Today is the 200th birthday of minimalist, naturalist, transcendentalist, carpe-diem-ist, and American author Henry David Thoreau, whose writings and simple, sometimes disobedient lifestyle have influenced greats such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. while also inspiring generations of self-righteous teens to free themselves from the oppressive demands and unhealthy expectations of a consumerist society.
Let’s reflect on a few of Thoreau’s more meme-ified quotes. The first is a poignant and depressing observation that, come to think of it, I’ve never actually seen in meme form.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
According to Thoreau, simplicity and down-to-earthness, less buying of things and less nose grinding, would go a long way to alleviate our quiet desperation.
Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.
These ideals are captured in the hopeful, adventurous statement of purpose that motivated Thoreau’s experiment at Walden.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Finally, a pithy and pretty accurate rule of thumb to guide us on the Thoreaudian path to less is more.
This post is in memory of our dog Echo, who died this spring.
I’ve dreaded writing about it, hence the spacious gap since I last posted here. But he deserves the tribute. I’m hoping that what I share will be comforting or inspiring to someone out there in the vast expanse of the internet who has experienced something similar, or who just needs to hear it.
The Dying Part
April 18 started out like any other day. The kids were off to school, my wife was at the gym, and I was rushing to gear up for my bike ride to work. As usual, I had given myself 30 minutes for a commute that requires on the best of days about 28 minutes, and on the worst of days about 40.
This was not the best of days. On my way out, I noticed Echo in the back yard, not being his usual spunky self. Instead of bouncing around, chasing birds, squirrels, falling leaves, any moving object, or the mere thought of any moving object, he was curled up by the door with his head in his paws. Confused, I went out to check on him.
I knew it was serious when he didn’t jump up to greet me with tongue and tail wagging. He could barely lift his head in my direction. “What’s up buddy?” I asked, as I knelt beside him. His dark brown eyes were heavy and sad like only a dog’s eyes can be. He was clearly in pain. Then I saw blood around his mouth, and my heart dropped. “No, no, no…” I remember saying, over and over. “What’s happening? What’s happening?” I was scared and worried.
Already late for work, I texted my wife to ask if she could take him to the vet. I gave Echo a hug and was off on my bike.
The ride to work was a blur, a swirl of wind, tears, and prayers. After some meetings, I haphazardly prepped for class, while checking in constantly with my wife, who was at the vet. Just before class started we were notified that Echo had eaten something indigestible and it was stuck in his intestines. Surgery could help, but would cost between $2,200 and $4,500. We needed to decide as soon as possible.
I taught my class in a fog, ended early, and raced home, praying all the way that this would somehow work out. It didn’t, and we chose that afternoon, with much tears and gut-wrenching, to put Echo to sleep. I held his head in my arms and sobbed as the vet injected a lethal blue liquid into an IV in his wrist.
What a terrible decision, having to price out the life of a friend. My staunch frugality was brought to its knees in shame. But, it won in the end. Given our financial circumstances and the less than strong confidence from the vet that surgery would be successful, we decided that the cost wasn’t feasible or justified.
For consolation, I’ve reflected on stories from friends who grew up on farms, where animals were always living and dying, where the human circle of life spreads its wide orbit around countless smaller ones. Although sad, death is natural and normal. Mostly, I’ve reflected on people who’ve lost children, family members, and friends, people whose grief dwarfs my own in comparison, like the moon dwarfs an artificial satellite passing between it an earth.
That evening, we buried our friend in the woods. The brief ceremony focused on what we loved about Echo, and the lessons he taught us. Under my breath, I asked him to forgive me, for this and for all the times I lost my temper and got frustrated with him. I resolved to do better, to pay forward what he gave me with his short life.
The Living Part
We brought Echo into our home as a tiny puppy just over two years ago, during one of the few snowstorms of a mild Nebraska winter. The farmer we bought him from told us he had never been outside. His paws had only ever tread soft carpet, his face and fur had only ever felt indoor, conditioned air. It was a pleasure to introduce him to the world.
His first steps into the snowy grass of our back yard were cautious, and preceded by lots of curious sniffing. I wondered if snow had a smell, a thin, crisp, subtle smell that’s really the frozen absence of other smells, the richer, deeper ones that proliferate in heat and life.
To a dog, it must be more than that. Snow, like the other ingredients that make up wintertime, must contribute to the season in a way that only an animal can sense. It must have a variety of smells, from dry to melting, light and fresh to hard and old, and I’m sure Echo learned them all in his first winter.
After the thaw, Echo experienced grass, mud, wood, rocks, and trash, followed by flowers, bugs, and, finally, water. Wet, wonderful, water. To Echo, everything outdoors was the best ever, but water was supreme. Water was his favorite medium, and he was the paintbrush, swirling and splashing and absorbing, then emerging in a flurry to paint his canvas of earth in all directions.
Echo loved life completely, down to the last drop. His unashamed enthusiasm turned the drabbest and dreariest of days into colorful celebrations of existence. His energy was contagious, and it will be sorely missed.
Equally as important as his love of life was Echo’s unconditional love of every walking thing. That love was sometimes manifest in a canine instinct to stalk and hunt. Otherwise, Echo wouldn’t hurt a fly, except in his reckless play. This made him the worst watch dog, but also the most gentile, forgiving friend to all he met. Echo was instantly your bestie, without judgment or qualifications. His example is one we can all learn from.
Earth Day is coming up on April 22. That’s only twenty planetary rotations away. In preparation I’ll be sharing twenty ways to make the world a better place.
Here’s a sneak peak at the first five. Check the Facebook page daily for more info on each one.
Plant a tree.
Shower colder and faster.
Eat fresh and local.
Carry a spork.
Turn off the dry cycle.
Many of these will be simple, but some may push us out of our comfort zone. It might hurt a little, or cost a little, or slow us down a little, but we’ll be OK. We’ll abandon some of the habits and conveniences that simplify our lives in the short term, in exchange for ways of life that ultimately enrich us and our planet for the long term.
This feels really gimmicky, but the cause is just, so let’s do it.
We celebrated St Patrick’s Day this year with a campout at Wildwood, a reservoir and wildlife management area about 20 miles north of the city.
Our neighbors on both sides ended up being noisy and remarkably potty-mouthed, partying late into the night, but good times prevailed overall thanks to reasonable winter weather, epic skyscapes, and kids who mostly kept it together.
We left the house Friday around 5PM, with five kids, two adults, seven backpacks, food, water, the dog, and kitchen sink all crammed into the minivan like toys in a closet or books on a bookshelf after the kids have “put them away.” The trunk and doors of our now lowrider would only close after the unwieldy mass of gear was piled, squished, and finagled into place. Upon opening the trunk and doors at our destination, the gear would then spill out like water into the gravel parking lot, with the kids surfing out on top of it, and dispersing in all directions.
Wildwood has zero amenities, aside from the dumpster and outhouse. No fire rings, tables, tent pads, or hookups. It’s free range, libertarian camping, without regulations to speak of, and no rangers to enforce them anyway. Camping is open, in the sense that you stake a claim, spread your camp chair legs, and then hope in vain that the crowds congregating around you aren’t too rowdy.
We snagged a nice lakefront spot and pitched our accommodations, a three-person backpacking tent for the four youngest kids, a two-person tent for the adults, and the hammock for our oldest. Next, we went to work scavenging wood from the nearby cedars, and building a fire to boil water for dinner.
Each kid was responsible for planning and preparing some portion of a meal. For dinner, we ended up with Maruchan Ramen noodles over shredded carrots and cucumber. For dessert, we had foil-wrapped s’moritos, tortillas besmeared with peanut butter, folded around chocolate chips and mini marshmallows, and baked on the coals.
The kids, exhausted from three hours of uninhibited outdoorsing, running, jumping, shouting, rock throwing, and exploring, started putting themselves to bed around 9:30PM. The adults weren’t far behind.
As the clouds dissipated in sync with the fading twilight, the stars found their places in a big, dark night sky. The quiet serenity was only disturbed by the distant honky-tonk song of migrating geese, and the uninhibited reveling of our neighboring campers, who drank and yelled and trolled around the lake cat-fishing until 3AM.
I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.John Burroughs
The kids slept soundly all night, as oblivious to the noise as were the stars. I slept more like a catfish, I imagine, restless in the dark shallow waters next to camp, with a rusty old jon boat buzzing around me.
Fortunately, there’s more to camping than sleeping. In the morning, there’s breakfast, homemade honey muffins and hot chocolate next to a warm fire, followed by a radiant sunrise.
The ones with links are available via the Grip shop on Amazon. The others aren’t yet for sale online.
All of these items have held up well over numerous camping trips and cookouts, and they’re all a decent bargain. I’ve found the skillet most useful. We like to cook over a campfire in the backyard, and zucchini on a stick just doesn’t work. The pocket light and waterproof cards would be nice stocking stuffers or birthday presents for the outdoorsy. The jumbo fork and marshmallow tree are great for roasting en mass, but when we need skewers we usually default to the on-demand whittling of sticks.
Here’s some more info on the light, skillet, and cards.
This light gets the job done. The bottom is magnetic, which is nice for sticking to a tree stand when hunting, or to other metal objects for hands-free doing of things. The torch itself is blinding, as LED tends to be.
This sturdy light withstood numerous falls over the past year, in the custody of our five year old son. It shined strong until the very end. We think it is now resting peacefully among the grass and sticks en route to our last campsite.
The LED Camo Pocket Light goes for about $7 as an add-on item at Amazon. This is comparable to other small LED work lights. Requires 3 AAA batteries, included.
We’ve used the skillet to cook some tasty meals on the grill and over the campfire. It works well for anything too large or awkward to cook on a stick, like hamburger patties, or foods that would slip through the grates on the gas grill or BBQ, like cut meat or veggies.
The diameter is 12 inches, depth is about 2 inches, and weight is 24 oz. So, it’s reasonably sized for a short backpacking trip. The quality is fine, though the folding handle is getting a little loose.
The skillet will run you about $10, making it cheaper than most.
We’ve used these cards on a few campouts and around the house. Mostly they stay in our camping box, so as to be ready for the impromptu overnighter.
The cards are slick, both literally and figuratively. The glossy plastic makes them slippery, which isn’t really an issue unless you’re trying to play solitaire in an RV as it curves up a mountain road. On a level, stationary surface, they’re fine. Figuratively, they’re slick because they don’t fold or crease like the standard issue card. They take a beating and bounce right back.
The only downside we’ve discovered is that they’re not entirely opaque. Beware that if there’s any more than an average amount of light coming in from behind, your hand will easily show through to your opponent.