Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis
- By David Gessner
- Torrey House Press
- 377 pp.
- Reviewed by Christopher Lancette
- May 28, 2021
A humble, heartfelt guide to making life better for ourselves and our planet.
Henry David Thoreau calls on us to read books as deliberately as they’re written. I took that advice to heart when I picked up Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight by nature writer David Gessner. I didn’t just read it; I tore it apart and sucked the marrow out of it.
I ended up spending more time in the company of Gessner’s latest work than I have with any book I’ve ever read, save one: Walden. That is the highest compliment I could pay any book or its writer.
You don’t have to be a fan of the great transcendentalist to reap rewards from investing your time in this book. Comprised of 24 interconnected essays, it isn’t really even about Thoreau or the pandemic, though they do play lead roles. It’s about the magic that can happen when we choose to take the time — or have it forced upon us — to reflect on our lives. Like the Concord pond epic, it’s about learning to live deliberately, fronting only the essential facts of life, and seeing if we can learn what it has to teach.
Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight is a fast-paced but powerful, moving treasure trove of life lessons Gessner divined by spending a year making the best he could of a global tragedy. He doesn’t try to make sense of the pandemic — that’s impossible. Instead, he assesses what he can learn from his life amid this mess and, by extension, what we can learn from ours — knowledge that can be put to use now and post-corona. Consider it a how-to guide for how we can live a better life and create a better world.
With deference to all those who have lost loved ones and faced other hardships during the pandemic, Gessner humbly shares lessons large and small. I counted more than 50 in my study, but you are likely to find your own number and meaning. That's because Gessner approaches his subjects not as a fire-and-brimstone preacher from a pulpit but as a friend at a bar. A friend who listens and helps you think things through by offering his life’s experience.
Here are his thoughts on going for a walk and catching glimpses of black skimmers:
“Skimmers will not solve any of your life’s problems. To say that you will return from your walks changed is perhaps an exaggeration. Maybe you’ll barely remember the sights of the scything birds during the rest of the day…But if not fundamentally changed, you are in some unspoken way at least mildly altered…And perhaps the birds have allowed those tapes in your head to stop for a moment, long enough for you to briefly notice that there are vast worlds other than your own.”
Gessner cultivates the rest of his pearls of wisdom in like fashion by taking seemingly simple advice and illustrating in fine detail the good that it can do for us and our planet. Slow down. Develop an ability to appreciate solitude. Keep a journal. Travel less and explore your own neighborhood more. Find the savage delight that nature provides. Start a vegetable garden. Concentrate on doing work that matters to you regardless of the world’s reaction to it. Be a good neighbor even to people whose political views you staunchly oppose.
The true genius and beauty of the book come in the way it weaves together changes we can implement to make our lives better with those that are also good for the planet. Pointing to himself as someone who sometimes simply echoes wisdom from other people and other times, Gessner makes the case for us to develop greater patience. He suggests we work harder to avoid the things that prevent us from doing that — things like needless emails, phone calls, and the chase of every new but unimportant opportunity we find.
“To be truly patient is to choose one thing for a while,” he writes, “and that means not choosing other things. It means not choosing everything.”
The earth needs that kind of strategic patience and singular focus right now, too:
“One of the great challenges in the battle to get people, including our politicians, to recognize the reality of climate change is that there are always a thousand immediate things that get in the way of long-term thinking. We react to a hurricane, a twister, a fire. But to slow down enough to think beyond the immediate? At first it doesn’t seem to be compatible with being human.”
Then he shows that it can be, highlighting an essay by Harvard professor Jennifer L. Roberts entitled “The Power of Patience.” She calls on us to employ a “strategic patience” that can help us achieve more meaningful results. Gessner points to one of his favorite birds, the great blue heron, to conclude the case. All of us who watch herons regularly have witnessed them stand in the water for an hour or more if that's what it takes to find dinner.
“The heron isn’t patient to prove a point or to morally posture,” he says. “It is patient because it wants to eat. We do not stay still because we like to stay still. We stay still because it brings rewards — even when they are eventual rewards.”
If employing long-term thinking and action is one key for our and our planet’s salvation, another is to heed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s dictum “First, be a good animal.” Gessner expounds on that theme throughout the book. In a nutshell: Treat the land and all creatures who dwell on it with the same respect we demand for ourselves, and grasp that we are all a part of each other.
“It is as if most of us somehow can never quite understand the simple fact that everything is connected,” he writes. “If only we could really live like that truth were true.”
Christopher Lancette is a nature writer in Silver Spring, Maryland, and publisher of a passion project at EyeOnSligoCreek.com.