“The morning wind forever blows. The poem of creation is uninterrupted, but few are the ears that hear it.”[i]
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Mid-morning. I sit in the cabin reading Walden as a cold rain slants into the weeds. The long, winding stream of words sparkles with insight, but after riding the raft of Thoreau’s consciousness for several hours I lose track of where it’s going. I know that’s the point––the journey matters, not the destination––but the woodstove is blazing and I’m getting sleepy. I’ve been on page 166 for a long time: “Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as he wakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction. Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”
A while later I startle awake to my own snoring. Too groggy to “find myself,” or the world Thoreau describes, I turn on the transistor radio and crank the volume. The dictatorial tone and good versus evil world-view rises from a conservative Christian station. The speaker, a Baptist pastor from Kansas, says he is going to explain the difference between spirituality and religion. After a prayer, he launches into his talk. He says that religion is like the Ten Commandments––all rules and doctrine. Spirituality, on the other hand, is how one applies this doctrine to life, how religion is lived. This seems logical, but insufficient. The preacher starts in on one of the commandments, on not committing adultery and what “God requires.” But he never gets to the spiritual applications, so I switch him off.
My attention abruptly shifts to the window: a cottonwood branch near the cabin cracks in the wind and falls vertically, sticking upright in the soft mud like a staff dropped from the heavens by some lost prophet. I keep watching, wondering if I will ever see the wind spear the ground again. As the tree shakes and its leaves rise in a swirl, I consider the mystery of the wind, how it is silent and invisible except when it touches the world—snapping off dead limbs or cooling wet skin. Yesterday I woke to the low teetering whistle of an empty beer bottle I left on the cabin steps. Though I couldn’t see the bottle, I recognized the eerie shifting tones from my youth and from my recent attempts to show my young son, Bennett, how to make a bottle “sing.”
This morning, as the wind swirls, I imagine Bennett running across the meadow in front of the cabin pulling a kite into the sky. Like most kids, I too loved kites—the miracle of the wind made visible. In our little town a paper kite cost fifty cents at the Ben Franklin dime store down the street: two thin strips of wood formed a rigid, fragile cross that stretched a yellow paper diamond out to two by three feet. I tied on a strip of a shirt rag for a tail, tied the string to the point where the sticks crossed, grabbed the string at a four foot lead, and took off running across a large field near our house. As the wind filled the paper diamond and lifted it skyward I baled out more string. I ran and baled until the kite assumed a power of its own, lifted itself out of my hands, and was held aloft by something far above me.
The string unraveling in my hand measured my belief in the resilience of the kite. The more line I let out, the more I risked to the raw power of the wind. Sometimes the kite kept rising until it had pulled out the entire spool––more than a thousand feet. When I came to the end I tied the kite to a fence post and watched the tiny yellow diamond, barely visible in the blue abyss, describe the wind. Sometimes it was too much and the string snapped, setting the kite free. No longer bound to the earth, the kite then rose for a second before zagging to the ground. I always half expected it to keep rising, like a helium balloon, like a miracle, like nature defied. I was disappointed to later learn that the falling kite and rising balloon instead defined nature, that their movements could be explained by science, by numbers.
Some older boys flew kites in that same field. One day a boy brought a new kind of kite. Rather than a paper shield that easily caught and held the wind, this kite had a rectangular box frame—two feet wide by four feet long. Made from a bit thicker strips of wood than my kite, his had two eight-inch-wide pieces of green paper wrapped around the top and bottom. The rest of the kite was open. How would this ever fly? I thought it would be too heavy, or that a gust of wind would get trapped inside and rip the paper to shreds. Off the boy sprinted with the box kite trailing behind him. After thirty yards it rose steadily into the air. It didn’t lift as easily or as quickly as my kites, but once aloft, it was more stable.
This image of the box kite—of a rigid frame that can hold and ride the wind precisely because it is open––gets me thinking about that radio preacher, about the “box” of religion, and the spirit that carries it. The Latin root of the word religion means “to bind together again,” while the root of spirit means “wind or breath.”
Perhaps because I’m reading Thoreau, and know of his love of etymology, I’m curious about these words. Can the “spirit” of meaning that writers both evoke and live in, also be a part of a “religion”—a story or experience that “binds us together again”? Or is the “religious” a kind of bindingof a writer’s intellect and imagination? Spirit is natural, of nature. Religion is not. It is human made. Like the kite, it too is a fragile structure lifted into a journey by a force over which it has no control, yet which it can respond to and describe. So I’m left wondering: At a time when “spirituality” seems increasingly romanticized and vague, and “religion” seems dangerously closed and rigid, is it naive to believe that they could take flight together, to imagine that they are bound to be freed?
Sometimes Thoreau seemed to hope they could be. He studied and wrote of the religious traditions from both the East and West: “It would be worthy of the age to print together the collected Scriptures of the Sacred Writings of the several nations, the Chinese, the Hindus, the Persians, the Hebrews, and others, as the Scripture of mankind.” He believed such a collection “might help to liberalize the faith of men.”[ii] In the end he rejected not the spirit of religion but the spiritlessness of the institution, of many churches—of the beautiful, ornate boxes that the wind could not penetrate nor lift into mystery. “What is religion?” he once wrote. “That which cannot be spoken.”[iii]
Last month I was reminded of Thoreau’s struggle to capture the religious in language, to box the wind, when I went to the Concord Public Library to read the original manuscript of “Walking,” his most frequently delivered lecture. He revised the last version of the essay on his deathbed in 1862 for The Atlantic Monthly.
The first thing I noticed was a paragraph he scratched out and didn’t include in the published version. It points to what the kite-maker often lacks: a sense of reverence for what the wind can do and has always done.[iv]
“The trees do not brag. I have seen a pine tree in the wind sowing the seeds of a future forest which perchance would cover acres of ground for centuries to come. Yet I have heard no other herald of this deed that the sough of that same wind through its boughs. The planting was achieved in a single gale, and no man was notified of it.” [v]
My next discovery was less overt. Amid the wild, looping scrawl of his handwriting I could not help but notice his uncertainty over when to capitalize words or ideas that I assume he hoped to equate with the divine, with something bigger. In one spot he goes back and capitalizes the word “god,” which he had first written in lower case. And in several other spots he adds three little extension lines to the w in “wildness” making them capitals, unsure how to render this central idea in his work. The same confusion appears between nature and Nature.
I left the library wondering if the seeming contradiction of his capitalization, of first making the word “God” ordinary (god) and the word “nature” extraordinary (Nature), was arbitrary or a glimpse into the depth of Thoreau’s honesty at the end of his short life. As the first celebrated American nature writer, he lived before it was a cliché to say “the ordinary is sacred.” And he understood that the word “ordinary” had religious roots (i.e. ordination)––that it meant the order of a religious service. But increasingly Henry found his religion in the woods themselves, in the wild, divine patterns and relationships among flora and fauna. Thus, he was finally ordained not by the Unitarians but by the sun filtering through the trees each morning.
“Nature,” Emerson’s renowned essay, may be the clearest early depiction of Thoreau’s “religion,” of how he first came to understand the Concord woods as both scripture and temple.[vi] “The happiest man,” Emerson writes, “is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship.” [vii] Unlike some, Thoreau sought no human structure or contrivance or community to worship what he called God. Not surprisingly, he finds God in the most ordinary aspects of life; his daily bath in Walden Pond is a “religious exercise.” Walden itself sometimes feels like one long meandering prayer of discovery and gratitude. When the tone shifts to moments of frustration or impatience, it is usually due to the most confounding animal of all—the kite maker, the wind boxer.
Early afternoon. The rain has stopped and the sky has cleared. I walk from the cabin to the farmhouse to get some coffee. When I emerge from the shady woods the sun is flooding the farmyard. A gust of wind blows through a row of old silver maple trees. And then this: the cool air alive with the golden rain of a thousand spinning seeds. The maple-copters have taken flight.
Another gust, and another flock of the twirling blades of sunlight is cast out and hovers down around me. I feel a bit of hope, or maybe it is faith. In what, I’m not sure, but I think it is in the wind and what the wind can do. What I know is that the warm balm of sunlight has turned the blowing rain of seeds into a moment that doesn’t end, a shimmering presence.
I lie down on an old cedar picnic table underneath the trees. The maple seed shadows, the whirlybird silhouettes falling across the barren wood,are as magical as the seeds that are landing on my body and the tangle of my hair. Below me I watch the spinning shadows in the grass, where the odd mirror of their dark revolutions ends, and a new life may begin. Then I sit down in the wet grass and try to watch the flight of one individual seed: how it spirals down, how the little propeller slices the air in tiny circles of self-suspension. But I can’t do it. I lose it in the awe of the whirling multitude.
Thoreau called these seeds maple keys. The veined seed and blade do vaguely resemble a house key, but the metaphor––the either-or, locked-unlocked connotation—never fit for me. This afternoon, however, something feels different. The cool breeze has blown up into a surprising gale, and I too long to be carried in new directions, to be lost, even in a familiar landscape.
When the wind frees another cloud of the winged yellow seeds I feel something opening in me. I try to assign a word to this unlocked moment, but none really work, whether capitalized or not. So finally, I just let go, and fall into the great current of wonder, trusting that the quiet faith of a maple tree and a thousand whirling prayers will carry me home.
Tom Montgomery Fate is the author of five books of creative nonfiction, including Beyond the White Noise, a collection of essays, Steady and Trembling, a spiritual memoir, and Cabin Fever (Beacon Press, 2011), a nature memoir. Fate’s essays have appeared in The Chicago Tribune,The Boston Globe,Orion,Iowa Review, Fourth Genre, Sojourners, Christian Century, and many other journals and anthologies; and they have regularly aired on National Public Radio and Chicago Public Radio. A graduate of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and of Chicago Theological Seminary, he is currently a professor of English at College of DuPage, in suburban Chicago, where he also lives.
“A Box of Wind” was previously published in Cabin Fever: a suburban father’s search for the wild, by Tom Montgomery Fate (Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 2011).
[i] Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, A Fully Annotated Edition. p.82
[ii] Thoreau, Henry David. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Kila MN: Kessinger Publishing, 2004 . p. 98.
[iii] Thoreau, Henry David. The Journal of Henry David Thoreau. Eds. Bradford Torrey and Francis Allen. Vols. I-VII. New York: Dover, 1962. p. 1342 (August 18, 1858).
[iv] I have not been able to find this paragraph anywhere else in Thoreau’s work. However, since this was found in the original draft of “Walking,” it is likely he included it when he presented the essay in public.
[v] From p. 95 of the original handwritten manuscript, which is located in the Concord Free Public Library in Concord, MA.
[vi] Emerson’s essay “Nature” (1836) is often viewed as the philosophical launching of the transcendentalist movement.
[vii] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature, Walking. Boston: Beacon, 2005. p. 53