Henry Thoreau fulfilled every introvert’s dream by building a cabin in the woods where he could leave the world behind and think deep thoughts. At that point in his life, he was known mainly as the village crank -- not quite shiftless, not without enterprise, but never gainfully employed long enough in any one occupation to get firmly established. “I have as many trades as fingers,” he wrote, without apology. He was plug ugly, a bachelor with poor prospects and rudimentary social skills. The local citizenry was probably not surprised that he was living in a shack outside of town. Walden Pond was only a little more than a mile from Concord, so the world he left behind was never actually that far away. Thoreau used to hike into town almost daily, and his mother would drop by on Saturdays with little somethings for him to eat. Still, it was the perfect setting for living deliberately, as he conceived it.
Like Monet, Thoreau took his inspiration from a pond that lay at his own doorstep, although in Thoreau’s case there was no need to hire gardeners to tend it. In winter, the pond that once trembled with every breath was iced over to a depth of a foot or more, with snow piled on top to an equal depth. To fill his water bucket in the morning, he had to chop his way through snow and ice with an ax. Kneeling to drink, Thoreau observed:
I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants.
Thoreau then made one of those breathtaking transitions from the particular to the sublime that has elevated Thoreau himself -- a village crank to the end of his days -- from the particular to the sublime as well. He wrote, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”
The correspondence between heaven and earth was a favorite theme among Thoreau’s fellow Transcendentalists, starting with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who owned the land on which Thoreau had built his cabin. “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles,” wrote Emerson in his essay “The Over-Soul.” “Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE.” The Romantic poets had also staked their claim to the idea, as in William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.
A similar theme runs through many spiritual and occult traditions of the East and West going back to ancient times. Plato is generally credited with introducing the idea that the human soul is a microcosm of a universal soul that Plotinus later called the “Soul of the World.” The legendary Hermes Trismegistus believed that microcosm and macrocosm were reflections of one another: “That which is below corresponds to that which is above, and that which is above corresponds to that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of the One Thing.” This is generally shortened to the principle, “As above, so below.”
Such notions appear nonsensical to those who live in parts and particles instead of recognizing they are part and particle of the whole. “Every thing is made of one hidden stuff,” Emerson wrote, long before the discovery that we are quite literally made of the same stuff as stars. The biblical creation story begins not with nothing at all but with a world that is “without form and void.” From this undifferentiated substance, light is divided from darkness, heaven from earth, dry land from water. Last of all, humans are formed from the dust of the ground. According to Scripture, we are made in the image of the invisible God, a puzzling statement until you realize we are not talking about appearance but about substance, the same hidden stuff behind all creation.