Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Thoreau’


In Books, Memoir, The Examined Life on March 10, 2016 at 7:02 pm

It is raining this evening. And the cold has returned. I sit with a scarf wrapped around my neck. The oven is heating up, and with Carole out of town I am left, again, to my own devices. The pelting rain against the window is comforting. In Finland, where the winter nights are long and punishing, they have a word for such coziness, “hygge” (pronounced ‘hooga’). There is an aspect of hygge-ness to a night like this.

I packed up books today. I am no longer attached to my library as I once was. In a previous house, I had a carpenter build floor to ceiling shelves, end to end, maybe twenty linear feet by ten feet high. Once we had a party at the house and a guest, looking at the shelves, said, “You’ve read all these books?” It was the question by which the shelves came to justification. They were trophy shelves.  It was nothing less than ego exercised. A few books remain, but we don’t have room now. Nor does ego require them any longer, being the lesser thing than it once was.

We all have our trophies, no? They are, really, nothing but excess exemplified. And I don’t have time, patience, nor, most importantly, room for excess any longer.

I put Montaigne into a box with the other books, but opened him randomly first:  “I wish to be remembered as the man who accumulated nothing.” It was the perfect send off. I have always been able to count on my French friend for support. It could have been Thoreau, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” The best teachers speak the same language.

As the rain falls, and the books get packed away, as my literary friends go to a place of dark resting, I contemplate, as is my nature, the meaning of all this. I have no sufficient answer. And I am comfortable with that. I know this at least, that sufficient answers are rare and hard to come by. It is the question that is most important. As another significant teacher recently put to me: What is the most important thing? And what is most important about the most important thing?



Sunday 5.11.14

In Books, Death, Life, Literature, The Examined Life on May 11, 2014 at 4:38 pm

There was a birder at the park this morning. I spotted him as Lucy and I rounded the path. He was walking a bike. He occasionally stopped and lifted his binoculars and peered into a tree. He was wearing bike shorts and a helmet and was sporting large rubber band-like straps below his kneecaps. “Red tail?” I asked, sauntering past, a bird disappearing over the trees. “Kestrel,” he corrected. I moved on. He lingered. Lucy darted ahead. There is an unmatched quality to a Sunday early morning.

* * *

I returned two books to shelves this week, actually, to be precise, one book to the shelf, one to the library. I have tried to read Angle of Repose Wallace Stenger’s 1971 Pulitzer-winning novel three times. I advanced almost two hundred pages this go ’round (out of 600) but decided to retrace my steps. It lacked a certain deeper context. Or rather, it–this context–escaped me. A book has to appeal on multiple levels. Angle of Repose seemed lacking in dimension. No doubt my problem, not the book’s. The other book, The Second Book of Tao, was poor timing. Some books, like some foods, require the necessary appetite. Bailing on a book no longer troubles me.

The last novel I devoured was the second book in the six book series, My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Like many other readers of this series (3000 pages!), I cannot get enough, but cannot explain exactly why. Zadie Smith says she needs his books “like crack.” James Woods, writing in The New Yorker, says, [Knausgaard] wants us to inhabit the ordinariness of life, which is sometimes visionary…, sometimes banal…and sometimes momentous…but all of it perforce ordinary because it happens in the course of a life, and happens, in different forms, to everyone. He notices everything—too much, no doubt—but often lingers beautifully.” It feels time to get book three. I have the appetite.

                                   * * *

I cleaned out dad’s room the day after he died. All of his belongings packed into three grocery-store banana boxes and four trash bags. I took the bags of clothes to Good Will. The boxes remain in the back of my truck. Dad never read Thoreau, but he understood living simply. The sage lives as long as he should, not as long as he can, says Montaigne.  Dad, unknowingly, was a great philosopher.

   * * *

I return from my morning walk with Lucy and declare to Carole that I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body. This is a revelation after years of fruitlessly attempting to cultivate a phantom desire, as if living up to a responsibility. “Do you mean religious bone in your body?” she asked. “No, I know I don’t have that,” I say. She nods and says it’s the same with her. We leave it at that. Know thyself, counseled the Greeks.

What we own.

In Memoir, Nature, The Examined Life, Wisdom on August 9, 2012 at 6:00 am

My Maryland Woods

I am traveling to Maryland next week to work on the house and property I (still) own there. Suffice it to say I anticipate the real estate market will have returned enough by next spring to put it on the market. It is a nice house and sits on several acres of wooded land. It butts up against a state-owned watershed of several thousand acres and sits astride a thirty-acre preserve. It is remote, as property in the mid-atlantic goes, and afforded me a great deal of pleasure over many years.

The property is home to white-tailed deer, fox, box turtles, birds of prey, song birds, snakes and various other critters. During hunting season, the deer congregate in our woods. It is a place of refuge. It is a place I appreciate, an environment akin to my sensibilities. But eventually the congestion, the crowds, the traffic, and the weather, became too much to bear and we escaped north in pursuit of a simpler life.

Simple remains out of reach, however, while tethered to the property. Indeed, it became glaringly apparent after living there that the things we own eventually come to own us. This is a bit of wisdom I came late to realize. I am still owned by too many things and, like a snake, have been attempting to shed the skin of my slavery for some time.

I cannot explain properly how I came to this place. The metaphor of a slippery slope comes to mind, but I attempt to avoid cliché when possible. In sum, I lost the vision of my aesthetic for life. Regardless, it is an awkward position for a man who grew up chanting Thoreau’s admonition to “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” It is not too late (yet) to rectify. I have time, but not forever.


Thanks for reading.

Let’s go do something.

In Adventure, Happiness, Life, Nature, The Examined Life on July 16, 2012 at 6:00 am

Cabin fever strikes.

Please excuse my brevity. My quickening pulse. It’s the time of year.

It is the season of cabin fever. I’m burning to move. It doesn’t take much, moving being one of the few things I do well. Sitting still is always difficult for me, and when good weather strikes, watch out. Life affords us but a finite number of seasons. My number, whatever it is, remains one less than last year. Going forward the number diminishes. That alone is pressure enough. I have time, but I don’t have forever.

Consequently, sitting at my desk is not something I embrace this time of year. In the winter, snow falling, temps low, the study is cozy and inviting. Ideas are easy pickings. But now I have a map of the Moosehead region at my elbow. “I need to go to Moosehead every afternoon and camp out every night,” wrote Thoreau. How can I concentrate when my attention is so severely listing?

I report this in the hope that you will understand my lack of focus, grant me my distractions. (See below.)

Yvon Chouainard has a book titled, Let My People Go Surfing. I’m not a surfer, but I concur. Let my people go do something!


I need some vacation, got to get out of “…the house…”. I trust you understand. It may be a week. It may be two. I’ll get back to you soon enough.

Thanks for reading. Now go do something!

July 4th, 1845

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, Thinkers on July 4, 2012 at 6:00 am

Walden Pond

Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond on this date in 1845.

He lived there two years, two months and two days. I was reminded of this once, while traveling in Tibet. Peering up a Himalayan cliff I spotted the cave of a meditating monk, a receding dark entrance agape against the bleached crag face. I was told that a monk, in order to become a lama, must meditate in solitude for three years, three months and three days. It does not feel at all awkward to think of Thoreau as the first American lama.

I learned recently of a theory suggesting that Thoreau went to Walden to practice yoga. “I am a mystic,” he wrote.

On the 150th anniversary of his death, Henry David Thoreau

In Philosophy, Writing on April 29, 2012 at 6:00 am

On his deathbed, Henry David Thoreau was asked by his aunt Louisa if he had made peace with God. “I did not know we had ever quarreled”, he replied.

His last words were, “Now comes good sailing.” And then two lose words “moose” and “Indian”. He died on May 6, 1862 at age 44.