Thursday, December 01, 2005

A Simple Creed

open quoteI believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows. -- Henry David Thoreau, American author, naturalist, pacifist, tax resister and philosopher (1817 - 1862)
Henry David Thoreau, photograph published circa 1879. Enlarge Henry David Thoreau, photograph published circa 1879.
As a writer, Thoreau labored over his work, writing and re-writing -- and then re-(re-)writing several times over -- until he finally expressed his thoughts to his satisfaction. The end result may not betray all that effort, since he seems to say so much with so few words. And, although many of Thoreau's statements have the easy brevity of a modern soundbite, a thoughtful reader can reap treasures of layered meanings and nuance in every paragraph. Take, for example, the quote that leads today's entry. Thoreau lists only three beliefs, and does so in brief. There is no explicit mention of a divine being. No trace of a nod to a personal savior. But I submit to you that these words carry more power and a deeper mystery than any creed or oath in 2000 years of christendom. On a literal level, the "forest" he refers to here means, of course, an actual forest. An outside wooded area. On deeper, metaphoric levels, this "forest" wherein Thoreau places belief refers to Nature, and the mystery and power that reside therein. What is the mystery in a forest, in Nature? As Robert Frost wrote, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep." Standing just outside the forest, your sight cannot penetrate to its heart. "What is in there?" you might wonder, or, more to the point, "what is it hiding? What dangers lurk there?"As for the power of Nature, look to the trees themselves. Branches that sway and bend with the breeze, but do not break. Roots that, over hundreds of years, can break down stone. In the right circumstances, and it doesn't take much (though it is a careful balance), trees and other woodland plants are highly resilient. And they can live hundreds of years, outstripping individual humans, or their societies, in their longevity. That is, of course, unless threatened by those human societies (see campaigns to save Old Growth forests in the U.S., Australia, and Sweden, for example). The forest can also represent the mythic "descent into darkness," through which the hero faces a crisis, or turning point, and achieves greater self-knowledge. Refer to Joseph Campbell's books The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1948, 1972), Myths to Live By (1972), The Masks of God (4 vols, released 1959-1968). Or, if you are short on time, just do a 'net search on "Hero Quest Cycles" and/or "Joseph Campbell." That will turn up lots of interesting reading, such as the concept of the Monomyth, an essay on Beowulf and Star Wars, and Linda Griggs' Hero Quest Cycles. I've barely scratched the surface of forest symbolism, and that is as it should be. So now I will leave the forest in the middle of my ponderings and turn to the meadow. This open space is still part of Nature, but it is more inviting, perhaps it feels safer. With wide vistas, one can see to the heart of a meadow, and beyond. It does not seem to hold any secrets. But that is, of course, its secret. The meadow may still have some part of Nature at its heart -- it is not tainted with human dwellings. But it is Nature tamed. The woodland cleared. The meadow is the boundary, perhaps, between the mysterious forest and the oh-so-safe structures of human civilization. I meditate now upon the phrase, "...the night in which the corn grows." To believe in that night is to believe so many things, particularly now that the growing season has passed. This is a hopeful statement, full of promise. Full of awe and respect for the power and wisdom of our true Mother, the Earth. And the night itself, domain of the Moon, plays yin to the sun's yang, represented here by the golden yellow of corn kernals. This phrase is also a knowing nod to humanity's first true currency and wealth: grains. The cultivation and storage of grains helped early communities grow and thrive -- from ancient Egypt, to the Mayans, to Indian tribes of the Northeastern United States. It is not just an army that travels on its belly. Hmmmm. Starting today, I will stake my belief in Thoreau's forest, meadow, and night for my own creed. And I don't mean this in a dogmatic sense, for the world is sorely drenched in dogma as it is. I merely want to explore what it means to believe in these things, perhaps only for a week ... maybe until the end of this year. I don't know what will come of it, and I don't particularly care. But for some reason, I feel I will be all the better for having d0ne it. For more about Henry David Thoreau, I invite you to check out the Wikipedia entry on him, as well as their collection of external links.

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