The Upland Farm

Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life

by Peter Saint-Andre

Chapter Eight: Flower (June 16)

Previous: Chapter Seven: Trust

Your roots and stems and leaves — your depth and uprightness and benevolence, and the self-trust that grows from them — provide the foundations for a beautiful and winged life that fulfills your highest hopes and is a blessing to mankind. Thoreau challenges you to achieve a goodness that is not a partial and transitory act, but a complete and constant abundance; when you flow and flower in courage and health and ease, your life gives off a fragrance that is not merely useful, but an unconscious truthfulness and nobleness of character and life that grow gradually from within outward, that inspire those around you, that enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere, that enrich the world with your visions and joys.

The beauty and purity of which Thoreau speaks comprise the uncompromising principles and consistent self-control that enable you to achieve nobility and magnanimity, to produce works of unsurpassable value, to pluck every flower of thought, to prove every sentiment it is possible to experience. The great task of existence is to get the most from life, to extract honey from the flower of the world. Thoreau urges you to make that your every-day business, and to be busy as a bee about it — to be, indeed, both the flower and the bee, both the creator of a perfect summer life and its most industrious gatherer. It is the greatest success to live so that only the most beautiful wild-flowers will spring up where you have dwelt.

To bloom and flourish so exquisitely, you must transcend and translate yourself, as does the caterpillar that metamorphoses into a butterfly. Consider the famous dream of Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu, in which he wondered how he could distinguish whether he was Chuang Tzu dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu. In "Higher Laws" Thoreau speculates that the answer might be both: by preserving your higher or poetic faculties in the best condition and by rising above a merely physical, grubbing existence, you can achieve a perfect state of being — a state in which you float freely and happily, sipping the sweetest and most ethereal forms of sustenance while spreading pollen from flower to flower and thus gathering the honey of your higher self.

This metamorphosis, this living up to your highest potential, is inspired most of all by love and by friendship. In love you impart the best of yourself and alone perceive the truest fragrance of the beloved. In friendship can be found the highest fruit which the year may bear, and which lends its fragrance to life. This essential fragrance is the best of ourselves, the ripe thoughts and atmosphere that comprise the crop of crops and that refresh and encourage you not for a moment but for a lifetime. Thoreau found such inspiration in his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson (despite the eventual and perhaps inevitable cooling of their relationship), in Ellen Sewell (to whom he unsuccessfully proposed marriage, but whom he still professed to love in the last months of his life), in his brother John and sister Sophia, and in his other close family and friends. Even though Thoreau never married or had children, in many ways he still realized the ancient Indian ideal of the second, active life-phase of grihastha by supporting not only his family's household, but also for a number of years that of his friend Emerson; and these responsibilities reinforced his highest ambitions.

Next: Chapter Nine: Cultivating

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