The Upland Farm

Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life

by Peter Saint-Andre

Chapter Fifteen: Storing (November 17)

Previous: Chapter Fourteen: Leaf

Thoreau counselled to provide for coming dormancy on cold November days by cultivating a renewed focus on the essentials of life. Put things on a winter footing and find a certain broad pause and opportunity to start again, to turn over a new leaf even after the few remaining leaves of summer have come fluttering down.

Yet the prospect of winter does not lead to a bleak and cheerless resignation, because the true harvest of the day, of the year, and of life is to be found not in the sweet, ripe fruit which it yields, but in the concentrated, nutty kernel of thought which it occasions. This is a matter not of plucking each fruit as it passes, but of gathering a rich crop of experience and growth, cheerfully threshing the grain and separating the kernel from the chaff, picking over the choicest specimens of what you are and aspire to be, and storing these safely away.

Make a faithful record of your strivings and learnings, the things you love to think of, your affection for any aspect of the world; in so doing, you store each of these for future use and can restore it again at will through the faculty of imagination. The reminiscence affects you as poetry and enables you to appreciate the experience and mood of that other season of life, whatever it may be. Thus only the rarest flower and the purest melody of the season comes down to you. The world so seen is all one spring, full of beauty.

It is never too late to slough off your errors and give up your prejudices, to insist upon proof for your ways of thinking and doing, to purify yourself of the dross and earthiness which you have accumulated during your experience of life.

Aspire to practice in succession all the honest arts of life. Late in the day, the best of these is sincere and searing reflection: to settle your accounts, to admit whether or not you have lived deliberately and have been well employed, to give tone and firmness and consistency to your thoughts and actions. The same practice was prevalent among the ancient Stoics, who in the evening would meditate on the events of the day and reflect on how they went right or wrong, on what they did or left undone. If in your most elevated and critical hour you find your life and behavior unworthy, let not your experience wear upon you, but, encouraged, set out again to climb the mountain of the earth and seek a future that is worth expecting.

Yet this discipline of self-knowledge is, like the jñāna yoga of the Yogic philosophy, not a matter of constraint and severity. Thoreau may have been a sort of natural Stoic, but his was a cheerful wisdom. He learned to live, to make few apologies, to be resolutely and faithfully what he was, to be humbly what he aspired to be.

Next: Chapter Sixteen: Simplicity

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