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Higher Laws

February 15, 2015

I think this happened in late May or early June when I was nearly eight, and it must have rained during the night, and it must have been 7:00 or 7:30 on a perfect morning. The air was very clear, the sun was “sparkling” bright, and in my memory all the colors are very strong, even in the deep shade of the houses.

Instead of heading directly for the woods, I walked up the street, which was also up the hill, to see if my friend, Hank Walker, wanted to come along. He did, of course, but he was still eating breakfast, so I waited on his front porch.

I’m thinking his house had been built during the ‘30s, with four steps up to the gable-roofed porch, with swing, and then the screen door. The porch was a sacred, family space, partially enclosed by low walls, wide enough for a kid to walk on, and in each corner a white, boxed post up to an ornamental ledge, and then the outer beams. The ledge made an irresistible nook for a nest, and we had been watching a pair of robins building theirs. I knew now that it was time for eggs. I looked up and saw that, for the moment, there was no bird sitting.

So what could I do, but climb onto the wall and stretch, just barely high enough to be able to reach in, feel the eggs, and grasp two in my fingers.

I gently lifted them out and down, careful not to drop them. When I held them cupped in my palm, so blue and round and whole in the morning light, I saw and felt what a treasure they were.  And put them into my pocket to climb down.

Well, I bet you can feel what happened.

When I stood again on the porch boards, I felt the moisture of my pocket against my leg. And when I put my hand into that pocket, I felt the goo and broken shells.

I didn’t know irony, although the memory is saturated with it now. But I knew immediately what I had done, and I remember exactly how I felt about it. Foolishness, remorse, mortality, a difference that could not be reversed, a loss of life, and a sharp sense that I was not what I should have been. Not shame, but disappointment, with myself.

“Higher Laws” is the title of a chapter in Thoreau’s Walden. During my career I read it closely many times, because I was teaching it to undergrads, and because, to my mind, it is an American touchstone of the eloquence of the imagination’s fusion of beauty and truth, sensation and intellect. In this chapter, as I understand it, within the book’s overall presentation of the centrality of the imagination, Thoreau proposes (as did Camus, in the context of his experiences of colonialism and the Resistance against Nazi occupation) that moral conscience develops with the expansion of consciousness.

As I’ve written in the episode about my childhood experience of pollution: Thoreau said that we should send our kids, with their empathic imaginations growing, into the woods, where they will learn respect for life, in its births and deaths, as they learn to respect themselves, and that when they inevitably, being children, in their innocence violate a life, they will know its pain (that “the deer, in its extremity, cries like a child”), and falling a little in their respect for themselves, they will realize a higher law, that we all hold our lives “by the same tenure.” Respect for self, respect for life.

I’ll also illustrate with the episode from when I was six, living on another edge of town, and my friends and I spent the spring and summer playing in a broad field of high grass spotted with bushes and small trees. We were highly aware of the lively world that we were living in, as if in our home, and in late August, when the grasses were gray and dry, we lit a camp fire. The next time we went to the field we walked in a world of charcoal.

There’s more to this story, such as the neighbors and the Fire Department, but I’ll be brief.  The lesson was clear without them.

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