The Upland Farm

Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life

by Peter Saint-Andre

Chapter Six: Tree (May 20)

Previous: Chapter Five: Planting

In the perfect days of late spring and early adulthood, you engage in your first, urgent growth toward your ideals: rooting downward, branching upward, leafing outward.

By focusing on the radicle and root of your existence, you burrow down below the mere surface of things and plant yourself within human nature and the humus of the earth.

By maintaining a scrupulous honesty with yourself, the stem of your identity becomes solid and steadfast.

By pursuing your highest, greenest potential, you increase the genial heat of what you will leave behind later in life and thus provide a benevolent shade to those beneath you.

In these three ways does your spirit unfold — an expansion of the ideal into the actual. You achieve a depth of understanding, a height of character, and a breadth of creativity. You find an abundance of life and health, an everlasting vigor and serenity, and an expectation of perpetual, untarnished morning. You embrace your fate. Instead of experiencing suffering or indifference, you enjoy and bless your existence, and the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy.

The true, living poetry of your life is like this tree, whose leaves precede the flower and fruit. It is what you become through your work; it is how your ideals achieve form and expression in what you leave behind every day and year of your life.

Yet this spring growth into a more rarified air is often checked by the disappointments of experience. Some blast of residual cold threatens the kernel of your life from ripening. The challenge is to not allow such a crisis to keep you from finding your second growth in the autumn of your life, from bearing your fruit at last, from propagating intellectually and morally, from doing the work that only you can do.

It is this that you achieve when you cultivate the tree which you have found to bear fruit in your soil. Although it is tempting to venture far away from your roots in order to achieve greatness, Thoreau counsels that you need not go so far afield to lead a truer life. Instead, keep strictly onward in that path alone which your genius points out. Do the things which lie nearest to you, but which are difficult to do. Live a pure, thoughtful, laborious life, more true to your friends and neighbors, more noble and magnanimous. Thus do you track yourself through life, always on the trail of your deepest nature.

Next: Chapter Seven: Trust

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