It happens every winter when I grab a favorite book and prop my feet up by the fire. Thoreau’s winter essays found in Walden capture my imagination and further my self-education. It isn’t long before I want to move outside and walk. “Self-education has a lot of merits,” said writer Ted Leeson, in The Habit of Rivers, “but quality of instruction isn’t one of them.” True enough, but as an extension of the many years one puts into formal schooling, self-education is invaluable. There are few mentors who have given more to my home education than H. D. Thoreau. After re-reading a couple of chapters in Walden, I was out the door into a warm January morning, hoping once again to simplify a bit of life, to help clear my head from the mess of the world, from the problems of my job, and even from the repercussions of infected sinuses.
I climbed a steep northern flank of King Hill following the snow-prints of coyote and fox. In the distance of the woods, deer and wild turkey stepped away from me. Occasionally I stopped to rest as the wind began to strengthen, and I drank more whiskey-flavored water from a flask. I came to the junction of “Main and Pine,” two wooden signs planted by deer hunters near the summit. From there, as the sense of wildness grew more obvious, I could feel as though I walked with the spirit of Thoreau. I imagined Main Street of Thoreau’s Concord in the nineteenth-century. I imagined a road called Pine that led the naturalist away from the haunts of man and into the woods that he wrote of so convincingly. From “Former Inhabitants”: “Now only a dent in the earth marks the site of these dwellings, with buried cellar stones, and strawberries, raspberries, thimble-berries, hazel-bushes, and sumacs growing in the sunny sward there; some pitch-pine or gnarled oak occupies what was the chimney nook, and a sweet-scented black-birch, perhaps, waves where the door-stone was.”
Out beyond Main and Pine I wasn’t noticing remnants of former inhabitants so much as I was noting the interface of autumn and winter. So far, winter has been mild and relatively snowless. Old Man Autumn still has a presence here, like a bear with insomnia, stirring from hibernation. I paused for a globe of ice in a field, a circle of ferns in the forest, a play of light and shadow through the trees. These elements are part of who I am. They are also wholly wild and unto themselves alone. Just when I thought there was no understanding my connection to the world around me, I heard a loud kraw! overhead and looked to see a raven circling in the wind. The large black flyer with the hooked beak and the wedge-shaped tail was circling noisily 75 feet away, as if I had invaded its aerial kingdom. I dug for my camera, but as I got the thing positioned, this messenger of the sun god who had come from a place between my own center and worlds beyond, caught a wave of northerly wind and sailed from my view.
Moving on, I thought of the “Great Snow” that had yet to appear this season. Songs from PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake” played in random shuffle through my head. I tried to think of a particular Thoreau quotation about the deep snows but wouldn’t find it till later in the day. “… How cheerful it is to hear of!… for I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree, or a yellow-birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.”
Many years ago I practiced meditation, as prescribed by Eastern philosophical texts, a simple lotus position, with a slowed-down mental process harmonized with breath. Today I prefer a walking meditation, keeping a simple destination in mind, as if I were keeping a fixed eye on the tip of my nose. A simple destination– like Thoreau stepping through the deep snows toward a distant pine tree with its special power. So I kept a walking meditation homeward through the woods. I listened to chickadees in the ash trees overhead. Thoreau compared their winter notes to the “tinkling of icycles in the grass.” To hear them on this tranquil pathway through the woods was an exercise in calming the head, another entry into the serene halls of self-education.