Thoreau – Lost and Found by Rev. Marti Keller & Finding Walden Where You Are by Rev. Anthony David

Thoreau- Lost and Found
Rev. Marti Keller

I had every intention yesterday of helping to celebrate the inaugural World Fitness Day with Jane Fonda, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and Ludacris (among others). Catching an early weekend Marta train to the Georgia Dome, standing in line behind several thousand other people in the will call line, and after all of that working out with two plastic water bottles as hand weights, going for the burn for 45 minutes, and out.

Instead, I opted for a later, more leisurely start, and tagged along with my husband and a friend of ours in the opposite direction, 20 minutes or so by car, to Arabia Mountain, where there are still those rare, brilliant red, lichen-like spring flowers to be found on the granite outcroppings, and then a short easy hike through the fully leafed preserved woods to our own Southern sort of Walden pond there. It is, unlike many New England so-called ponds, really pond sized, but called a lake nonetheless, and like all other lakes in this state, man-made, a damned up basin with rusted, New Deal locks.

Not safe for swimming. No fishing allowed, but as we sat on the rocks, smooth shale, resting and watching the clear water, my limbs worked and stretched, my mind no longer racing, and there was nothing to do but to notice everything ( or so it seemed): the overcast sky, the pines, the insect chewed bark and fallen branches, the ripples.  And unfortunately, the more than occasional burst of gunfire from the DeKalb County rifle range nearby.

And the birds, always the birds- –the cawing in the near distance, a circling hawk, and the one gliding male duck, making his effortless, uninterrupted solo journey the length of the lake, calling out periodically.  Adding my own sketchy observation to birding reports  I had just read in a weekly Wild Georgia column, spottings of a rarely seen little blue heron, two orchard orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, migrating, gray-cheeked thrushes, hundreds of them winging north.

On this less than placid but good enough Saturday mid-morning, I recalled the passages by Thoreau in one chapter of Walden, wherein he made his own vivid notes on birds whose lives intersected with his.

A poetic surveyor, using natural facts, as nature philosopher Alfred Tauber wrote in Bostonia, the Boston University Alumni quarterly, as a painter uses oils, to compose a vision of nature and his particular place in it.

Hear this description of a visiting loon

His usual note was…demoniac laughter, yet somewhat like that of a water fowl, but occasionally, when he had balked me most successfully and come up a long way off, he uttered a long-drawn unearthly howl… this was his looning… at length, having come up fifty rods off, he uttered one of those prolonged howls, as if calling on the gods of loons to aid him, and immediately there came a wind from the East and rippled the surface, and filled the whole air with misty rain, and I was impressed as if the prayer of the loon answered, and his god was angry with me.

The loon was painted into Thoreau’s picture, the center of Walden Pond on a stormy afternoon, not as an objective fact, but reworked, once recorded, as a character in a profoundly personal encounter on Thoreau’s own journey of self-cultivation and discovery.

While Thoreau claimed a kind of separate seeing of the environment around him, in his book Thoreau on Birds, just recently brought back into print, reminding us “there is a world in which owls live”, what we call wildness a civilization other than our own, he regarded himself and has come to be regarded, Tauber says, as a literary man, caught up in the metaphysical, the spiritual importance of his studies of the natural world. His work  was not tied  not to objective scientific observation as we now know it , rather to his unwavering individual quest  for beauty and meaning, and differentiation—his own right to conscience, his own location in the larger scheme. Every day as he lived it on Walden Pond.

Truth is, according to one of his journal editors, Thoreau never did acquire much skill in the diagnosis of birds seen in the field, in fact was often mistaken when it came to identifying birds and interpreting their habits, and yet, his ardent and faithful recording of birds in the area around Walden Pond moved him to demand that birds be accepted in their own country. Of the dead body of a great blue heron, shot by a neighbor, he said “ I am glad to recognize this bird as a native of America- why not as an American citizen?” Why not animals recognized as citizens, why not rights for birds? A compassion that came from his sense of an interdependent universe in which all beings love one another. An harmonious, romantic and passionate sense of what could be just a random collection of species, instead an interdependent web.

Search for truth and meaning. The right of conscience. The interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.  All core principles of our Unitarian Universalist faith, and yet if my growing years in this tradition were anywhere near the norm, Thoreau was not there, at least not on Sundays.

While there was a piece of driftwood on the altar in one of my childhood congregations, our hymnal readings contained only one from Thoreau, and my father and brothers fled the windowless sanctuary most weeks for worship in the salt flats or in one woods or another, counting birds, finding spirit in the wild.

Thoreau died of tuberculosis May 6, 1962 in Concord, Massachusetts, eight years after writing Walden. He had been battling the disease for many years.   Christened a Unitarian with family ties to the Concord congregation, Henry had long since deliberately disconnected from any church membership, before others, including twenty some Unitarian ministers, found themselves under increasing attack for their shift in sensibilities and beliefs.

Our colleague, Rev. Barry Andrews, one of our primary Thoreau scholars, in his sermon written on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Walden’s publication, spoke about this work, and others by Thoreau’s fellow Transcendentalists as a form of modern day scripture, an alternative to the truths in biblical text to which the liberal Protestant but still exclusively Christian Unitarians of their time still adhered, the proof found in miracles and all. Thoreau, and other young challengers of a young Unitarianism, critiqued what they saw as too much focus on what they termed “lifeless things”, not enough on the inward pious life and what some call direct, mystic experiences of the divine. Too much dependence on the senses, and not enough on the intuitive.  A religion of dry bones and a thin porridge of pale negations.

Andrews tells us that Thoreau—and his fellow Transcendentalists—were often scolded for their religious views, considered too pantheistic—-worshipping the spirit that revealed itself in and through nature, shocking some by their elevation of Buddha and interest in other forms of Eastern religion.

Critiqued and marginalized on one hand for their rejection of what might indeed be called Unitarian creed  and on the other for what was seen as a Romantic rejection of the new secular scientific methodology, Thoreau and his colleagues found more of a retrospective home outside of our religious fold.

For years, Barry Andrews tells us, more conservative Unitarians sought to exclude Transcendentalists and their teachings and writings on the basis of their rejection of (or more accurately their religious  expansion beyond) Christianity,  even while the philosophy and its practices gained acceptance , even  adherents. Within a short time, fewer and fewer identified this way.

A decade following his death and then before the turn of the 20th century, much of Thoreau’s writing, including his journals had been published  by the second, fading generation of Transcendentalists, influencing many public figures outside our faith community, including  literary giants Marcel Proust, William Butler Yeats and Ernest Hemmingway; naturalists like John Muir and David Brower, and American psychologist  B.F. Skinner, who carried a copy of Walden with him in his youth and in 1945 wrote Walden Two, a fictional utopia about 1,00 members of a community living together inspired by the life of Thoreau.

Since the beginnings of the ecology movement and then what has been called a spiritual revitalization movement in the l980’s, a new “transcendentalism”, a mysticism, a theology of interdependence and immanence, has been steadily growing with UUism,  described  in one associational study  as a slightly updated version of the spirituality espoused by Thoreau and others. It focuses on attaining direct intuitions of oneness and relatedness with nature or the divine. More than a quarter of us now identity this way.

As we rediscover Walden and its author, as we delve once more into this source of our living faith, Barry Andrew writes that there is a natural congruence between Unitarian Universalism and Transcendentalism, a source of a uniquely and authentically UU spirituality, with its possibility of a rich, deeper inner life and a stronger sense of religious identity.

Praise be to Thoreau.

* * *

Finding Walden Where You Are
Rev. Anthony David

As Rev. Keller suggested, many of the Unitarians and Universalists who came after Thoreau struggled with his model and message. To them it was by no means clear what Walden meant for our spiritual movement, in contrast to the Americans all around them who got it and declared it a classic of the human spirit. To paraphrase Jesus, the prophet was not honored in his own country.

But we’ve come a long way, baby.

We’ve come a long way.

We hear Thoreau say, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” and this civil disobedience insight immediately brings us back to one of the main reasons for our existence: to create people who are leaders in this world, people who care about justice, people with knowledge and passion and skills to bring an effective prophetic witness to the times in which we live.

We hear Thoreau say, “The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly” – we hear this, and we remember that our Unitarian Universalism cannot be a one-sided focus on social issues. To do all that needs to be done – to leave undone all that which is truly non-essential – we must heal our hearts and relationships; we must increase our emotional and spiritual IQs; we must awaken and continually reawaken to the endless potentials of the human spirit.

We hear Thoreau say, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” and we are called to one of the central spiritual disciplines of Unitarian Universalism, which is good stewardship of our life resources of time and talent and money. We realize that just as the first chapter in Walden is entitled “Economy,” so must that be the first chapter in our lives.

We hear Thoreau say, “Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?” “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps”—Thoreau says this, and suddenly our Unitarian Universalist First and Seventh Principles begin to dance together. “We affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” “We affirm the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.” Nature’s good is our good; our good is in the preservation of the world.

Perhaps there was a time when the prophet was not honored in his own country, but that time is long gone. His own country honors him now and needs his voice to remain relevant to the 21st century. “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root,” said Thoreau; and as for which one describes him, now we know.

So the question before us is, After spending a year with grandfather Henry, what’s next? Where to go from here?

Mary Oliver wrote this poem, entitled “Going to Walden,” after declining an invitation from friends to visit the pond:

It isn’t very far as highways lie.
I might be back by night fall, having seen
The rough pines, and the stones, and the clear water.
Friends argue that I might be wiser for it.
They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:
How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!

Many have gone, and think me half a fool
To miss a day away in the cool country.
Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,
Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
Trick of living, and finding it where you are.

That’s what’s next: finding Walden where we are—a slow and difficult trick of living. You don’t have to travel to Massachusetts. Find Walden here. And the key to this, I believe, is coming to terms with a seemingly strange fact. This: that there are no less than four different Thoreaus in his great work. One is the fierce and unyielding social critic who acts in conformity to what he sees as higher principles and so sharply rejects slavery, refuses to pay the taxman, goes to jail. But then the second Thoreau’s attention is more on his soul and personal relationships than on society. He’s the one who practices a careful diet, who listens to rain and writes. The one who hosts annual melon parties with his neighbors and plays Tom Bowling on his flute. The one who spends hours in reverie doing absolutely nothing, or walks, or goes skating with Mr. Emerson and Mr. Hawthorne and skates circles around them. As for the third Thoreau: careful with numbers. Keeps a meticulous ledger. Carefully lists for his readers every item he used to build his house at the side of Walden, and how much it all cost, and how much was left over. Passionate about voluntary simplicity, and practicing the concept of enough. Finally, the fourth Thoreau: lover of nature, nature mystic. This one says, “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Four Thoreaus – but what united all four and made them one person with integrity was Thoreau’s unifying insight that justice-seeking, personal and spiritual growth, concern for the economy, and concern for nature were all interrelated. His nature mysticism made his social critique strong, and his social critique strengthened his focus on the economy, and all were strengthened by his personal wellness practices. In other words, for him and for us, the interdependent web of all existence is not something fundamentally out there but in here, in our hearts. Needs to be in here: the sensibility that what we do in one part of our lives matters for every other part. All for one and one for all.

If sustainable living is anything, it’s that. Ensuring that each of the four Thoreaus has a home in us, and that they are talking to each other, strengthening each other. Paths without heart narrow down on only one Thoreau to the detriment of the others. Paths with heart are wide enough for all four; and if we walk down paths like this, paths with heart, that’s how we’ll find Walden where we are. That’s how this congregation will become Walden. That’s how this nation will become Walden.

Next year is going to be an amazing year, a leadership year for this congregation. In 2011 we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and naturally this will put us in mind to wonder about the next 50 years and the role we here at UUCA will play in it. So, very appropriately, as a congregation we are going to ask this vision question: where do we want to go? How do we want to change lives? My hope is that, as we do this, we will envision our future through the sustainable living lens, and resolve to make room for all four Thoreaus in everything we do.

But that’s next year. For here and now: consider taking a year-long happiness pledge. Last year, 186 of us made one, and may there be even more this year!

Lots of ways to approach this, and one way is simply to reflect on whether you are missing one or more of the four Henrys in your life. Are you? Is Henry the social justice advocate alive and well, for example, but it’s been ages since you had a regular self-care practice involving, say, a hobby that was just fun and didn’t pretend at all to change the world? Or is it the reverse? Your focus has been mostly on personal development and wellbeing, but you haven’t been paying much attention to the small or great social issues of our times. Perhaps it’s time to find a way to get involved.

If there’s a Henry that’s missing in your life, what’s one commitment to some weekly or regular practice that might spark the missing Henry back to life?

Two things to say at this point:

1. What if you don’t want to make a year-long happiness pledge? No problem—this is only a friendly invitation. These pledges are meant only to encourage and support people in their personal lives and relationships. For some people, pledges like this give them focus and commitment, and they work.

2. What if you want to make a year-long happiness pledge, but you aren’t ready? You need more time to think about it, or you’d like to talk to someone first? Again, no problem. Take the time you need. Go to our homepage at and see a video that gives you examples of happiness pledges from last year. You can also make your happiness pledge there as well.

As for my own year-long happiness pledge. Still thinking about it. But I will say that some members of the staff are going to do a collective pledge – to do yoga together at least once a week. We’re missing this Henry in our work together, so it’s going to help – help steady our bodies and minds for the work we are called to do together….

And now it’s your turn. Take out the white insert in your order of service, and as the music begins, please begin filling out your pledge form. In a couple of minutes, the ushers will come around to pick them up. (NOT money for the offering, though—that will come later on.)

Please also note that on the pink insert in your order of service, there’s a space you can use to write down a copy of your pledge, to take home with you, just to keep it before you.

So now – let the pledging begin! Let’s find Walden where we are!