He was Merely Mentally Alive

Midjourney: man visiting Cape Cod in the 19th century

In my bedroom, I came upon a hitherto unknown to me book by Henry David Thoreau, the guy who gave us the notion of civil disobedience. The book is entitled, “Cape Cod,” and it’s just his commentary about his wanderings about the cape in the mid-19th century. Who would really care about Thoreau’s vacations on the cape?

Glancing through a few of the pages, I discovered what was remarkable about the book: the mind that produced it. It is clear that Thoreau had read extensively before his first trip, and had memorised facts about the places he was to visit. During the journey, he makes notes of plants, waterways, houses, and people. You can see what it means to be hyper-aware; he is extremely lucid. He notices every detail; he is making hypotheses, drawing conclusions, and forming new questions. His mind is active, engaged, and luminous.

For example, he notices a dearth of trees on the cape. He receives folk wisdom answers from residents that make little sense, but through careful observation, comparison of trees of the same species at varying distances from the coast, and even by tasting the bark of trees, he comes up with an answer to satisfy his curiosity. I see that there is no practical goal; he is merely mentally alive.

We live in a world that is created by capitalists for the purpose of increasing their wealth. There is very little we may do about it. Our understanding and our consent is not required. So we shuffle about aimlessly, looking something that might taste nice or which might amuse us. Thoreau’s time was quite different: farmers and fishermen were individually and collectively adjusting their physical and political environment. Note that it was at their peril: they died from mistakes or inaction. They therefore had the habits of agency, and here, I see in Thoreau’s writing, what that looks like.

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