The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Milky Way, the Pond, and the Meaning of Life: Thoreau on Solitude, Sympathy, and the Salve for Melancholy

“There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still.”

“These are the times in life — when nothing happens — but in quietness the soul expands,” the artist Rockwell Kent wrote as he was finding himself on the solitary shores of Alaska, contemplating the relationship between wilderness, solitude, and creativity while immersed in the writings of the Transcendentalist philosopher and poet Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862).

Since its publication on August 9, 1854, Thoreau’s Walden (public library | public domain) has gone on to inspire generations with its purehearted ethos, its prayerful passion for the living world, and its singular lens on how human nature is annealed by communion with the rest of nature.

Henry David Thoreau (Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856)

In one of the boldest and most shimmering passages in all of literature, Thoreau writes:

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.

Solitary by nature, Thoreau let solitude nurture him in the cabin he built for a total of $28.12½ on the shore of a small lake in New England, where his nearest neighbor was a mile away and all about he could see only hilltops. He writes:

It is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.


I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go [out among others] than when we stay in our chambers.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage Japanese woodblocks. (Available as a print.)

Nearly a century later, Rilke channeled the underlying elemental truth in his observing that “there is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear” as he reckoned with the relationship between solitude, intimacy, and creativity, concluding: “People are drawn to the easy and to the easiest side of the easy. But it is clear that we must hold ourselves to the difficult.”

And yet on the other side of the difficult, once we cease trying to control life out of loneliness and instead surrender to the elemental solitude — there lies an ease with an edge of ecstasy. That is what Thoreau discovered at Walden. In one of the most transcendent passages from the book — an exquisite specimen of the unphotographable — he writes under the heading “Solitude”:

This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note of the whippoorwill is borne on the rippling wind from over the water. Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath; yet, like the lake, my serenity is rippled but not ruffled.


There is commonly sufficient space about us. Our horizon is never quite at our elbows. The thick wood is not just at our door, nor the pond, but somewhat is always clearing, familiar and worn by us, appropriated and fenced in some way, and reclaimed from Nature. For what reason have I this vast range and circuit, some square miles of unfrequented forest, for my privacy, abandoned to me by men?

Solitude by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Two generations later, Hermann Hesse would arrive at his own answer, which might be the universal answer: “Solitude is not chosen, any more than destiny is chosen,” Hesse wrote as he contemplated solitude, the courage to be yourself, and how to find your destiny. “Solitude comes to us if we have within us the magic stone that attracts destiny.”

Solitude chose Thoreau as much as he chose it, for in it he found a remedy for the most somber recesses of his destiny: his frequent spells of depression, for which, in the epochs before medication, he knew no better medicine than unpeopled time in nature:

The most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man. There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still.

Part of the Milky Way, from a study made between 1874 and 1876
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s nineteenth-century astronomical drawings, observed through the era’s most powerful telescope. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

From the the personal he pivots to the universal, from the creaturely to the cosmic:

This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way? This… to me not to be the most important question. What sort of space is that which separates a man* from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another.

This may be the most haunting and most transcendent discovery for any of us who seek and savor those long salutary solitudes under branch and cloud: the realization that the price of consciousness is loneliness, for infinite space and infinite incomprehension exists between any two minds and their singular umwelts. Life may be the art of bridging lonelinesses, but we are born into the one great solitude and die into it. The value of the space between the bookends is what we might call love. Or art.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss.

Complement these fragments of the altogether soul-slaking Walden — which includes Thoreau’s abiding wisdom on the courage to define your own success, even against the tide of convention — with May Sarton on solitude as the seedbed of self-discovery and the cure for despair, Kahlil Gibran on silence, solitude, and the courage to know yourself, and Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor on the art of solitude as contemplative and creative practice, then revisit Thoreau on nature as prayer, knowing vs. seeing, and what it means to be awake.


The Soul, the Universe, and the Vastness of Music: Composer Caroline Shaw Brings Whitman and Tennyson to Life in the Spirit of the Golden Record

“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”

“After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Aldous Huxley wrote as he contemplated the transcendent power of music half a century before this supreme hallmark of our species sailed into the eternal silence of spacetime aboard the Voyager, encoded on the Golden Record as the sonic fingerprint of what we yearn for and what we are — “atoms with consciousness.”

The rings of Saturn, captured by the Voyager in 1981.

All of our most inexpressible feelings — our loneliness and our longing, our grief and our famishing hunger for meaning — are scale models of our great cosmic loneliness, microcosms of the immense silence of spacetime itself. And so, to bear it all, we sing — singing as sensemaking, singing as the supreme gesture that bridges lonelinesses, singing as the tonic gasp at the wonder of existence and the ravishing improbability of it all.

And yet music was not inevitable — nothing in our animal architecture calls for this extravagance of expression, nothing in the laws of probability inclines toward it. But once there was consciousness — which is also, arguably, not inevitable: look at every other planet we have studied — music arose from our complex consciousness, from this cathedral of thought and feeling: a byproduct as inevitable as god.

Uranus, Voyager, 1986.

This glorious inevitability comes alive with uncommon splendor in The Listeners — the staggering oratorio composer, violinist, vocalist, and polymathic music-sibyl Caroline Shaw made for and recorded with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, inspired by the Golden Record dreamt up a generation ago by the poetic, prophetic Carl Sagan, who saw us as “a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.”

Five centuries of celebrated poetry take on a new radiance in the light of Shaw’s music, recorded live at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, California, in the spring and autumn of 2019. Among the spoken-word recordings that punctuate the sung poems, their soulful prose-poetry magnified by the orchestral magic, are Sagan’s own words from his iconic Pale Blue Dot speech and a recording the Secretary General of the United Nations made that NASA never asked for, but which Sagan found “so sensitively and gracefully composed, and so appropriate,” that they included it on the Golden Record:

We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of the immense universes that surrounds us and it is with humility and hope that we take this step.

The fifth piece on the record, titled “Of a Million Million,” inspirits Tennyson’s 1885 poem “Vastness” — a masterwork of moral clarity and scientific foresight that envisioned, epochs before the Kepler mission discovered the first exoplanet, a universe of innumerable possible worlds and held up, a century before Maya Angelou did, a mirror to humanity with lines of searing resonance today:

Many a hearth upon our dark globe sighs after many a vanish’d face,
Many a planet by many a sun may roll with a dust of a vanish’d race.

Raving politics, never at rest — as this poor earth’s pale history runs, —
What is it all but a trouble of ants in the gleam of a million million of suns?

Lies upon this side, lies upon that side, truthless violence mourn’d by the Wise,
Thousands of voices drowning his own in a popular torrent of lies upon lies;


National hatreds of whole generations, and pigmy spites of the village spire;
Vows that will last to the last death-ruckle, and vows that are snapp’d in a moment of fire;


Spring and Summer and Autumn and Winter, and all these old revolutions of earth;
All new-old revolutions of Empire — change of the tide — what is all of it worth?


What is it all, if we all of us end but in being our own corpse-coffins at last,
Swallow’d in Vastness, lost in Silence, drown’d in the deeps of a meaningless Past?

What but a murmur of gnats in the gloom, or a moment’s anger of bees in their hive? —

Peace, let it be! for I loved him, and love him for ever: the dead are not dead but alive.

But, to me, the crowning glory of the record is the second piece, drawn from Whitman — the poet laureate of astronomy, who called himself a “kosmos” and uniquely understood music as the profoundest expression of nature.

Caroline Shaw recomposes Leaves of Grass in such a way that the singer — bass-baritone Dashon Burton — enters Whitman’s river of language mid-stream, partway through the forty-sixth section of “Song of Myself,” culminating in that one exquisite line that titles the song:

Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.

Inexpressible feeling riding on a pillar of breath — the true Pillars of Creation, both steadying the soul and setting it free.

The Listeners, also savorable on Spotify, is an enchantment in its entirety. Complement it with one of Emily Dickinson’s deepest-feeling and farthest-seeing poems, brought to life in an animated song.


Fantastic Toys: German Artist Monika Beisner’s Vintage Celebration of the Unselfconscious Imagination

“Everything that is possible is real.”

Fantastic Toys: German Artist Monika Beisner’s Vintage Celebration of the Unselfconscious Imagination

A generation before David Byrne illustrated his delightful dingbat history of the future, and three years before the Italian artist, architect, and designer Luigi Serafini created his astonishing encyclopedia of imaginary objects, the German artist Monika Beisner anticipated both conceptual seeds in her 1973 gem Fantastic Toys (public library) — a wondrous catalogue of imaginary toys, ranging from jumping boots (“green with yellow laces”) for joining the birds to colossal inflatable flowers for peeing over garden walls to a Skipping Machine composed of giant wind-up dolls, each “gaily painted and waterproof.”

It is German in a subversive Goethe kind of way: poetic but playful, exultant without bombast — an unselfconscious celebration of childhood’s boundless imagination in which, as in Bach’s, “everything that is possible is real.”

Some items in this catalogue of delights, like sculpting an enormous bath-foam rabbit, are not entirely implausible against the laws of physics.

Some have become strange sidewise realities in the half-century since — the sheep toboggan with heated horns to hold onto calls to mind the heated handlebar gloves now common on food delivery electric bicycles, both technologies so unimaginable in 1973 as to approximate the fantastically impossible.

Some paint delightfully detailed vignettes of the imagination that become miniature fables — in her description of “The Organ Punch and Judy Show,” wherein the child plays the story of Punch and the Magic Flower, Beisner writes:

If you look carefully you can see that Punch has just found the Magic Flower after a long search. But the crocodile wants to eat it. When Judy shouts for help the policeman jumps out and knocks the crocodile back into its organ pipe. The boa constrictor is so pleased that he gives a flower to the girl’s cat.

Complement Fantastic Toys with How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself — a kindred celebration of the grownup child’s imagination — then revisit To Believe in Things — poet Joseph Pintauro and artist Corita Kent’s lovely vintage children’s book for grownups celebrating the love of life in the face of finitude.


The Unphotographable #3: Alaskan Paradise with Rockwell Kent

Sometimes, a painting in words is worth a thousand pictures. I think about this more and more, in our compulsively visual culture, which increasingly reduces what we think and feel and see — who and what we are — to what can be photographed. I think of Susan Sontag, who called it “aesthetic consumerism” half a century before Instagram. In a small act of resistance, I offer The Unphotographable — every Saturday, a lovely image in words drawn from centuries of literature: passages transcendent and transportive, depicting landscapes and experiences radiant with beauty and feeling beyond what a visual image could convey.

Impoverished, creatively depleted, and dogged by self-doubt amid a world torn by its first global war and its first global flu pandemic, the painter, printmaker, and philosopher Rockwell Kent (June 21, 1882–March 13, 1971) set out for the Far North with his nine-year-old son, also named Rockwell. “We came to this new land, a boy and a man, entirely on a dreamer’s search; having had vision of a Northern Paradise, we came to find it,” he wrote — an austere paradise in which he hoped to find peace and clarity, and ended up finding himself, as an artist and as a human being.

In Wilderness (public library) — his magnificent journal of solitude and creativity — he paints the remote Alaskan paradise they arrived into:

What a scene! Twin lofty mountain masses flanked the entrance and from the back of these the land dipped downwards like a hammock swung between them, its lowest point behind the center of the crescent. A clean and smooth, dark-pebbled beach went all around the bay, the tide line marked with driftwood, gleaming, bleached bones of trees, fantastic roots and worn and shredded trunks. Above the beach a band of brilliant green and then the deep, black spaces of the forest.

Previously: The Unphotographable #2: The Alps with Mary Shelley.


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