Posted by Dan Rejto
Whilst biking the forest-shaded streets between Wayland, MA and Providence, RI, my team stumbled upon Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Perhaps we should have expected this considering that we were traveling down Walden Road, yet none us really envisioned it would take us to the foot of this mythic pond. With its surface speckled with a spectrum of leaves – rounded, jagged, multi-lobed and lance-shaped – and surrounded by dazzling diversity of trees, it was clear how this oasis, merely 2 miles from the railroads of Concord, could have inspired Thoreau’s famed tract, Walden.
As I reflected upon the visit to the pond, I found some sage advice in the book’s conclusion:
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
As readers, as bikers, as activists, as people we must build castles in the air, we must push our dreams to new heights and hold our actions up to these dreams. It’s true that sometimes we feel ungrounded in doing so, that when we dream for a just and sustainable future we feel that there is too little work being done to create it. While in Providence, my team has met with organizations and visionaries who are doing this work, such as the city’s Sustainability Director, Sheila Dormody and Valeria, the founder of a bike-powered pudding pop business. Their work and aspirations are inspiring and illustrate that there is a foundation of good work for us to build from, shaky though it may be at times (like when public bus funding is threatened).
But more than that, under our work lies an ethical foundation that will weather any storm (yes – even those more intense hurricanes and floods that climate change keeps bringing). I saw this foundation within the remnants of Thoreau’s cabin – a square of 9 granite pillars, its literal and physical foundations. Although some of us may think it naïve or foolish to escape civilization and craft a life of self-reliance in the woods, Thoreau did so not to reduce his environmental impact (as some do today), but rather to “live deliberately.” As is carved in the wooden sign merely a stone’s throw from the foundations, “I [Thoreau] went to the woods to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life…” and as Thoreau continues to write in Walden,
“I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…and if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it and publish its meanness to the world”
This sentiment of determinedly and wholeheartedly living one’s values – whether its manifested as living free in the woods, or traveling exclusively by bike – is one that I aim to keep in the back of my mind and at the tip of my tongue throughout the summer. In the past week, my team of riders has been caught with a flat tire in a rainstorm, in the middle of Providence without a pump, and in so many other binds. We’ve struggled with simply getting a flyer for an event printed, and we’ve fought with each other. At times, I’ve wished to strap my bike to the front of a bus or hop in the back of a pick-up truck and ride the rest of the way to our destination. Life has “proved to be mean”, but facing that meanness and living deliberately by living our values has also proven to be rewarding. What we’re doing sounds crazy to other people, and that is because it is a castle in the air. Our dreams are lofty and difficult to work towards. But that is how they should be. With the foundations constructed by the people we meet – the community leaders, visionaries, activists and farmers market customers – and by the ideas formulated by thinkers like Thoreau, these dreams are what keep us alive, and what we must keep in sight with each step (or pedal) we take.