The Upland Farm

Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life

by Peter Saint-Andre

Chapter Thirteen: Independence (October 5)

Previous: Chapter Twelve: Harvesting

The ripeness and maturity of your fruits are a reflection of the vividness and color you achieve in the peak of your character. When you grow above and beyond the soil in which you were planted, you require nourishment less from the earth than from the more ethereal elements of sun and air; when you reflect upon the rich crop of your experience, you commence a more independent and individual existence; when you put the world behind you and are pledged to no institution in it, you realize that you are self-dependent, self-governing, self-reliant, self-derived. You achieve your true character; you come to know the prince-like nature of the soul; you become what you are.

A natural independence of thought and action consists of earnestly seeking the right way of life, standing upright and reaching ever higher, fronting the facts as you perceive them, finding encouragement and inspiration beyond the present condition of things — in ageless principles, in higher things, in the buds of the future, in your best possibilities. Such wisdom is attained not through mere experience but through reflection: living and thinking not habitually and conventionally but with open eyes and clear awareness, seeking not routine but a rooting in the fundamentals of existence.

This pursuit of a higher and more universal life frees you from all enervating luxuries. Thoreau found this freedom in simple, honest, independent labor, especially in his time alone at Walden Pond, when he also worked occasionally as a day laborer; yet he did not claim that this was the only path — only that it was his path. He counsels you to be very careful to find and pursue your own way, not that of your parents or peers or neighbors or even Thoreau himself. His advice is to not let your work or your manner of living become a hindrance to your true course and highest goal in life, to an everyday heroism and even holiness.

Cultivating a heroic spirit and a universal life requires seeking out remoter retirements and more rugged paths: great and worthy things that have a permanent and absolute existence, not petty fears and even pettier pleasures. Similarly, apprehending what is true and noble and sublime requires undisturbed solitude and stillness, self-directed reflection and contemplation, and an unhurried wisdom. Yet it is not that Thoreau necessarily loved to be alone, but instead that he loved to soar so high that he left his companions behind.

Nowadays we think of retirement as financial independence, so that you can travel the world or check off the items in a list of conventionally appealing activities. In ancient Indian philosophy, the life-phase of retirement or vanaprastha was more a matter of gradually withdrawing from the active affairs of life as you turn toward spiritual liberation. This is more in line with Thoreau's thinking: to be wealthy and independent in respect to your spirits and imagination, to have spare capital and abundant vigor, to retain a reserve of elasticity and strength so that you can be liberated from ordinary limits. If you are not cramped by spiritual debts, you have the freedom to spend your time and energy on the highest pursuits, to enjoy the gift of life and taste its deepest flavor.

Next: Chapter Fourteen: Leaf

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