The Upland Farm

Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life

by Peter Saint-Andre

Chapter Two: Seed (March 11)

Previous: Chapter One: Farm

A seed is a small thing, almost invisible, hardly worth noticing. Yet it is a plant or tree in embryo; it has creative energy and the principle of life and growth within it.

Like the seed is the fruit. If you would eventually bear fruit of a divine flavor, you must pay close attention to learning the origins of your later seasons and to sowing such seeds as sincerity, truth, simplicity, faith, and innocence.

The simplest seed is awareness: awakening to life and its higher possibilities, seeking and finding personal liberation, attuning yourself with serenity and joy to the hope and expectation of greatness. This awareness is a morning invitation to simplicity and innocence, when you throw off the sleep of reason and elevate your life by conscious endeavor. Through a stern simplicity of life and elevation of purpose, you can make your life worthy of the contemplation of your most elevated and critical hour.

Just as bud follows hard upon leaf, so choice follows hard upon awareness. As an upland farmer, you reap what you sow — and you must deliberately select the seeds of your liberation. The seed-time of your character shall produce nobler crops and better repay cultivation than the common stock, for only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence.

Thoreau likened this higher existence to a few particular plants and trees: the flower of the life-everlasting, the arbor vitae or tree of life, and the apples of the Hesperides — a mythical grove that could grant immortality to those who ate its golden fruit (similar to the apples of the Norse goddess Iduna, which enabled the gods to stay forever young).

Choosing to cultivate crops of immortality meant, for Thoreau, living his idealism by hewing to a higher path, maintaining his individuality, keeping his own counsel, getting his living honestly, expecting of himself a nobler course of action in his daily existence. He had faith that these tiny seeds would eventually bear flowers and fruits of immortal beauty — and that, even if he never fully achieved his ideal, the benefits of idealism would accrue to him by producing an unconscious truthfulness and nobleness and beauty of life.

In particular, Thoreau concentrated on three fundamental seeds of a better life and a true success: the seeds of character, of wisdom, and of purity. Just as character is your inner genius settled into place within your life, so wisdom is reason settled and purity is hope or expectation settled. To be settled means to be nurtured, planted, watered, fertilized, pruned, cultivated, and constantly improved. As in the karma yoga, jñāna yoga, and bhakti yoga of ancient Indian philosophy, you need the yoke of discipline to put these powers into practice and then monitor your progress toward your ideals.

This is how you turn enthusiasm into temperament, how you build the foundation for a higher and more ethereal existence, how you steady yourself for weariless travel on the right road, how you transform the very spring and elasticity of youth into steady upward endeavor toward your distant ideal.

Next: Chapter Three: Preparing

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