Where Henry David Thoreau lay on his deathbed, his pious Aunt Louisa demanded to know if he had made peace with God.Thoreaus replied that it wasn't necessary, they had never quarreled.
The woodlands of Walden Pond, where Thoreau went in 1845 "to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life," offers a moment of reverie to recapture the ideals and instincts of one of America's authentic secular saints.
The sanctuary of Walden itself remains safe from moneyed predators. The Massachusetts Supreme Court protected the pond a few years ago from developers, and local historial societies stay vigilant against the modern highwaymen. A few beer cans are said to be waiting for eternity on the bottom of the pond. But aside from such minor falls from grace, human nature and mother nature appear to be at peace at Walden.
Thoreau has been damned and praised for the attitudes he developed in his two years of the contemplative way here.Oliver Wendell Holmes saw him as "the mullifier of civilization, who insisted on nibbling his asparagus at the wrong end." Henry Miller wrote that "viewed from the heights of our decadence, Thoreau seems almost like an early Roman. The word virtue has meaning again, when connected with his name."
I am with Miller. Every spring since I left college to begin the delights of self-education, which is the only kind that can matter, I have reread "Walden." It is one of the few books in American literature that shine with any number of lusters: sound sociology and history, clear writing, sharp opinions and a style of rebuke that made him as much a neighborhood scold doing God's work in New England as was Amos when he left his orchard to shake up the northern Israelites.
This spring, "Walden" has jolted me for its uncanny relevance to the daily headlines. When President Carter calls on the country to go easy on energy, take up walking and get by on the smaller and the lesser, he repeats the message drummed out by Thoreau 150 years ago: We must be a nation of conservers, not consumers.
Thoreau, seeing in his times that frightening compulsions for bigness, progress and excessive wealth were ruining the country, sought to gain his reader's attention with the two most magnificent - and - most moral - words in "Walden": "Simplify, simplify."
For those of dim vision, he used directness: "Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion." For Thoreau, small was not only beautiful, it was sane and honorable. He pitied townsmwn in nearby Concord who kept panting after larger farms, bigger houses, wider barns and heavier cattle. If acquired, this load of wealth crushes and smothers, until "men have become the tools of their tools."
Although he was derider as "a dirty little atheist" by many of the proper churchgoers of Concord, Thoreau's philosophy of simplicity is now a theme of many clergymen who are examining today's religious establishment as it exists next to America's obession with consumption.
In "Enough is Enough," John V. Taylor, an Anglican bishop, writes that "excess confronts us in our rich countries [in] whichever aspect of our situation we look at - our consumption of food, accumulation of goods, waste and pollution, concentration and congestion of our cities, out plunder of fuels and minerals, our expenditure on armaments - ruthless, unbridled, unthinking excess."
The difference between Thoreau's ethic of conserving and the sentiments adopted by many of today's politicans who speak nervously about 'the new austerity" is one of fresh air and frog. America, said Thoreau, is "ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim."
Current thinking, whether expressed in the diatribes of a Henry Ford against federal regulation, or in the laughable hokum of the Mobil propaganda ads, turns that around: Our luxuries are being threatened or ruined because we can't get enough oil, coal, lumber or nuclear power to keep the high living high. It would be a national humiliation to lower our standard of living. The oil sheiks must not be allowed to push us around. If nuclear power isn't safe, settle for half-safe.
Taking it from there, concepts like conservation of fuel, efficient technology, recyling and alternative energy sources have little appeal to policymakers who fear they will be the messengers blamed for the bad news.
Actually, as Thoreau was telling his profligate neighbors in the 1840s, the bad news might actually be good news. The human spirit, be argued, thrives on the essentials, not the fluff: "We are sound asleep nearly half out time. Yet we esteem ourselves wise."
In an update to Thoreay, the Council on Environmental Quality said last month in a frank report called, "The Good News About Energy," that "we can do well, indeed prosper, on much less energy than most people imagine."
Thoreau provides us with a shock of recognition because "the quiet desperation" he saw just beyond the tree-line of Walden is now the national mood. At times, when the lines at the gas stations stretch out, or when a Three Mile Island comes along, we have noisy desperation.
As for a cure that can lead to calming down, if Thoreau were walking past his pond today and we had the high fortune to be sitting there, he would bite into his asparagus at the wrong end and repeat the splendid words, 'Simplify, simplify."