Celebrating Thoreau’s 200th Birthday

Henry David Thoreau was born 200 years ago today.  Six years ago, I was embarked upon a year-long project in which I wrote short weekly essays inspired by a passage from Thoreau’s Walden.  I called this project “Thoreau Thursdays” and I posted my reflections on my blog starting with the one at this link.

In honor of this 200th anniversary, I am re-posting below one of the essays from “Thoreau Thursdays.”  If you are interested in reading all 52, you can find them in my archives at http://rosemarywashington.wordpress.com (go to the right-hand column and click on the category called Thoreau Thursdays).

Thoreau Thursdays (43): Tasting the Fruits of Your Labors

February 9, 2012

“It is a vulgar error to suppose that you have tasted huckleberries who never plucked them.”
—  Henry David Thoreau, Walden

In Washington we have an abundance of blackberries rather than huckleberries.

“The fruits do not yield their true flavor to the purchasers of them.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

How poor Thoreau would find me, a city dweller, who procures virtually all of my food from supermarket shelves.  And while our neighborhood farmers’ markets give us access to locally grown food, we simply buy it with our coins.  How rarely do we plant, nurture, harvest and preserve our own food.  According to Thoreau, we are missing out on the true flavor of food when we do not grow or pick it with our own hands.

Having grown up on a farm, I still hold a deep appreciation for the hard work that goes into bringing food to the table.  I’ve butchered chickens, so I understand the life that was once vibrant in my packaged chicken quarters.  I’ve milked a cow by hand, so I remember the source of my glass of milk.  I’ve made my own blackberry jam from hand-picked berries, so I can appreciate the work behind a jar received as a gift.

Snapshot of me milking our family’s cow in 1972, forty years ago!

Much is lost when we forego laboring with our own hands, for the value of the work is not just the finished product, but also the feelings of artistry, productivity, and self-worth built along the way.  And it is true that we savor the end product more when we’ve created it ourselves.

One of my colleagues gives our library staff jars of her homemade blackberry jam each Christmas, and each spoonful bursts with the tastes of summer and Shirley’s shared joy in nature’s abundance.  Everything that is in a jar of Shirley’s jam is what Thoreau is alluding to in this week’s quote.

Shirley’s jam on breakfast scones

Homemade jam from hand-picked blackberries

Sweet goodness

“The advantage of riches remains with him who procured them, not with the heir.  When I go into the garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands.  But not only health, but education is in the work.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson