“Henry Thoreau has probably been more wildly misconstrued than any other person of comparable literary stature. He got a reputation for being a naturalist, and he was not much of a naturalist. He got a reputation for being a hermit, and he was no hermit. He was a writer, is what he was.”
- – E.B. White, in The New Yorker, 7 May 1949
And what a writer he was. (Thoreau I mean, but White too.) Is. Will ever be.
As a high school student in Illinois, I went into the library on some mornings before classes began, early because school started really early in those years. Our school was overcrowded to the point of overflowing, since in 1971 the second-wave Baby Boomers had just hit grades 9-12 – and we were doubling up on Central High’s space capacity by attending in two overlapping shifts, one starting early and one ending late.
I have a happy memory of sleuthing out the two enormous bound volumes of The Journals of Henry David Thoreau. I had decided, in those typically confused and eclectic years of adolescence, that in and amongst Boy Scouts and jazz trombone; Mountain Gazette, John Denver and WSDM Chicago, there was going to be a place for some reading of this Thoreau fellow’s journals.
And, mirabile dictu, (took Latin in high school too, showing a penchant for flying in the face of conventional wisdom – hey, why not study a dead language? – and maybe a glimpse of my lifelong penchant for being an insufferable pedant, as I am right now) — now, nearly half a century on, I am still reading Thoreau’s journals. Off and on, haphazardly, still early in the morning. A 2009 edition, edited and cherry-picked by Damion Searls and published by The New York Review of Books, is excellent. Wander through its 667 pages willy-nilly, and I bet you will soon agree with Mr. White. “He was a writer, is what he was.” Yikes, even his journal entries sometimes take my breath away.
Those readers of these posts who actually see me in person now and then might have noticed that in recent months I have taken to the wearing of suspenders on work days – which around here is most days. This is not an affectation or a yearning for hayseed credentials. Or so I claim. It is, however, a good way of keeping my trousers sitting comfortably high on my hips as I go through all the bending, lifting, kneeling, squatting, barrel-rolling and heaving that a bush pilot – especially a summertime floatplane bush pilot – does in the course of a day’s work, all while wearing a belt and multiple pockets all loaded up with tools like knife and pliers and carabiner and camera pouch, match-safe and lighter and birchbark in a waterproof packet, a whetstone and a whistle and a magazine of .30-06 bullets, and a bottle of bug dope. (I have this lifelong dread of someday lying immobilized after a bad wreck, in mosquito country, waiting for help and wondering not whether my injuries will kill me, but whether the bugs will bleed me dry before rescue arrives.) All this, together with the cut of some modern pants and maybe the changing physique of age, and, well, suspenders just seem to help. Except for that annoying habit the straps have, slipping off my shoulders.
And who could have imagined that Thoreau, he of Walden and Civil Disobedience, could in passing give a fellow worker some useful tips on clothing? Not me. Until the other morning I ran across this, from his journal entry of a summer 165 years ago, June 30, 1856:
“Saw a haymaker with his suspenders crossed before as well as behind. A valuable hint, which I think I shall improve upon, since I am much troubled by mine slipping off my shoulders.”
And thus I came down to breakfast the other morning sporting ‘spenders crossed both front and back. Looks pretty dorky, I have to say. (My daughters both cringed. Kristen just rolled her eyes.) But man, those straps sure stay up on the shoulders when rigged fore and aft. Thanks, Hank.
This is the kind of simple reassurance I appreciate. Just a simple reminder that in 165 years, or twice or ten times that long, working men and women are still doing the best they can just to get through their days. The job at hand, the straps that hold us together, the little tricks we learn. A comfort in times like these, and those, and all others.
A little farther along in the journals of that same 1856 summer, there is a play-by-play, blow-by-blow description of a heroic effort to re-capture a runaway pig. Henry waxes eloquent as ever on this saga, to just his personal journal, for what must be nearly two thousand words. I don’t know much about pigs, but his story gave me new insight into pig-headedness, pig cunning, and plain pig orneriness. He does catch the fugitive, finally, with help from neighbors and a half-dozen fellow Concordians drawn from all over town on a hot August day. (Thoreau lived “in the woods” at Walden Pond for only about two years. He lived right in his family home in residential Concord for most of his 45-year lifespan, an odd and quirky bachelor, working as a land surveyor and a pencil manufacturer, while moonlighting as a lecturer… and a writer. He knew there was no livelihood in that.)
There is a lesson in his runaway pig story, one I have been trying to think of a way to apply, as analogy, to other situations in life. It is this: after the pig was captured and the excitement was nearly over, Henry discovered that the only way to “drive” a pig was to get him to make an enraged lunge at something that was put out in front of him, such as a small boy or a grown Henry, waving a stick. Trick is, get the angry pig to lunge, but, matador-like, encourage the lunge to be made in the desired direction. This worked for long enough for Henry to take note of it, before he and his young helper finally just dragged the hog-tied hog into a wheelbarrow and rolled him home.
“The door is opened, and the driving commences. Roll an egg as well. You may drag him, but you cannot drive him… All progress in driving at last was made by facing and endeavoring to switch him from home. He rushed upon you and made a few feet in the desired direction.”
There must be some parables there. Surely, in military strategy, or self-defense, or politics, maybe even in families, there are situations where the “adversary,” real or figurative, can be made so angry that they rush and lash out and attack, but if the direction of attack can be toward the goal, the pig-headedness can result in progress.
I will be mulling that one over for a while yet. And with no suspenders slipping off my shoulders, at least when I’m out working, because they will be crossed front and back and, thankfully, no one really cares how dorky I look as long as I safely and efficiently accomplish the rest of the aspects of my job. Rubber boots, crossed suspenders, glasses cocked upward so that the temples don’t pass under the headset pads, breaking the seal and letting in more engine noise. I must be quite a sight, but it is best not to worry too much about how one looks while plying a trade. I know HDT would agree. He made a point of it, I think.