The Upland Farm

Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life

by Peter Saint-Andre

Chapter Three: Preparing (March 28)

Previous: Chapter Two: Seed

If the seeds of your life are to take root and thrive, you must first plan and prepare. Although Thoreau celebrated wildness, he recognized that the soul is not an unplowed meadow or an uncharted forest, but a garden or an orchard that requires constant tending. As the Stoic philosopher Seneca put it: "Nature does not bestow virtue; it is an art to become good."

So make ready: put on the pack of an upland farmer in good earnest. Know that the tools you can carry are few and small, but ancient and powerful. You must work with your hands, take advantage of what nature offers, and rely ultimately on yourself.

You must also keep your tools sharp: a spade for placing your seedlings down below the mud and slush of opinion and prejudice and tradition and appearance; a hoe for weeding out the many and inevitable distractions of life in modern society; an axe for pruning back the fast-growing branches of your desires, and thus for living more simply; a pail for meting out the water of attention onto what truly matters.

In his practical life, too, Thoreau was a collector of only the most essential tools for living as a free and independent worker and thinker. In this way he avoided a mindless consumerism and a bottomless desire for comforts and luxuries.

The upland farmer also requires more rarified skills and aptitudes: mindful attention and being forever on the alert; sincerity and honesty in your dealings with yourself; a critical eye to sense whether you are ripe or rotten; Stoical virtues such as calm patience, unwearied persistence, and a sturdy discipline; an endless curiosity about all the varied phenomena of life.

The transcendentalists such as Thoreau used these tools in applying the methods of living they valued most: self-knowledge and contemplation, studious reading in all the great traditions of human thought, and keen observation of nature and society.

Thus does the upland farmer prepare to ply his trade.

Next: Chapter Four: Sprout

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