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  • To Box the WindOn Thoreau’s Unspoken Religion
  • Tom Montgomery-Fate (bio)

The morning wind forever blows. The poem of creation is uninterrupted, but few are the ears that hear it.

Henry David Thoreau

Late April. Midmorning. I sit in a cabin in the Michigan woods 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 wood stove is blazing and I'm getting sleepy. I keep getting snagged on deadfall phrases and never quite make it through. I've been on page 166 for a long time.

"In our most trivial walks, we are constantly, though unconsciously, steering like pilots by certain well-known beacons and headlands . . . " (Eyes cl . . . clo . . . close. . . . Open!) " . . . and not till we are completely lost, or turned around, for a man needs only to be turned around once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost . . ." (Eyes cl . . . clo . . . close. . . . Open!) "do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of Nature." Here I fall asleep at the keel.

A half hour or so later I wake to my own snoring, take a sip of cold coffee, and try to finish the page.

"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" (Walden 166).

Though Thoreau beckons, I am not awake enough to find myself nor to lose the world. So I turn on the transistor radio and crank the volume. [End Page 31] The dictatorial tone and good versus evil worldview 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 to a classical station, to Brahms.

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 attempts to make a bottle "sing" for my young son.

When I think of him now, I see him running across the meadow in front of the cabin pulling a kite into the sky. I loved paper kites as a kid—the miracle of the wind made visible. In our little town they 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 bailed out more string...