While never having been out of fashion, so to speak, Walden by Henry David Thoreau is now more relevant than ever. A cool-headed reflection in a time of turmoil, it’s a wonderfully articulate defence of the value of nature, simple living, and self-reliance.
“Walden” refers to the pond (or lake) of the same name. Stretching over 61 acres of Concord, Massachusetts, it was on its shore that on the 4th of July 1845 until September the 6th 1847, Henry David Thoreau began his experiment. Before detailing the precise nature of this endeavour, I think it’s important to add a little context. Thoreau was a 19th-century American philosopher, writer, and poet as well as a keen naturalist. He is also a seminal “transcendentalist”. A philosophical school of thought that emerged during the 1820s and ’30s in America. Put simply, transcendentalism is the belief in the inherent good in people and in nature, and the importance of self-reliance. These notions are central to Walden, which could be considered a kind of transcendentalist “bible”, for want of a better word.
This belief in the power and good in nature is what drove Thoreau away from civilization. Very much in line with Buddhist thinking, he saw material desires as chains around the neck of the common man. He was given to using farms and farm owners as an example of this, “As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail”. His point here is simple. A farm is little more than a weight around one’s neck. You are committed to the land, the tools, the animals, the debt, you are not free. At first, this seems rather naive. Surely there is no alternative? The farm provides a livelihood for the farmer and without it, he would most likely starve.
Thoreau set out to disprove this misconception in his retreat to Walden pond. It may indeed be the case that the farm provides for the farmer, but the vast majority of people only believe the farm and the struggles that come with it are necessary because they live so far in excess of their needs. People are led astray by modern life. They come to believe that happiness can be attained by the acquisition of material goods rather than spiritual fulfillment. This idea, that happiness is not in material things, is at the very core of Walden. After all, “The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the alms-house as brightly as from the rich man’s abode”. Thoreau’s great worry was that the value and beauty of nature and the simple life were disappearing.
And so he built a cabin by the lake, and resolved to live entirely self-reliantly. He grew his own crops, chopped his own wood, and of course built his own home. In all circumstances, simplicity was his guiding principle. A concept he treats with an almost religious reverence. The cabin itself is a perfect example of the principle of simplicity in action. Very small, it had only one room containing a desk, a fireplace and a bed. There were also three chairs, for which Thoreau gives reason in typically wry style, “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society”.
In today’s consumerist culture, these parts of the book resonate perhaps more so than any other. Modern societies foster a total reliance on the inherently unsustainable cycle of consumption and disposal of material goods. We fill our homes with clothes, toys, electronics, and appliances. What do these things become once they are broken or obsolete? Little more than clutter. Clothes, in particular, are cause for concern. Most people have far more than they could ever need, and throw most of them away eventually. There is apparently a great need for some kind of simplification.
Even worse, many people would rather buy new clothes than repair the ones they already have. This particular point appears to have puzzled Thoreau greatly. To his mind “No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes”. Even our homes themselves would likely have displeased Thoreau greatly. He took great care to pay cash for the materials he would need to construct it, ensuring there would be no debt with which he might be shackled. To his mind, these material things are little more than a distraction from spiritual and intellectual growth.
In order to avoid a state of affairs in which one is given to suddenly “discover that I had not lived.”, Thoreau recommends a close examination of the natural world. Its beauty and simplicity never cease to amaze him. An avid walker, Thoreau was always eager to learn while wandering the nearby woods. One of the most important lessons he appears to have learned is that as human beings, we need and are a part of the natural order. That may sound obvious but I think it’s a concept many people are aware of, yet never fully internalise. “We need the tonic of wildness”, is in many ways a rallying cry for those of us who lament the loss of wild green spaces to business and agriculture.
Once again, it all comes back to simplicity. Thoreau saw the natural world as possessing a kind of balance and order that had fallen away from humanity. He firmly believed that our place was within nature, not as its master or its enemy. There is a striking passage where Thoreau observes two colonies of ants fighting one another. He watches with interest and eventually concludes that there is little difference between this Bellum of the ants and a battle fought between humans. This may not have been precisely Thoreau’s point, but I take from this that we, as part of nature, are in no way privileged in virtue of being human. There is in truth very little that separates us from those ants who fought so bravely.
Humans stand apart only in the sense that they either desire mastery over nature or are simply ignorant of it. Define “progress” by the pursuit of capital, or the acquisition of material goods, and this is a natural consequence. Thoreau identified a close link between nature and our spiritual and moral health, and so it is no wonder that as the former disappears, so does the latter. We will lose a great deal if we continue with our current understanding of “progress”. As the wild grows ever smaller, so does everything it can teach us.
The true beauty of Walden is in its thorough examination of what are fundamentally very simple concepts. On some level we are all aware that we live beyond our means, of the value of the natural world, and the benefits of simple living. Few, if any of us however have contemplated these issues with the clear-mindedness and the vigour of Henry David Thoreau. His wonderfully vivid and eccentric account of his time by the lake is a simultaneously timely and timeless lesson that deserves our attention. Perhaps now more so than ever.