The Upland Farm

Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life

by Peter Saint-Andre

Chapter Seventeen: Bud (December 22)

Previous: Chapter Sixteen: Simplicity

Even though bud and Buddha are etymologically unrelated, they are conceptual cousins, for in Sanskrit buddhi is the faculty of awareness or consciousness, which alone makes wisdom possible through discernment of truth from falsehood, good from bad, virtue from vice.

Thoreau believed that, despite all your experience of life, you can attain to a recovered innocence through the love of virtue and the pursuit of perfection (constantly improving your soul by removing its impurities, constantly refining your life by fitting yourself for a finer society); that, despite being old in years, you can be young in soul; that, despite the jarrings of life, you can hold on to freedom and peace in your mind, and find stillness inside so that you can reflect the beauty of both cultivated and uncultivated nature; that, despite the coldest and bleakest winter, you can keep a summer virtue in your heart.

In relation to virtue and innocence and your highest possibilities, the buds and hidden shoots of winter are unexpanded — you are ever green and full of sap, and it is earliest spring with you. The bud sleeps patiently with faith in an unseen spring, yearning for an unceasing growth, for a more advanced and still advancing youth. On the pensive shores of evening, the bud of imagination contains within itself the hope and expectation of a seed-time whose bright and immortal harvest cannot fail. Forming these buds for the next season of growth is the real purport of your toil, the true kernel of what you bring to fruition, the final fruit of your day's and year's and life's work.

The swelling but seemingly resting bud extends the continuity of life into the next season of growth. Like the apples of Iduna, it is the symbol of perpetual youth. At the end of each day or year, the wonderful purity to be found in the ideal of a wise and sturdy innocence is a recognition of the possibilities for tomorrow or next year — of what you still need to do in order to achieve your ideals. Even at the end of your earthly existence, it is a bravery and confidence about the future of humanity, for our human life but dies down to the root and is never fully eradicated. The brave spears of the next season's buds do not succumb to melancholy, nor do they despair of life; instead they confidently shoot upward and forward to a future unfolding of character, when the living green blade will reach again for eternity. Indeed, the next season of your own growth could be posthumous, as in the arc of Thoreau's growing fame and influence even two hundred years after his birth.

The ever-expanding love of what is best is the summation and transcendent use of your life: to climb above even your upland farm to achieve a budding ecstasy on the highest plane of your existence. And you can attain these soaring heights by living ever in the present moment with complete attention and deliberation. If you can interrogate each impulse to determine if it is in accordance with your higher nature, if you can deliberately affirm or deny each desire in a moment of reflection, then you can act with full intention on those impulses and desires that you have consciously affirmed. Indeed, this interposition is the essence of being human. Yet, when used in service of the most transcendent ends and goals, it is also the essence of philosophical practice: by nurturing the seeds of character, wisdom, and purity within you, you can progressively make your life consistent with your highest hopes and expectations; by so loving wisdom as to live according to its dictates, you can achieve a life of simplicity (because you act on fewer desires), independence (because you judge by the light of your own reason and ideals), magnanimity (because you continually desire higher and better things), and trust (because through these disciplines you become true to your best self).

Next: Chapter Eighteen: Offering

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