Editor’s note: Decafnation originally published this essay a year ago. For a silly version of the annual holiday letter, go here.
At this season I seldom had a visitor. When the snow lay deepest, no wanderer ventured near my house for a week or a fortnight at a time, but there I lived as snug as a meadow mouse.
… Thoreau in Walden
I/dropcap] once took a series of photographs of a man named Harry. In his own way, Harry modeled the life of Thoreau. He lived alone in a shack he built himself 25 years earlier, while he was slipping into legally blindness. When technology made it possible to transplant new sight into his eye sockets, Harry vowed to see the world from a different perspective.
During each subsequent Christmas season, this individualist shared the view from his perch in a letter he wrote “to the world.”
Like Thoreau at Walden, Harry drew much out of his solitude, contending that his treasures are memories tucked away in his mind “to be brought forth when the long nights become lonely, like this one.” He wrote this letter on one of those lonely nights.
“It’s Christmas time again. White ruffled curtains are sifting the moonlight. The soft yellow lights from the neighbor’s kitchen are buttering the falling snow. Yesterday’s puddles wear a grey skin of ice and our ponds have shut their eyelids on the winter cold. The evergreens are mittened with frost.”
Harry spent a lot of time with nature. He loved birds and animals. He was never an important man by the standards of status and financial success. He was a logger for a while and finished his working career as a janitor.
But he was a keen observer, a rough poet, a witty, wise old man who had a long love affair with clouds and stars.
“I stood in awe and wonder. Dawn started emerging from the womb of night, and slowly the sun was chinning itself on the horizon. Pillowed clouds, gently aired by a slight breeze, seemed like hooded friars telling their beads in the morning sun.”
Harry often turned nostalgic.
“I grew up in the days when you could buy a nickel’s worth of something, when sex education was learning to kiss without bumping noses, when buying on time meant getting there before the store closed, when health foods were whatever your mother said you’d better eat and when it cost less to educate your son that it does now to amuse his children.”
A man of little formal education, Harry spent most of his hours of solitude reading classics. He also kept up with current events and lamented the frenetic modern world.
“When I was young, we had little mental anguish, no tense nerves to frustrate the spirit. The hardships were usually resolved by a good night’s sleep. Our lives were tranquil and uncomplicated, not plagued by the traumatic turmoil or the age of the spaceship and the terrorist. We didn’t want much because we didn’t see much to want.
“The answer to the world’s problems may be in that statement.”
There was a small marsh near where he lived. He spent more time than usual before his small wood stove that year. At 80 years, it felt colder than it really was.
Harry never became pessimistic. He embraced nature as a buffer to a world he did not fully understand. Or didn’t want to. He died during his sleep some years back, probably after his nightly ritual.
“The last thing I do every night before retiring is to step out the back door and look upward.”
To continue his love affair with the clouds and the stars.