The Upland Farm

Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life

by Peter Saint-Andre

Chapter Five: Planting (May 6)

Previous: Chapter Four: Sprout

It sounds so easy to follow your genius and obey the spur of the moment. Yet Thoreau recognized that there is a great and deep discipline here.

To plant is to found, to provide with a grounding in the bedrock realities and necessities of life. This is a natural foundation — not a conventional life merely, but a human grounding in the very humus of the earth. The seed may fly freely on the slightest wind, but to grow into a mighty tree the seedling must first become deeply rooted.

Thoreau believed that castles deserve to be built in the air, like the eyrie of an eagle that serves as a jumping-off point for this noble bird to sport with proud self-reliance in the fields of the sky. Yet this castle needs a foundation — and what better foundation for such great-hearted pursuits than the topmost branches of the lofty tree of life itself?

To gain strength for this greatest flourishing, you must select and establish the core aspects of your way of life — where you live, how you live, with whom you live — and settle into your choices. By drawing sustenance from the air and sun and soil that surround you, you build the first roots and tender growth of your essence and identity, achieving solidity and structure through a morning faith and trust in the future.

It is one thing to speak of advancing confidently in the direction of your dreams and endeavoring to live the life you have imagined; it is quite another to figure out how to do so. Thoreau always maintained that the right path to a higher experience can be found in a life that is outwardly simple but inwardly complex: in pruning back your desires, weeding out distractions, watering what truly matters. Life, he knew, is a serious business — the kind of private business he transacted at Walden Pond — and the upland farmer will strain every fiber of his moral and intellectual capacity to live in earnest, to attain the right object of living.

Cultivating the upland farm is thus in large measure a matter of renouncing what is unimportant: of knowing what is absolutely necessary for your highest growth and of focusing your energies where they truly count. Yoking yourself to this kind of self-restraint, self-mastery, and self-discipline is essentially similar to the yogic practices of the ancient Indian philosophers that Thoreau so admired — for he said that at times even he was a yogin. It is also consistent with the ethics of Stoicism that he imbibed at an early age through his reading of the Greek and Roman classics. Yet this discipline is not imposed from without — it is a higher law nurtured inside, turned over and over in the receptive soil of your essential being, coming near to making a new world within you.

This discipline of securing the most from life starts with what you have: improving from day to day the soil beneath your feet, harvesting whatever crop your life already yields, taking care to watch closely over the fruit of your thoughts and experience. When you do not strain to reach a fruit that is too far beyond your grasp, you slowly shoot upward with ever-expanding confidence; in the same proportion that you root yourself firmly in the earth, so too you rise into the heavens above.

The everyday work of the soul requires a great pile of doing to gain a small diameter of being. One truly experienced moment of life requires countless hours of preparation toward the highest, most elevating goals.

Next: Chapter Six: Tree

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