“Going Against the Tide” by Mark W. Harris


The First Parish of Watertown – March 26, 2017


Opening Words ― from Henry David Thoreau, Walden

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man [or woman] to elevate his [or her] life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.


First Reading from  Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers


I was once reproved by a minister who was driving a poor beast to some meeting-house horse-sheds among the hills of New Hampshire, because I was bending my steps to a mountain-top on the Sabbath, instead of a church, when I would have gone farther than he to hear a true word spoken on that or any day. He declared that I was ‘breaking the Lord’s fourth commandment,’ and proceeded to enumerate, in a sepulchral tone, the disasters which had befallen him whenever he had done any ordinary work on the Sabbath. He really thought that a god was on the watch to trip up those men who followed any secular work on this day, and did not see that it was the evil conscience of the workers that did it. The country is full of this superstition, so that when one enters a village, the church, not only really but from association, is the ugliest looking building in it, because it is the one in which human nature stoops the lowest and is most disgraced. Certainly, such temples as these shall erelong cease to deform the landscape. There are few things more disheartening and disgusting than when you are walking the streets of a strange village on the Sabbath, to hear a preacher shouting like a boatswain in a gale of wind, and thus harshly profaning the quiet atmosphere of the day.


Second Reading – Henry David Thoreau,  Journal, December 2, 1840


The lake is a mirror in the breast of nature, as if there were nothing to be concealed.  All the sins of the wood are washed out in it. . . I love to consider the silent economy and tidiness of nature, how after all the filth of the wood, and the accumulated impurities of the winter have been rinsed herein, this liquid transparency appears in the spring.


I should wither and dry up if it were not for lakes and rivers. I am conscious that my body derives its genesis from their waters, as much as the muskrat or the herbage on their brink.  The thought of Walden in the woods yonder makes me supple jointed and limber for the duties of the day. Sometimes I thirst for it.  There it lies all the year reflecting the sky –and from its surface there seems to go up a pillar of ether, which bridges over the space between earth and heaven. Water seems a middle element between earth and air. The most fluid in which man can float.  Across the surface of every lake there sweeps a hushed music.


Sermon – “Going Against the Tide” –  Mark W. Harris

Every time I visit Walden Pond I am reminded that Andrea’s father was responsible for the construction of the parking lot there; paving, swales, fences and plantings.  To me it is perfectly reflective of what you would want to achieve with a natural area to both preserve the landscape, and fulfill the requisite recreational need. Of course 99.9 % of the people who go to Walden Pond have to drive to get there.  This is not an area that is conducive to foot traffic.  As you drive in through the entrance, it doesn’t look like a parking lot because all around you are trees and shrubs in between several areas where cars can be parked. There are pathways back to the road where you can hike down to swim in the muddy pond, or hike around its perimeter, pretending you are walking in the steps of Thoreau.

A parking lot that is made to look natural is ideal.  Make it look wild, but also make it possible to pack in the cars that drive there. And on a hot summer day, pack them in, is exactly what they do.  This is perfectly reflective, too of the ambivalence we feel about nature, our own, and the natural surroundings we think we want to preserve in their pristine state.  It is hard to have it both ways.  Many natural areas have been sacrificed to development.  This is observed in that famous song of my teenage years, “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell.

We may recall Mitchell singing, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot, or they cut down all the trees and putting them in a tree museum.  Think of all the housing developments that have been named for the woods or natural areas that were destroyed in order to build there. You can be sure that Beaver Valley no longer has any gnawing creatures, and Indian Ridge is no longer the home of Native Americans. We want preservation, but we also want to be able to drive to areas where we can recreate.  And that parking lot says it all.  It looks so natural, and yet it is made to accommodate the behemoths of the factory not the forest.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau.  I know you are all asking why is he pronouncing the name in a such an odd manner.  Most of us learned that the name is pronounced Tha-row, but more recently I have been told that the correct pronunciation is Thour –ough.  I don’t want to wrangle over this, but we are talking about an American icon here, who is quoted and misquoted time and again.  Simplify! Simplify!  March to a different drummer! In wildness is the preservation of the world.  That’s wildness, by the way, not wilderness.

So this is an early birthday sermon because he was born in July, but the real reason is a smoldering anger over the besmirching of his reputation in a New Yorker article from about a year and a half ago, called “Pond Scum” by Kathryn Schulz. Yes, our liberal hero of environmentalism and civil disobedience was equated with the green film that grows on the surface of stagnant water. In her reading of the sage of Walden, Schulz concludes that he is a narcissistic, control freak, who only needs himself to thrive in the world. He wanted to be delivered from institutions that inhibited the individual’s integrity of conscience, like government and church.  She declares that he thought he knew better ways of determining the truth than anyone.  He was a snob. She calls him a compulsive liar, too. I think one problem is that she doesn’t understand how he struggled, just like you and I, with living in society with such lofty principles.

For example, he lamented the excesses of popular newspapers, comparing it to living in a sewer, but he also considered the press indispensable.  He thought it was America’s new Bible, and he read them all.  He knew he was an exaggerator.  His attitude toward the paper is like us with the weather or with our phones.  We complain how horrible one is, and how we are addicted to the other, but we revel in our disgust, and enjoy complaining.  He wrote about living simply in this little hut on the pond with minimal dietary habits, sometimes living on beans alone, and yet he trudged home frequently for a taste of Mom’s home cooking and to socialize with his sisters, and to do his laundry. Schulz says that Walden Pond was about as far off the grid as Prospect Park, a famous park in Brooklyn.

He was about as self-sufficient as my teenage sons.  And then, like any good teenager, he says rebel against societal norms, but then he goes off and embraces them. He was a fanatical individualist, who was self-absorbed, who liked telling people how they could become more saintly in their daily living. Schulz feels Thoreau should be perfectly assured about his life views, and she denigrates his inconsistencies. But I identify with his incessant need to self-reflect on what life demands of him to be a good person.  I also expect that our faith will inspire us to consider deeper contemplation while walking, praying or conversing with others.

There are some serious issues that Thoreau exemplifies, which also underscore why he provides special insight for Unitarian Universalists.  These are not so much his political activism or environmentalism, but the smugness with which he applies them. The other night at our Love Out Front workshop on antiracism, our facilitators asked us to name something that would keep us from remaining present at the meeting. This was not a distraction at home, but rather what might keep us from being engaged with others, and the responses included things like people who dominate a conversation or get angry and yell.  I wrote down “liberal exceptionalism.” This is the presumption that liberals, like us, are the most enlightened people in the room about a particular issue, say, the environment, and society would be much better off if it followed our approach of personal and societal stewardship of earth and all its resources.

With racism, it might be your feeling that you have been there and done that in countless workshops, and you know personally that you could never be prejudiced, but you seem to have neglected all those ways you which you are the recipient of white privilege. And with environmentalism you already drive that Prius and despise gas guzzlers, and you belong to the local group that eschews pesticides, so you must be doing all you can.  Unfortunately, as good as you are, there is inequality and police shootings and white supremacy, and there are melting ice caps, rising tides, and extreme weather events.  We love Thoreau in that little cabin because he has simplified his own living down to virtually nothing. But it is a ruse because he cannot really fulfill his wilderness ideal alone. He says he could live in a little box on the ground. Yet that sounds coffin like to me, and just as deadly to society.

We know Thoreau as an ardent individualist who lived by the highest principles.  Yet it is that supreme integrity that does not allow him to understand how important it is to work with others or even admit to himself how much he struggles with people and life’s injustices.  More than a self-possessed genius he is also a member of a community that needs traditions and shared values. We often think of Thoreau, like other Transcendentalists, as someone who eschewed tradition and authority, thinking they could be their own authorities.

He once said, “Time is but a stream I go fishing in,” sounding like a man for whom time did not matter. Yet even from a young age a sense of time and history inhabited his very soul. In the fall after he quit teaching school because he refused to apply corporal punishment to the students, he was out walking with his brother “with,” as he said, “their heads full of the past and its remains.”  He began to envision the presence of Native Americans, saying, “how often have they stood on this very spot.”  And then he began living the part of their leader, and said “there is his arrowhead,” pointing to a nearby rock, but miraculously the rock was an arrowhead.  It was later noted about Thoreau that he could almost find arrowheads at will, partly because he was so observant of everything, and partly because he expected to find them. The imagination is so great, that if we feel something, you do not merely seek, but actually find.

This, too, was the way I felt, when I went fishing in the Swift River in my rural town of New Salem 50 miles or so west of Concord. Upstream from me was the natural rock formation that came to be called the Bear’s Den, where an early settler had encountered a large bear among the craggy rocks and waterfalls.  This, too was an area where Native American councils had met, and as a devotee of their history, I, too imagined myself conferring on important issues in my homemade loin cloth, and hatchet.  Here the water flowed down from the hills of New Hampshire, past the main road down to towns that were eventually swallowed in the Quabbin Reservoir.

The Quabbin which once encompassed four towns that were drowned in the 1920’s to become the reservoir for Boston’s water supply, became what was called an accidental wilderness, a land of trees and water with minimal recreational usage.  Quabbin” is a Nipmuc Indian word meaning “meeting of the waters,” and so it was the meeting place of three branches of the Swift River. When I was a boy this wilderness became a place where the wild turkeys and bald eagles were reintroduced after nearly going extinct. This was marvelous to reclaim wilderness from land that was once hewn of trees, and fortunately the impetus to develop it was kept to a minimal. I was struck a few weeks ago when Andrea said that Mt. Kathadin in Maine, that wilderness mountain I climbed last summer, with what she described as minimal planning, and maximum grace (or stupidity), could not be developed.  It was too steep to build a road there, so one could not drive to the top as tourists can do on Mt Washington.

Wilderness is a convoluted word. We believe Thoreau gave us our modern commitment to environmentalism and the preservation of wilderness, but he was conflicted about it.  Traditionally and Biblically, wilderness was a savage place that was a barren wasteland. Yet we have cultivated a romantic view of wilderness, so that the divine dwells just below the surface.  We think this occurs in places where human beings become pure, but for Thoreau, Kathadin was actually too vast and scary. It could not be tamed, and this became troublesome, because the public at large wanted to domesticate the wild, and enjoy its beauty.  Celebrating wilderness was a manly thing to do, and also a game for rich people to enjoy, but the myth of celebrating a virgin land neglected the Native Americans who were destroyed so white people could enjoy the illusion that they were seeing and preserving some pristine state. This was wilderness that had actually known the imprint of people’s feet and culture.

In fact there is a white cultural invention of wilderness that has erased the history from which it was born. We want in this respect an illusion that we can escape the imprint of our own feet with some place that we do not touch, when we should be thinking instead of how to manage our touch, and accept our human predilection for thinking we can escape our troubles. This was what truly haunted Thoreau.  Human beings need the land to make their living, and to leave their mark. We fool ourselves to think that nature is outside the human in some false pure state.  Nature is us, in all our folly and errors. Nature in a pristine state would remove us from the scene, which is exactly what global warming will do.  We have been manipulating the natural world since Adam and Eve escaped from the garden. Think about it. If the wild world alone is worth saving, and we alone are the thing that destroys it, then we can kiss ourselves goodbye. The helpful answer is to reflect on how much damage we do together in this common usage of the planet, and instead of congratulating ourselves on our greenness, we would acknowledge our imperfections and keep fighting to preserve our sacred waters.  Nature is not going to be untouched by our passage.

Thoreau taught us that nature could be found in the local habitat close to home. We do not need to escape into some mythical wildness, but can encounter nature nearby.  Thoreau found it in the woods near Concord, even outside his cabin door.  A day was not complete for Thoreau unless he spent four hours of it taking a walk.  Years ago when my wife first suggested we walk as many places as possible, I was horrified. Then it became something I loved so that I longed each day for our walk. What if we all walked more, our church and our town, and began to live out Thoreau’s singular elixir for the soul. Gary Snyder once said, “A person with a clear heart and open mind can experience the wilderness anywhere on earth.  It is a quality of one’s own consciousness. The planet is a wild place and always will be.”

Thoreau taught us that we are not separate from nature, but we are part of a living breathing cosmos, no matter where we are. He is called pond scum because he is conflicted about nature, and his critic fails to comprehend this natural human dilemma.  He sought purity in and intimacy with the natural world, but it also bit him, and produced carcasses that smell to high heaven. He wondered how we could most cleanly and gracefully depart out of nature, but we can’t. We leave a footprint everywhere, and we must live in our impurities. So we can fantasize about purity, but it is not what the garden provides.

We may prevent our fellow travelers from paving paradise and putting up the parking lot, but we need parking lots somewhere, and why not with trees surrounding them?  Thoreau recognized a snake in the garden, which we sometimes in our pure notions of nature neglect to see.  Even he, who typically despised organized religion said of humans that “birth and death are offensive and unclean things,” and so much of life offends the moral sense.  “It is the odor of sin.”  Yet these sins could be washed clean by pure waters. Surely the way we feel when we swim in Walden, or stand naked under the water falls at the Bear’s Den.

Thoreau embodies a new American spirituality.  The Thoreau who rejected traditional institutional religion is apparent in the reading where the hypocritical minister profanes the quiet of the day with his shouting preachments. Thoreau’s powers of observation show how Nature reflects infinite variations on certain underlying laws. There is a strong American tradition of connection with nature that stands side by side with the Biblical covenant of establishing a gleaming city on a hill, and a Constitutional covenant of molding a people who believe that all are created equal. This third covenant is that the land itself is holy, and those communities we are part of have a role to play in keeping this land we tread upon as clean as possible. Especially now. Climate change may be the most troubling and important issue we humans have ever faced.

What it means is that we cannot be holy by ourselves, but in fact, need to create deeper connections with nature as communities. We must grow up from individualism to see the need for a social commitment.  While we may recycle like mad and convey our dismay to Washington, where is our congregational commitment to act as a community? When will the First Parish Green Sanctuary Committee be reconstituted? A faith commitment is not only about transforming ourselves. You alone cannot make a difference, but together we can.

Can we make a stand as a congregation, or will it only be singular acts? Climate change implicates us all in our comfort and security. Later in his life Thoreau turned from his individualistic focus when he considered the implications of one person hurting another. In 1848 Thoreau went to jail for refusing, as a protest against the Mexican War, to pay his poll tax.  When Emerson came to bail him out. He famously said, “Henry, what are you doing in there? Thoreau quietly replied, “Waldo, what are you doing out there?”  It turned out that the protest was meaningless, and the war continued.  But the implication is that if we sit on another’s shoulders, like those who extend slavery with war,  we deepen the injustice. What will we see happening in nature in the coming years.  Who will be inside the cell asking us to come in? Will we be able to act in concert?

With the recent birth of a second grandchild, I am more aware that my grandchildren, and all children, will be living in a world where people must understand more and more how interdependent we are and how important it is that we care for the planet we call home. Thoreau’s faith in nature was that it did not side with any particular faith or tradition but transcended them all.  He once wrote that he would “rather listen to the chick-a-dee-dees than the D.D.’s  any time.”  He rejected institutional religion because it was so much blather, finding instead his belief in the forest, in the meadow and in the night.  With respect to nature Thoreau believed his soul was at stake.  In the coming years, we may need to fully grasp the implications of that belief. We need to hear that hushed music that floats across every lake and down every river, coming from the mountains, down over the falls, through the stream I go fishin’ in, ultimately to the waters we drink.  How can we together keep them pure?


 Closing Words – from Henry David Thoreau

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.