Riverdave Owen


    "For my part, I feel, that with regard to Nature, I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world, into which I make occasional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the state into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a moss-trouper.  Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will o’ the wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no moon nor fire-fly has shown me the cause-way to it." (Walking)


     There is a rumor that continues to float about that Henry Thoreau lived a solitary and unsociable life in a rustic wilderness cabin miles from civilization.  And there is another rumor that corresponds with this one that Henry frequently returned to his family home in Concord to leave his dirty laundry for his mother to wash and then return to his cabin with her home cooked dinners and pies to enjoy.  

     These stories are passed around by Henry's detractors who use these portraits to depict Henry as a hypocrite and that his whole life was merely a staged performance in order to publish a book.  But for anyone who is even a casual reader of Henry's voluminous personal journal, we know that this portrait simply is not correct.  In the above quotation, Henry expresses his desire to live what might be called a "natural life," but reveals he has not figured out how to do so!  This is a dilemma also shared by me and a number of others in today's civilized, mostly artificial world.

     The truth seems to be that Mr. Thoreau received permission from his friend Mr. Emerson to set up a temporary dwelling on his property one mile from Concord center to facilitate a writer's retreat. "My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly, but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles." (Walden) I believe he is referring to his need to fully mourn and write an elegy for his beloved older brother John who died of tetanus three years earlier. This elegy turned out to be the underlying theme of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

     A secondary purpose for his Walden retreat was to "live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach me." (Walden)  This wisdom might have been learned through reading books on philosophy and natural history borrowed from Harvard Library.  But Henry preferred to discover and confirm these essential facts of life by means of direct personal contact with Nature herself.  Perhaps through the course of his Walden retreat, his nature theme surpassed his elegy in importance as the living experiment unfolded.

     But after two years, two months and two days on the shore of Walden Pond, Henry packed up and returned to Concord.  "I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one." (Walden)  He left more confident about his deepened relationship with the natural world but not yet prepared to make it a total lifestyle.  

     The fact is that although not married, Henry maintained strong family and community ties. He propped up the Emerson household while Ralph Waldo traveled in Europe.  He lived in the garret of his parent's home, working in his father's pencil business while serving the wider Concord community as a professional surveyor.  

     Henry continued to cultivate his wild natural side, sauntering in the woods around Concord and by "occasional and transient forays" into the Maine wilderness as a tonic.  He surely would have known how to set up an extended retreat in Maine with the help of his Penobscot Indian guide Joe Polis.  But instead he felt a responsibility to support his cherished family and community.  There existed plenty of opportunities to gently nudge family and community in the direction of a more natural life through his local huckleberry forays, paddling on the Concord River and lecturing in local lyceums.  He came to understand this framework as his "border life" - one foot in the natural world and the other in civilized community life. He carefully nurtured both his wild and domestic sides together.  

    I relate very well to Henry's personal struggle and how he managed to bridge both worlds at once.   I studied Walden as an adult for the first time during a prolonged period of living overseas.  I quickly recognized Henry's advantage as a native living and working in his hometown of Concord.  In 1989 I decided to return to my hometown of Durham to reestablish my own base. I too had my "private business" to conduct while educating myself and neighbors in the path of Nature by way of "occasional and transient forays."

     I identified the most extensive natural area in Durham to be the Eno River Parklands where I immediately set up a river guiding business.  After twelve years of searching for a modest property along the Eno, my wife and I bought a forested half acre lot that backs up to the its parklands.  On this land we built a cabin using natural materials of white pine logs form New Hampshire, shortleaf pine flooring from Durham's Liggett and Myers tobacco warehouse, rock facing from western North Carolina, stones from the Delaware River and slate tiles from India.  We were set to begin our border life as I turned fifty years old.

     There were five major changes we wanted to make with our new home.  The FIRST CHANGE was to forever banish the television.  After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, television became a platform for a twenty-four hour barrage of war news, graphically depicting America in its ugly revenge on Western Asia.  For me it was a huge relief to finally draw the line with television which had unduly influenced the first half century of my life.  As Henry stated, "Will it not be employment enough to watch the progress of the seasons?" (HDT Journal)

     Through my previous focused years of attunement with the subtle vocalizations of the natural world, I came to dislike the harsh man-made sounds of motors and electrical hums.  That meant the SECOND CHANGE would be to exclude a heat pump from our property.  In addition I desired to deepen my experience with the cycles of seasonal weather.  This would require that I adjust my lifestyle accordingly and not be totally supported by modern indoor climate control. 

    Our log home would be heated in winter by a passive south facing sun exposure and an old fashioned wood burning stove.  In the summer we would be cooled by the leafy branches of huge arching white oaks.  With this commitment we learned to scavenge firewood from our neighborhood's tree prunings.  For kindling we became professional pine cone collectors.  Through our own hands-on experiment, we came to empirically understand our household's energy equation.

     The THIRD CHANGE would be a kitchen without a refrigerator. Through my years of third world travel I learned that food keeps well at room temperature much longer than I was brought up to believe. This improves its taste as well.  I also came to appreciate the aesthetics of openly displayed food in wooden bowls or glass containers, not hidden at the back of a cold, damp refrigerator.  Of equal importance, I hear no rumbling sounds of a refrigerator cycling in and out.  This freedom from noise pollution has become an essential food for my soul.

     The FOURTH CHANGE was to build a sleeping porch attached to the cabin.  From April through October we would sleep in a screened area facing the forest.  This would provide fresh air to breathe at night and the opportunity to relish the night calls of cuckoos, coyotes and owls and kaytidids, crickets and frogs!  And then there was the cosmic visitation of the "Pong Bird" (clink for link)


     With the FIFTH CHANGE, backed up to 25 miles of Eno River parkland and one thousand miles of Mountains to the Sea Trail, we are now able to make "occasional and transient forays" into Nature most any time we choose.  In the warm season we bathe in the river and in the cold season we walk her banks.  And instead of owning household pets, our yard and the natural area beyond is an abode for a myriad of neighborly wild creatures.  

     We do have personal histories of travel abroad to explore pristine natural areas.  But with the recent expansion of our understanding of climate change, we are cutting back on carbon burning distant travel.  Our border life must become a celebration of the actual border between our half acre property and the wilder Eno River parklands.  


     Occasionally we will travel away to visit children, grandchildren and siblings but even there we are learning how to navigate places like Charlotte's Little Sugar Creek Greenway and Manhattan's Central Park.  And like Henry, although I'm as ready as any to "follow a will o' the wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable," I have family and community responsibilities that "no moon nor firefly" has shown me a way around …

Photos by Riverdave - Our border life cabin and the Eno River on February 26, 2015