The Upland Farm

Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life

by Peter Saint-Andre

Chapter Eleven: Fruit (September 2)

Previous: Chapter Ten: Magnanimity

Having adventured on life in the high summer, having sent your shoot upward with confidence, it remains to mature and ripen, to come to your growth and fruition — for the nobler plants are valued for the fruit they bear at last in the air and light, far from the ground, unconsciously acting for the best and noblest ends, seeking for nothing else but to live.

To be ripe is to be perfected and to serve a transcendent use — not a means to a higher end, but an end in yourself, such as the transcendent use of Thoreau's great hero John Brown. It is to have some spare capital and abundant vigor in respect to your spirit and imagination, a true wealth and independence, a free and adventurous soul, a reserve of elasticity and strength, and a good genius that transmutes your whole life into purity and devotion to your highest ideals. When everything about you glows with maturity from roots to stems to leaves, when you are no longer dependent on your transient moods, when all your experience mellows into wisdom, when everything you have been and have done in the spring and summer of your life bears its fruit — then you are ripe at last.

This fruit is the successful realization of your highest potential, your true nature, your inner seeds of character, wisdom, and purity — not a delicious and ephemeral springtime fruit like the strawberry, but a lasting food that is hardened by the sun of summer and the coolness of autumn. The ripening of this fruit means to be well employed as the person you are. When in Walden Thoreau writes about lives of quiet desperation, he does not speak to those who are well employed in this way — as long as they know that they are well employed.

But there's the challenge: how do you test yourself for ripeness and know whether you are making full use and enjoyment of the finest qualities of your nature, whether you are maturing your finer fruits, whether you are addressing a higher taste for ethical beauty?

One clue is whether you are living simply and wisely, whether you have a serious eye and a sincere life. Your proper and finer work is a true integrity day to day, and too often you are prevented from doing this work by a lack of moderation and self-control, occupied as you are with trivial concerns and coarse labors. Your highest fruit is not your economic use — for most people exaggerate the importance of the work they do — but a more spiritual employment and a set of more essential, ethereal qualities: transparent character, constant abundance, and simple humanity. It is a matter not of having something to do, but of having something to be. The ambrosial and essential part of the fruit, its true flavor, is imparted only to the one who raises and plucks that fruit for its own sake — for it is too pure to have a purely market value.

Another clue is whether you are plucking the golden apple of the Hesperides — the apple of the tree of self-knowledge. Is your primary trade with the celestial empire that produces this finest fruit? Such trade requires strict business habits, and labors that test your highest human faculties: persistence, strength, enterprise, bravery, serenity, alertness, adventurousness, confidence, and courage. As Confucius observed: "You must know that you know what you know, and know that you do not know what you do not know." You must test and observe yourself closely, with as much honesty and sincerity as you can muster, in order to know whether you are truly ripe, whether your inward verdure is that of a wholly new life.

The fruit of these efforts tastes all the sweeter and more palatable for the very difficulties you have contended with in reaching it.

Next: Chapter Twelve: Harvesting

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