04.01.19 | Solitude (Nature)

Maybe not right away. Maybe refrain from reading the focus essay until the time is right -- when you find yourself most comfortable in your own company, preferably after a solitary meditative "walk in the woods." Only then might you appreciate Thoreau's essay, Solitude (link: PDF).

Even then the writing may at first come across as a tad off-putting. Time-traveling to Thoreau's 1845 Massachusetts Walden Pond requires a certain suspension of present-day reality in the same way the study of a foreign language requires a force-fit into a different cultural context. Some heavy lifting is required. It's worth it. A decade or two of life experience makes this a very different read from what you may recall as a pimply four-eyed adolescent trying to cop a grade in your high school english class.

We are fortunate, by the way, to have among our Member Monday participants Charlotte (Ripley) Sorenson -- someone who has "walked the woods" and is on a first-name basis with the ghosts of all those transcendental founders: Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman (with the closest of blood ties to the founders of Brook farm, the famous 19th century utopian experimental community which nurtured the movement).

So let's allow ourselves to slow down and be open to an evocation. Some will resonate with it and some may not. How far we have devolved from Thoreau's grand experiment in redemptive isolation: build a small cabin in the woods, strip away the superfluous luxuries, live a simple life and thereby fully explore the sublime lightness of being. What has been lost? Thoreau replies to the question whether he gets lonely in his cabin out in the woods by distinguishing loneliness and solitude i.e. solitude is a condition of being alone with oneself while loneliness is estrangement from oneself.

What has been gained? His oneness with Nature made the company of human beings seem wearisome in contrast. Not that he considered himself to be a misanthrope, declaring (in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers) that he loves "society as much as most" though stressing it is less important to dwell near to society and the convenience of the city than it is to dwell near "to the perennial source of life." 

As such, solitude is not measured in terms of the space separating a man and his fellows. Nor is it a matter of mere conversation, as "less frequency would suffice for all important and hearty communications."  Precious moments of silence, he maintains, are often more communicative than speech (again, from A Week on the Concord). And therein lies a golden opportunity for us. Let us test the hypothesis. 

For this session we shall gather and commune in total silence for the duration of the main meal and then entertain the first verbal comment upon dessert service. No pressure but as to such initial comment (and each one thereafter) we will ask (silently, smiling to ourselves) whether such comment was more profound and affecting than the silence it displaced.

Ian ReidComment