The Bus Book – w/c 17th March – On Civil Disobedience

As the copy I have of ‘On Walden pond’ also includes this essay, it seemed churlish to not feature it here.

Thoreau spent a night in prison during his time at Walden, because he neglected to pay a local tax.  Whether he would have spent longer in prison than a single night had the tax not been paid isn’t clear, but as a local resident paid the tax, he was released.

The essay is an interesting diversion in to the rights and wrongs of civil disobedience, and is as relevant today as it was when it gave inspiration to anyone dealing with an unjust law over the intervening century and a half.  Thanks to people like Gandhi, the idea of civil disobedience as a valid and legitimate form of protest is something we take very much for granted today, but for Thoreau’s compatriots it must have been quite something.  Gandhi himself developed his techniques of passive resistance after reading this essay, and the comment “The Government that governs best, governs least’ is on the lips and in the heart of anyone who, like me, considers themselves to be a libertarian.

See here for an article on the essay, and here for an annotated text.

Thoreau’s issue with taxation was that he felt it was supporting the enslavement of his fellow man, through supporting a State legislature in favour of slavery.  He regarded not paying the relevant tax as a means by which anyone might raise a hand against the state; indeed, we need only look back to the ‘Poll Tax’ riots in the UK and the increasing numbers of people not paying that particular local charge non principle to see the impact.

It also set off a few thoughts for me; when I was younger I was much more willing to go to the wire on issues; now I’m older I’m less willing.  Thoreau was a single man, with little to lose, except his physical liberty.  Indeed, I get the impression from reading his essay that he would have happily handled a longer time in prison.  When you’re older, have a family and dependents, have a house, job, etc. it takes little imagination to see how a few months in jail could easily lead to loss of virtually everything you hold dear.  Perhaps one of the great accomplishments of the Consumerist State is that it gets people to behave more effectively than almost any other means thought of short of execution.

The times in my life when I have been willing to kick hard against the pricks, so to say, have been the time when the most has been taken from me and I was increasingly feeling cornered with little left to lose.  The balancing act between our consciences and what we’re willing to pay to be true to ourselves is what keeps us obedient slaves within our so called free society.

Reading this essay has made me think deeply about what is important and how far I am willing to go in my personal life to do what is right.  And it pains me to say that at the moment my courage, like that of many of us in contemporary society, is somewhat lacking.

The Bus Book – w/c 10th March – On Walden Pond (continued)

As you can see I didn’t do an exceptional amount of commuting last week, and Walden remained the Bus Book for this week as well.

As I’ve progressed through it I’ve come to the conclusion that whilst I admire his ideas, I don’t think Thoreau would necessarily be a fun guy to spend an evening in the pub with.  I get the feeling from what he says that he was something of an aesthete.  I wonder if the ‘hair shirt’ attitude of some of today’s ‘extreme greens’ partially originated from here.  Sort of along the lines of if you’re enjoying it it can’t be truly environmentally friendly.

His description of the pond in winter is masterful, with a keen observational eye which brought the whole place to life in my mind’s eye.

I took a look at the Pond as it is today via the website here and also checked out a map from Google, below.  The map is movable – just hold the left mouse button down and move the mouse around.

View Larger Map

Even back then he was within a couple of miles of town – I suppose the invention of the car and the widespread use of bikes, etc. would today mean you had to be maybe 10-15 miles outside of the nearest village to get the same degree of isolation.

One final observation – in the ‘Spring’ section there is a amsterful description of the patterns made by sand in thaw-water flows, as well as the similarities between natural shapes – leaves, snowflakes, etc.  Given my interest in fractal mathematics it was hard to ignore the fact that had he been a mathematician Thoreau may had discovered fractals 100 years early!

Anyway…good book, worth a read…just don’t expect to find an easy read!

The Bus Book w/c 3rd March – On Walden Pond

One of the long term running gags in our family is that given half a chance I would either run off to live in the woods or become a hermit in a Monastery.  Well, I spotted this story recently that made me seriously consider it…

Here’s a guy who did it for almost 2 years – Henry David Thoreau, in the mid 1840s, spent time alone at Walden Pond, a couple of miles outside Concorde, Massachusetts, in a house he built himself.  There he studied his surrounding, wrote and further formulated the philosophies that eventually became part of the American Transcendentalist movement later in the century.

Part natural history study, part philosophy, the book has become a rallying point and source of inspiration for generations of American environmentalists.  For further information, see the entry on Wiki.

Last week was spent more at home than recently – so my bus based reading took a hit.  For that reason I’m only half way through the book.  The writing style is occasionally difficult – especially for those of us not well versed in the slang and culture of the mid-19th Century USA – but it is a passionately written and insightful book.

I’m enjoying it – I’m not able to read it in long chunks, but read a little, chew it over, savour it – think on it and then move on.  Perhaps that’s the way this book should be read.

It’s a fine book, thought provoking and empowering.  It’s also set me thinking about Bill McKibben’s ‘the End of Nature’ – perhaps I should dig that out soon.