Some time ago, I published a piece in Newsday’s “500 Words or Less” column. It occurs to me, years later, that the sentiments I was trying to impart to local readers are even more apropos – dare I say urgent – than they were when I first sat down to craft the mini essay.
I began by explaining that the greatest responsibility that all high school English teachers have is to illustrate the many parallels between literature and life. Despite the adolescent contention that the classics are dull, antiquated works, literature has the ability to transcend time; it possesses an uncanny knack for evoking insights into the human condition, thereby assisting in the governing of our lives in a more mindful, meaningful manner.
With deference to Father Time, the words of the classic writers remain pertinent today and on occasion actually reveal themselves as being even more relevant than the day they were first penned.
I often consider this when I am in the midst of teaching works like The Great Gatsby or Huckleberry Finn. But never is the connection between literature and life more real to me than when I am discussing Henry David Thoreau’s Walden with my classes. Invariably, the focus of the lecture shifts to lamentations over the transformation of the few undisturbed parcels of earth in my South Shore community into 7-Elevens and Dunkin’ Donuts. This fixation with developing the landscape has created an aesthetic suffocation and also raised compelling questions.
Why must these overzealous capitalists continue to exploit the Earth’s natural beauty? These entrepreneurs journey through life myopically, concerned only with the execution of a deal. Why do we need another CVS or McDonald’s when all we really crave is a little grass and a few trees? It is for this reason that I now find myself spending a lot more time on Long Island’s North Shore, in towns like Cold Spring Harbor and Lloyd Neck, where the topography affords natural barriers to this urban blight.
Perhaps if every business major was required to read Mr. Thoreau in addition to Adam Smith, this exploitation would cease to exist – or at least be mitigated somewhat. Walden is arguably the most poignant celebration of Nature’s aesthetic value and her therapeutic power. It allows us to see that the most valuable land is that which remains in its natural form, undisturbed by blueprints.
Nature’s simplicity offers us a mirror in which the reflection of our lives is cast. In it we define who we are, from whence we came, and where we are headed. Nature restores perspective, reminding us of our position in the natural world. This is, as Thoreau contends, essential to everyone’s happiness and well-being.
Obviously I realize that in the teenage mind, the mini-mall ranks substantially higher in the adolescent hierarchy than a tip-toe through the tulips. These young people, however, will one day mature and need Nature and all she has to offer. It is our charge as adults to share with the next generations the value of hills, lakes and trees – to dispel the belief that these things are superfluous and not really an essential part of our lives.
This should not be too difficult to sell. Curiously enough, this same contingent that treats Nature with irreverence flocks to lakes, mountains and beaches with their families each summer to “get away from it all.” If Thoreau were alive today, he would probably want to know why these people can’t simply enjoy the gifts of Nature all year – why they don’t just make Nature a part of their everyday lives.