Yesterday, I spent time in the woods removing vines that strangle the life out of the trees that feed them – bittersweet, Virginia creeper, multiflora rose, poison ivy, some grown so thick it takes a chainsaw to cut them. Naturally my mind turned to Henry Thoreau. Whose wouldn’t? Too often we think of Thoreau at Walden as a mild environmentalist, a man who planted beans, went for long walks and dined regularly with the Emersons. We sell him short. I went out yesterday to cut vines and clear my mind; Thoreau “went to the woods . . . to front only the essential facts of life, . . . and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” This was no gentle sojourn in his mind, no diversion from real life. This was Jesus in the wilderness confronting his own life and impending death.
A few years after leaving Walden, Thoreau wrote about John Brown, soon to be executed for leading the attack at Harper’s Ferry and arming local slaves, and who has ever since been demonized as a wild-eyed fanatic, America’s first terrorist. Not to Thoreau. Of the small band, he wrote, “These alone were ready to step between the oppressor and the oppressed. Surely they were the very best men you could select to be hung. That was the greatest compliment which this country could pay them.”
And he reminded the rest of us that “we preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence every day.”