Thursday, September 22, 2016

Where's Walden?

Today's essay will unfold in four parts, where "Walden" is the common thread that weaves hem together.

1. Walden Pond
For most readers this will be the first association that comes to mind, the modest body of water about 20 miles west of Boston, made famous because philosopher Henry David Thoreau lived the simple life there during the period 1845-47, and then wrote about it.

Thoreau's best known work was Civil Disobedience, in which he laid out his thinking about the right relationship of the individual to government. He was also a naturalist and thus something of an inspiration—well ahead of his time—to those seeking back-to-the-land simplicity and a spiritual connection to place in the 20th Century. I was such a person when I helped start Sandhill Farm in 1974, an income-sharing agrarian community.

2. Walden Two
In 1948, behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner chose to popularize his thinking by publishing Walden Two, in which he describes a fictional utopian community that operated under behaviorist principles.This book subsequently became the core inspiration for a handful of intentional communities that blossomed in the Hippie Era of 1965-75, including Twin Oaks (Louisa VA), Lake Village (Kalamazoo MI), and Los Horcones (Hermosillo MX)—all of which still exist today.

As someone who was deeply invested in community networking for 35 years, this was just one of the fascinating strands of cooperative living that I became aware of and tracked. Although behaviorist thinking never became dominant in the Communities Movement, the root principle of positive reinforcement (as opposed to controlling or guiding behavior through punishment) is alive and well in almost all cooperative living groups. It simply works better.

3. Woodsburner
This is the title of John Pipkin's first novel, published in 2009. I read it last month and it's the fictional account of four lives—Henry David Thoreau, Oddmund Hus (a socially awkward orphan Norwegian immigrant), Eliot Calvert (prosperous bookseller, inept playwright, and discreet purveyor of pornographic postcards), and Caleb Ephraim Dowdy (renegade minister and opium addict) whose lives intersect on April 30, 1844 in and near Concord MA when Henry accidentally sets the woods on fire—a thing he actually did.

In this treatment Thoreau is in anguish over whether to drop out (by building a cabin on Walden Pond and devoting his life to writing) or returning to the family pencil business, where they've been able to set the gold standard for domestic production based on a superior source of graphite called plumbago. Should he focus on civil obligations or civil engineering?

Simultaneously the other members of the dramatis personae are wrestling with important life choices, even as they strive to determine just how bad the fire is and what role they should play in containing it.

It's a barn burner—even if few actual outbuildings succumbed to the flames.
4. Walden Farkas
Earlier his week I spent an agreeable 18 hours visiting with Walden (and his two boisterous English Setters) at his home in McMinnville OR. Though it had been 43 years since we'd last seen each other, amazingly, we had no trouble dropping back into a depth of sharing that was the reason we had been friends all those decades ago.

Walden and I lived on the same dorm floors our freshman and sophomore years at Carleton College (1967-69) and became good friends. Although our relationship was strained when Walden dropped out before our second year ended, we managed to keep the pot stirred by getting together a few times during the first half dozen years immediately following. Then we lost track of each other… until two weeks ago, when a message from Walden magically materialized in my In Box.

In a laconic two-sentence email he reported that he'd stumbled across my blog and now lived in Oregon. Knowing that I was coming his way last week he suggested we get together. Well, hell, it seemed like a good idea to me, and it worked out that I could be dropped off in McMinnville Sunday evening, en route to my Monday afternoon rendezvous with train #28, the eastbound Empire Builder.

In this year of challenged health, I've enjoyed many wonderful visits with family and friends—people who made it a point to see me, not knowing if it might be their last time. Of course, no one knows for sure when the last time might be, but the question is understandably more in the forefront when you're diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. For all of that, the possibility of getting together with Walden had not been on my radar at all, and thus was a great treat.

I was touched both by his finding me, and by his deciding to reach out. He's mostly lived alone the past four decades (excepting his canine companions) and it meant a lot to me that he decided to interrupt his routine to invite me into his home.

Mostly we just yakked, allowing the conversation to flow wherever it wanted. There were funny remembrances, convoluted stories about what we'd each been doing the last four decades, bafflement that Donald Trump actually has a chance to become the next President, and the opportunity to share what we'd each distilled into life's lessons.

I may not know where Waldo is, but I seem to have no problem with Walden.

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