The Upland Farm

Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life

by Peter Saint-Andre

Chapter Fourteen: Leaf (October 17)

Previous: Chapter Thirteen: Independence

Just as the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, so you express yourself outwardly in your actions. Just as the leaf, having been perfected, leaves the tree and has its own independent existence, so your actions, having been perfected, leave your soul and have their own independent existence. Just as in the economy of Nature nothing is wasted, so in your life everything is put to use, every decayed leaf and twig and fiber of your being serves as compost for your future growth.

The true poem of your life is a new creation: what you have become through your work, through the pursuit of your highest use, through seeking to bring a transcendent idea into form and expression. Although this poem is the spiritual inheritance that you leave behind, it is built up from something more prosaic, for you nourish the roots of your being with a natural fertilizer formed of the slough and dross of your daily experience. Each day brings new leavings, new opportunities for learning from your mistakes and your successes, new chances to read of others' experiences in the form of biography and history and philosophy, as well as your own experiences of friendship and family and social interaction.

The change to some higher color in a leaf is evidence that it has arrived at a late and perfect maturity. When you do what you do best or most perfectly, what you have most thoroughly learned by the longest practice, what has sprung from seeds planted early in life, then your actions fall from you effortlessly, as the leaf falls from the tree, with abundance and an unconscious philanthropy that grows organically from the energy and benevolence of your first spring shoots.

A successful life is a complete maturity, a ripening from root to stem to leaf, when your entire being blooms as one flower — when you finish your summer's work, ripen your seeds, rejoice in your existence, experience unalloyed reflections, faithfully discharge your duties, neglect none of your economies, add to your stature in human virtue, and show that you have grown steadily toward heaven all through your life.

When you have lived thus well, you can lie down and take leave of life as gracefully and contentedly as the leaves do when they fall from the trees in autumn; your works and days are an anticipation of spring, an evidence of warmth and genialness, a preparation for passing from this life into another. In the Indian summer of a finer atmosphere and a pensive beauty, you experience pure and distinct reflections, your thoughts are a foretaste of the spring, and you find a time of Oriental contemplation, of faith and serene confidence.

Next: Chapter Fifteen: Storing

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