The Upland Farm

Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life

by Peter Saint-Andre

Chapter Nine: Cultivating (July 12)

Previous: Chapter Eight: Flower

The upland farm requires active care and intentional guidance — for the tree of life needs water and sunlight and air and space to thrive.

Water is like attention: by lavishing attention on what is important, you ensure that you focus on what truly matters. No method or discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert — especially with regard to yourself, for self-deception is the easiest thing in the world.

Sunlight is like knowledge, especially self-knowledge: by understanding what is possible, you live more earnestly and you receive enlightenment with trust and magnanimity. Although it is true that the sun shines equally upon the lowland farm and the upland farm, the upland light is more regular and pure, since it is unobstructed by the mists and fogs common to the lowlands.

Air is like freedom, for upland air makes free: by pruning back your fears and desires, you cultivate superior virtues and leave yourself more room for higher pursuits.

Space is like solitude: by forming an intimate acquaintance with the weeds that grow in the soil of your life and the vices that grow in your soul, you are more able to pull them up and thus pursue both experiences of significance and opportunities for expansion.

Cultivating attention and self-knowledge and freedom and solitude — also core values of the ancient Stoics — is the regular work you engage in to hone your being and to nurture a still fresher soul each day. For the soul has a certain magnetism in it, which attracts the power or virtue that gives it life, and which is the motive for all the labor you expend to sustain it. The finest tools you can wield are imagination and reason and belief, which enable a new creation and pasturage of thought within you — the most solid wealth and the most real estate of your life on earth. This is the highest discipline and truest task of the soul, a kind of karma yoga on the great field of the self. The motive of one who toils in this field of a wholly new life is do the work well, for the love of the work alone.

Yet, although Thoreau calls you to do some practical work every day, at Walden Pond sometimes he spent the entire morning in contemplation, forsaking works entirely. Even then, however, the day advanced as if to shed light on some work of his. Was there not a tension in his life between the hardworking poet-naturalist (who authored on the order of ten thousand written pages) and the town idler who never held a steady job? He counseled: "Do your work, and finish it. If you know how to begin, you will know when to end." Every day he pursued intellectual studies at his desk and natural studies in the woods and fields. The result was a singular cheerfulness. He was always busy about learning the trade of life, working out a true life for himself — an effort that requires more art and delicate skill than any other employment. Instead of turning out silver by the cartload, he preferred to mine the true, interior gold that was known only to him, high on the uplands of his life — to cultivate the noblest of crops and to get the most honest of livings.

Next: Chapter Ten: Magnanimity

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