In the summer of 1845, Henry David Thoreau built a tiny cabin and set up housekeeping in the woods near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. In his recounting of the experience, Walden, or Life in the Woods, he writes, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
He also wanted to be alone so he could get a little writing done!
I’m glad he succeeded, because his writing offers wisdom that speaks to our greatest challenges one hundred and sixty-four summers later. These challenges, though different in degree, would be familiar to Thoreau: the urgent need to halt and reverse environmental degradation; the growing imperative to live more simply and sustainably; the importance of honoring the voice of our inner teacher (our “different drummer”) and of opposing injustice; the longing to be fully awake to our life and the understanding that it is too easy to sleepwalk through most of it. Each generation faces these challenges in its own way, and I find Thoreau’s words good company as I take my turn.
A few weeks ago, on a lovely Saturday when the woods were full of pink lady’s slippers, I went to Walden with a group of teachers as part of a seasonal arts, nature and renewal series that Courage & Renewal Northeast is offering in partnership with The Walden Woods Project. In honor of Thoreau’s love of “botanizing,” and with the help of a naturalist and artist, we spent the morning exploring botanical drawing. Inspired by Thoreau’s observation that “nature will bear the closest inspection; she invites us to lay our eye level with the smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain,” we focused on a particular leaf or insect or stone or flower and endeavored to give it our full attention by faithfully depicting what we saw. For me, this was a demanding exercise, not because drawing was hard, but because I kept forgetting to see and draw the leaf right in front of me, rather than the idea of “a leaf” that I had in my mind. I caught myself drawing this imaginary leaf each time my attention wandered (which it did continually), and I had to bring myself back, over and over, to the reality of THIS leaf, in its unique beauty and imperfection. I was reminded of how I sometimes see only what I expect to see—or worse yet, I don’t even bother to look—and miss the reality that is accessible to me if I would only quiet myself and give some thing, some situation, some person my full and open-hearted attention.
Mary Oliver wrote the poem “Going to Walden” (The River Styx, Ohio and Other Poems, 1972) after declining an invitation to visit the pond with friends:
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.
I invite you to find Walden where you are—particularly the Walden that resonates as a symbol of nature’s power to inspire us to more fully-awake lives—by trying a little botanizing of your own and experimenting with drawing as a way to be radically present in the moment and place in which you find yourself.
Grab a notebook, a pencil, and maybe a magnifying glass, and seek out a small detail of the natural world that captures your attention. Sit down in front of it, take a few deep breaths to settle yourself, and then try to see, and draw what you see, as faithfully as you can. After a while, you may want to widen your attention and add some notes to your drawing. What type of landscape are you in? What is the season? temperature? weather? What do you hear? smell? How is your body experiencing this place?
For those of us who find drawing intimidating, this is an invitation to focus on process rather than product. Drawing, even for the most gifted botanical artist, must first be about seeing clearly what is really there in front of you. Trying to capture the essence of a small detail of the natural world with paper and pencil is a contemplative practice, a way of paying attention, of being deeply present.
After you’ve finished, consider reflecting upon how this experience speaks to you now in your life and work by drawing again. Take a fresh sheet of paper and a few deep breaths, and then begin to fill the page with whatever images come to you. Allow what is within you to be expressed on the page and try not to censor yourself. Don’t be concerned about whether your drawing looks to others like what it symbolizes for you.
Stop when you feel it is time to stop. Then look at what you have created and let it speak to you. As ideas come to you about what it might mean, you may want to add your thoughts to the page.
I invite you to share your experience with the rest of our virtual circle of trust. Contribute a comment here, and if you have a drawing to share, send a .jpg to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll post it too.
And as this summer unfolds, I hope that you are drawn to Walden, wherever you find it.