation in every hour, to exercise your highest human faculties — to make your life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of your most elevated and critical hour. It is to advance into the career of life with the equanimity of nature, silent and patient and unpretending; to move onward through your midday with earnest toil and a lofty and serene countenance; to prepare, through the accumulated deeds of the day, a rich western blaze against the evening of your life — to have a fresh dawn, and a great noon, and a serene sunset in yourself.

In the summertime of life and the royal month of August, you spend your greatest life energy in an outdoor life that is all for action. Yet Thoreau counsels that there is no need to venture far from the core and heart of your life in some frontier country: instead cultivate the field on which you find yourself, and do the things which lie nearest to you but that are difficult to do. It is more than enough to breathe your self, to give voice to a free life and free expression without bounds, to rise above sects and parties. The essence of your person can be found in your best thoughts; by having the self-discipline to honor them, you honor the freedom to think sacredly and create devotedly — a freedom from fear, from disturbance, from prejudice, from external constraint. When you honor the immutable laws of integrity and magnanimity, you hold to an inward light and appreciate the noble deeds that can be done on this earth.

Thoreau went to Walden Pond to transact some private business, and to do so greatly and unhurriedly. He avowed that when you are unhurried and wise, your perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of reality, and that your proper pursuit and high calling is to root yourself firmly in the earth so that you can in the same proportion rise into the heavens above. When you do so, you live in relations of truth and sincerity: a pure, thoughtful, laborious life, more true to your friends and neighbors, more noble and magnanimous.

This active pursuit of a noble life is the seeming opposite of the simplicity that Thoreau so cherished. Yet in the end it is congruent with his knowledge and acceptance of the seasons. The cycles of work and rest, growth and harvest, are just as natural to the day and the year of the individual as they are to Nature herself. No one part of the cycle of life provides complete fulfillment; and if in the summer of life you approach the upland farm from a commercial town to the south, bustling with activity and ambition, this too is but one direction and path to a higher existence.

Next: Chapter Eleven: Fruit

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