When Does Middle Age End and Old Age Begin?
George Carlin on Being Old

Thoreau on The Greatest Gift of Age

I wish I could say I chose today's quotation on my own, that I am perspicacious enough to have set it aside for special comment. But even though I have undoubtedly read it at least twice in the past, it slipped by me without the notice it deserves.

For that, we can thank Maria Popova who runs the estimable Brain Pickings blog/website. It is from The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837 to 1861. As she explains in her introduction:

”Writing in the afternoon of October 20 of 1857, shortly after his fortieth birthday, Thoreau does what he does best, drawing from an everyday encounter a profound existential parable.”

Here, then, is Thoreau on The Greatest Gift of Age – re-paragraphed slightly to ease reading in the more modern manner, on a screen:

“I saw Brooks Clark, who is now about eighty and bent like a bow, hastening along the road, barefooted, as usual, with an axe in his hand; was in haste perhaps on account of the cold wind on his bare feet.

“When he got up to me, I saw that besides the axe in one hand, he had his shoes in the other, filled with knurly apples and a dead robin. He stopped and talked with me a few moments; said that we had had a noble autumn and might now expect some cold weather.

“I asked if he had found the robin dead. No, he said, he found it with its wing broken and killed it. He also added that he had found some apples in the woods, and as he hadn’t anything to carry them in, he put ’em in his shoes.

“They were queer-looking trays to carry fruit in. How many he got in along toward the toes, I don’t know. I noticed, too, that his pockets were stuffed with them.

“His old tattered frock coat was hanging in strips about the skirts, as were his pantaloons about his naked feet. He appeared to have been out on a scout this gusty afternoon, to see what he could find, as the youngest boy might.

“It pleased me to see this cheery old man, with such a feeble hold on life, bent almost double, thus enjoying the evening of his days. Far be it from me to call it avarice or penury, this childlike delight in finding something in the woods or fields and carrying it home in the October evening, as a trophy to be added to his winter’s store.

“Oh, no; he was happy to be Nature’s pensioner still, and birdlike to pick up his living. Better his robin than your turkey, his shoes full of apples than your barrels full; they will be sweeter and suggest a better tale.

“This old man’s cheeriness was worth a thousand of the church’s sacraments and memento mori’s. It was better than a prayerful mood. It proves to me old age as tolerable, as happy, as infancy…

“If he had been a young man, he would probably have thrown away his apples and put on his shoes when he saw me coming, for shame. But old age is manlier; it has learned to live, makes fewer apologies, like infancy.”

[If a reader sent me this, I have misplaced the reference. My apologies.]

If you enjoyed this, do try Maria Popova's Brain Pickings. Once a week she supplies a thoughtful and often unique take on writing and its pleasures while pointing us to some of the best there is.

Most of the writings of Henry David Thoreau are available for free online. Here is one source for some of them.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marcy Belson: Take Me Back – Summer 1953


He always inspires me. Once I made a small film of his writings set to images from the local sloughs. They showed it on KPBS, and until now I had forgotten all about it. I don't think my film was as good as his words.

Of course today, Brooks Clark would be in an assisted living facility, not allowed to go barefoot into the woods and being watched closely for signs that his "dementia" was progressing.

How lovely. Calling this "the evening of our days" is something only Thoreau could have written.

This is lovely and inspiring. Thanks too for the link to Brain Pickings. I've just returned from a visit there, read several posts, and subscribed to her weekly newsletter.

One of the surprises of old age is the joy we take in the simple pleasures that we were too busy to notice when we were young.

Thoreau says it well.

Lovely & calming to my mind. Thank you. Dee

Two of my favorites - Thoreau and Brain Pickings. The writings of both have given me immense pleasure over the years.

I'm afraid that I have to agree with Bruce regarding a current day Brooks, whose fate would more likely be indoors, restrained, dependent and medicated. I'm currently in the middle of Katy Butler's "Knocking on Heaven's Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death" -- could you possibly tell?

Darlene put a fine spin on the desires of the elderly. I too was just chatting with someone about this. What we liked and did in our youth are not the same as what we will like and do in our older years. The sense of adventure has changed, and many times the adventure is in doing something our own way rather than the "normal" way. Just as Brooks Clark used his shoes for apple boxes.

how I like this.
Darlene, you are so right.
In the last month's in these
70's years living in my cottage at the edge of the woods
I delight in so much....

Wonderful comments the last couple of posts! This is a thoughtful and kindly bunch.

Ah, Bruce & Cathy - you gave me a twinge of guilt, having just returned from making a commitment to a “Memory Unit” for my mother. But it passed, having no other real options. I have, however, always taken solace in the fact hat my family tends to “put things off too long.” We have allowed relatives stay in their own homes as long as possible, past what was considered to be socially, or even in one case apparently legally acceptable, as the county eventually stepped in & forced my childless great-aunts out of their house and into a nursing home. And that was the end of them; they lingered on a couple of years, but mentally were gone when their home and their pets left the picture. But - they were “safe”. That was nearly 40 years ago, my mother was in one of her mentally incapacitated states when it all went down, and my siblings and I were in our 20’s. But I have never felt the least bit of guilt letting them live as they chose as for as long as we did. One of those old aunts was a close facsimile to Brooks Clark.

Seconding the love for Brainpickings; if I could read one blog, it's that, and I always learn and am heartened.

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