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The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run. – Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Eight years ago this week, I left my unsold house in Maple Leaf in Seattle, having sold a company, quit my job (fairly precipitously), and resolved to get out of the city and to focus more time on the things that mattered to me. I was, of course, enabled in my flight by our sale of AllRecipes.com to Reader’s Digest, a long-awaited event in which I played a minor role as cofounder and board member, and for which I am eternally grateful.
On each anniversary, I tend to start my reflections with a quote from Lawrence Durrell’s magnificant book on the Greek island of Rhodes, as an excuse and explanation for my fascination with living on an island. I’d probably have done that this year as well, if I hadn’t been in Seattle on the 14th, at a meeting of the executive and finance committees for Seattle Arts and Lectures, and then dining with Nicole outside at Artusi, one of our favorite spots.
Instead I’m writing several days later and Christie and Colin Megill, who used to be island residents, farm interns, and teachers at Spring Street International School, posted pictures from Walden Pond in Massachusetts, and I was reminded of a long connection with Thoreau.
When I was young, Mom bought a series of hardbound “classics” to have on the shelves at home. I don’t have them any longer, but the book that stood out among Dickens, Austen, Poe, and the rest was Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. I read it many times, both in that hardback edition, and later in a series of paperbacks, a worn copy of which still sits on a shelf next to Aldo Leopold, Gary Snyder, Edward Abbey, John Muir, and the classics of American nature and environmental writing.
It is true, in a sense, that I left the city to live in the woods, but although Thoreau’s words about simplification spring easily to mind, my life isn’t about simplification in Thoreau’s sense. My life is complex. My time is split – between the island and Seattle. Split between solitude and immersion in family life. Split between research and public service. My – our – calendars are complex, to the point that I keep considering writing software to help us figure out how to fit it all in. To the extent that I went to the woods to live deliberately, it is deliberately a complex life of loyalties and obligations, balanced by occasional periods of solitude and study.
During those periods of solitude, I’m surrounded by trees and water and birds, and of course, books. As Thoreau wrote in Walden:
Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage.
When I’m home, I’m reading, and thinking, and writing. Often, on my research, and especially on my long-suffering dissertation. But also, often, to understand and learn and enrich my thinking on a variety of subjects. Again, Thoreau led the way:
To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will tax the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.
On other anniversaries I have reflected about island life, and how I fit into it. That changes every year, but I am and have been deeply involved in many issues within my island community and that will continue. I am also deeply involved in an organization (Seattle Arts and Lectures) in Seattle, and that will continue.
Tonight, I simply wanted to commemorate my time here, and hope that many more years will follow.