What He Lived For
by Stephen O’Connor
When I was a high school freshman and my brother Conall was a junior, he had to compose a paper on an American writer. He chose Henry Thoreau. The internet was undreamed of in those days, and so he had spent several days at the Pollard Library, covering index cards with quotations from Walden, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and various essays. I began to read the index cards that lay on the desk we shared, and thought, as I read: here is wisdom. “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”
With all the intellectual ardor of youth, I studied Conall’s copy of Walden. I was even captivated by the cover. A rustic-looking figure in a broad-brimmed hat, hands in the pockets of a dungaree coat, head bowed as if lost in thought, traversed a field bordered by towering pines. My imagination was drawn into the green, nearly liquid depths of the wood’s shade, illuminated here and there by misty columns of light that rose through the gaps in the fragrant boughs.
Some things speak to us so deeply, that years later, we wonder who we would have become if we had not fallen under their influence. For my father, it was Benny Goodman’s clarinet. For my mother, it was the cult of the Blessed Virgin. For my brother Conall, eventually, it was the romance of the sea and the men who earn their living on its back. And for me, it was Henry David Thoreau’s New England-born, earth-grown, finely-chiseled prose. “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?” he asked, and I knew that for me, a new era had begun.
With the gravitas of an Old Testament prophet, he spoke not of God’s law, but of man’s conscience; not of how we should live our lives, but of the need to examine the lives we do live. When Conall had finished his report, he gave me his copy of Walden. His encounter with Thoreau had changed him, too, but as he was already marching to his own rather spontaneous drummer, the effect may have been more difficult to detect. In any case, it was 1969, and everyone was rejecting the world that adults were preparing to leave us and looking for a more meaningful one. I carried Walden with me as a religious devotee carries his sacred text, and like such a zealot, I made converts—not many, but a few. I never brought them to Walden Pond, though, for I had learned through my mentor to cultivate a pensive solitude.
I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud, or than Walden Pond itself. What company has that lonely lake, I pray? I am no more lonely than the Mill Brook, or a weathercock, or the north star, or the south wind, or an April shower, or a January thaw, or the first spider in a new house.
Before I was old enough to get a driver’s license, I pedaled my Schwinn three-speed from Lowell to Concord once a week in the summer. It was my last trip of that summer that I recall most vividly. I locked my bike to the sidewalk side of a guard rail on Route 126. After a ten-minute hike through the woods, I arrived at the site of Thoreau’s cabin, where I paid my homage and meditated for a while in silent reverence.
Down at the water, I pulled a mask and flippers from my sweat-drenched back pack. I had read in HDT’s journals that a couple of young women once knocked on his cabin door and asked him for a glass of water. He handed them a ladle and instructed them to drink from Walden Pond. They never returned the ladle. Thoreau decried their frivolous behavior, the giggling he detected as they walked away, and concluded that they had no doubt thrown his ladle into the pond.
Out in the middle, the pond was deep, about a hundred feet, (Thoreau had plumbed it). Wearing my mask, I had swum out from the western shore and seen the bottom drop off like a cliff some fifty feet out. But Thoreau had constructed his cabin beside a shallow inlet, around nine feet deep. After I had spread my towel on the shore, I put on my mask and flippers and began to scour the pond bed. I had this crazy idea that I would find Thoreau’s ladle there, poking out of the silt where it had settled after having flown from a young woman’s hand in 1845, a twirling blot on the bright air for three or four seconds, swallowed in a silver splash.
All I found were some typically curious bluegills of various sizes who scouted me out, a couple of empty Schlitz cans, and an old New Hampshire license plate. Who brings a license plate through the woods to chuck into Walden Pond? “Live free or die”—right—he should have died, I thought.
I was annoyed that there were, near me, three boys about my age, climbing on each other’s shoulders and splashing about and generally making a racket that I felt was disrespectful in this sanctuary. Their shouting faded as I swam across the inlet. Once on the far side, I walked along the water’s edge, sometimes on the gravelly shore, sometimes ankle-deep in water, taking in this scene that had been so familiar to Henry. About a quarter mile along, I came upon a Black man sitting on a rock with his fishing line in the water. He was wearing a camouflage boonie hat, Aussie style, with his fishing license displayed on the side that was pinned up. His vest was equipped with several bulging pockets. I used to like to go fishing with my father, either in the Merrimack River or Black Brook, or deep-sea, with Eastman’s out of Seabrook Harbor.
“What are you using for bait?” I asked.
He leaned to his side and slid back the cover of a cooler. Three trout lay on ice. “I’ll see if I get one more pretty soon, then I’ll pack up.”
“Pretty good lunch.”
He laughed. “That there’s breakfast! I been out here since 6:30.”
“Are the fish picky?”
“I tell you what—you walk along the edge of the water, you see like a rotten log sittin’ there in the water—you turn it over, you probably see a crawdaddy under it. You catch one of those, the bigger the better, you gonna get a fish with that. You get a good size trout or a bass. Bass love them crawdads. Jus’ don’t hook ‘em through the belly, though, you kill him. You hook him through the tail.”
“I’ll remember that.”
“Yeah, they love them crawdads.”
“How long do you spend here?”
“I fish the morning. Then I go spend some time with the family. Yeah, family’s important, too. Then I be back to work tomorrow,” he added, with cheerful resignation.
“You know how to enjoy your free time.”
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in,” he said.
I felt an instant kinship. “You’ve read Thoreau.”
“Oh yeah. Sometimes I hear him playin’ his flute out there in a rowboat.”
“He died in 1862.”
“Well, you don’t hear with just your ears, you know.” He gave me a knowing look and laughed softly just as his rod bent, and he began to reel in a trout. It was too small, though. He extracted the hook with practiced hands and set it in the water, where it shot in a speckled flash into the emerald depths.
“Thoreau is why I come out here from Lowell.” I was thinking of something I’d read in Walden: “There was a man in my neighborhood who lived in a hollow tree. His manners were truly regal.” Here, certainly, was such a man. Perhaps I had stumbled upon the keeper of Walden wisdom, of the lore of the people and the secrets of Nature. A philosopher fisherman, who could still hear, in the “undiscovered regions of his mind,” Thoreau’s flute on the Walden breezes.
“Yeah, I read his books.” He stood and stretched. He locked his reel and hooked his lure onto one of the ring guides on his pole and leaned it against the bank as he began to pack up his gear. “He was strong against slavery, I’ll give him that. He was a free thinker—we need more of that. An’ he wrote wonderful stuff about this place, you know, in every season, but in the end…” His nose crinkled, and he gave his head a curt shake. “His philosophy didn’t make sense for me.”
“Well, you’re kinda young, an’ so I don’t know how to explain it exactly, but, well, I like women, you see. Always have. I love everything about ‘em. Now, this is beautiful…” He stood tall, like Moses on the Mount, and stretched an arm out over the water as if he would bless it. I gazed at the vast liquid mirror, reflecting, at its edge, the shadowy pines, and beyond that the azure sky with its sailing clouds. “Beautiful!” he repeated. “But you know what? It ain’t as beautiful as a woman! No sir! Now listen! Suppose I find me an honest, good-lookin’ woman,—with a big heart, too—an’ I fall hard for her, see? Then suppose I tell her, ‘Hey, you marry me, an’ I’ll take you out to a little cabin in the woods and we’ll grow some beans, an’ we will live really simple, ‘cause we aint gonna have no money. We are just gonna be Nature’s children, an’ live out there like the lilies of the field. Now what is my fine woman gonna say to that? Hmmm?”
I defended my mentor. “I don’t think he was saying that you have to live in the woods.”
Having gathered his rod and tackle box in one hand and his cooler in the other, he began to ascend a makeshift stone stairway to the main path that encircled Walden. I followed, listening. “No, but you have to, if you follow that philosophy, you have to live simply, see. That means you have to get your ass out of the old rat race, am I right?”
“I suppose, yes.”
“Uh uh. Won’t work. Cause my wife, an’ the woman you’re gonna want to marry someday, too, she wants a house! Not a one-room cabin! A house is damned expensive, son. You need a mortgage! She wants some nice things. An’ she wants a man who’s gonna be a worker. I mean my wife works, too, but she don’t want some guy who wants to walk in the woods all day an’ write down his deep thoughts about it! Hell, no! Wonderful though they may be! You gotta bring home the bacon!”
I was sure there must be an answer to his objections, but I couldn’t think what they were.
“And then!” he said, “I ain’t even got into kids yet! Once you got kids, oh ho, then everybody gets their claws into you—clothes and tuition and piano lessons and birthday parties and Christmas and summer vacations and car insurance! Oh, yeah. An’ they eat like hungry lions! And you gonna be so damned busy workin’ you won’t have no time to philosophize, except, if you’re lucky you get up early on Sunday and come out here and catch some fish.”
He gave me a moment to respond, and when, after we had walked along in silence for a moment, I had come up with nothing, he concluded. “I tell you what, young man. If you wanna get yourself neutered like a little puppy, an’ forget about women forever, why then you go off an’ do whatever you want. Live in a hut. Dress like a monk and read that Buddhist philosophy. Grow your beans and enjoy your companions—the birds. But if you’re a man like me, you’re gonna want a woman even more than you want peace of mind or enlightenment, see? Then you’re gonna have to jump into in the rat race. Yes sir, you’re gonna earn your bread by the sweat of your brow. It’s a hard life, but you know what? If I had to do it all over again, I’d make the same mistakes. Thoreau, he never had a woman, and that means he never had a family. An’ like I said, family’s important.” We had come to a fork. One path led up through the woods, past the site of Thoreau’s cabin to the main road. The other continued around the lake. “Which way you goin’?” he asked.
I pointed across the inlet. “My stuff is over there.”
“All right, I cut through the woods here. You enjoy the day, now.” I watched his laden figure pass into the shadow of the woods. I never asked him his name, nor what work he did, nor where he lived. I continued to enjoy Thoreau’s rich descriptions of the natural world, to ponder some of the questions he posited long ago, and to see the truth of much of what he recognized, chiefly, one’s responsibility to one’s conscience and the recognition of the miracle of all that is around us. And because of Thoreau, I never shared the desire that my friends seemed to have to drive a sleek new car; my daughter calls me a “minimalist,” and it was no doubt Henry Thoreau who bent the twig of my youth in that direction.
But after that brief conversation with the Walden fisherman, I could never read the sage of Concord with quite the same blind devotion I’d once felt. I was never anyone’s disciple after that. I found an “honest, good-lookin’ woman” and married her. I have a mortgage, two kids and a dog, and I’ve been working my ass off for a quarter of a century. I know I’ve had my days of quiet desperation, but when those days are done, my wife is in my arms, saying, “I love you so much,” and I feel lucky. And there are those beautiful Sundays when I walk in the woods or cast a line in a running stream. It’s all a mystery, deeper than Walden Pond, but I know if I had to do it all over again, I’d make the same mistakes.
About the Author:
Stephen O’Connor is a writer from Lowell, Massachusetts, where much of his writing is set. He is the author of the short story collection, Smokestack Lightning, and the novels The Spy in the City of Books and The Witch at Rivermouth.