Friday, February 5, 2016

The Scarlet Oak

There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate,— not a grain more. The actual objects which one person will see from a particular hilltop are just as different from those which another will see as the persons are different. The scarlet oak must, in a sense, be in your eye when you go forth. We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, and then we can hardly see anything else.

H. D. Thoreau (Journal, November 4, 1858)

Text Box: 1Engraving, Autobiographical collections of Amos Bronson Alcott. Vol. V. 1840-1844. Concord. England. Concord. Harvard. 328f. (*modbm_am1130_11_4_p4, Houghton Library, Harvard University)From July 1845 to September 1847, Thoreau lived in a shed next to a pond a short walk from the center of a small New England town (Concord, MA; population in 1850: 2249). After building the shed, he took long walks and grew beans and read and wrote. His recounting and reflecting on the unexceptional activities produced a book that still moves and inspires people, despite the difficulty its nineteenth century style and vocabulary create for modern readers.

 The November 4, 1858, passage from his journal suggests a way to understand why he was able to do that. He is certainly a skilled and sophisticated writer, but he is also a skilled seer. The world he sees is animated by the ideas in his head, but equally important, as can be seen in the painstaking records he kept of detailed observations of the dynamic world around him, his ideas were shaped by what he had seen. We live only in the world we perceive. The power of Thoreau’s vision made his small town the site of epic human struggles against forces that would belittle and imprison us.
Groundhog by Clare

But there are limits to how much our thinking can transform what we can see. Just as we can assemble Lego blocks into all sorts of configurations, we can assemble the raw material of our direct and indirect experience into more than one alternative world. But also just as the nature of Lego blocks constrains how accurately we can enact our visions, the nature of our experiences does constrain how far our thoughts can mold those thoughts before we become delusional. At the other extreme, if our imaginations are boxed in, we will be able to think only inside the box.

 “Inside the box” thinking is also dangerous because its image reinforces the idea that our mind is inside us and the world is outside. The situation is more ambiguous than that. The world is not just “out there” and our minds “in here.” The real world—the rich, multidimensional world that we actually live in—is balanced between those two places. We can lose our balance and fall one way or the other, but the challenge means that walking through a new doorway can be an exciting adventure, or even through an old doorway as a new person. 

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