February 5, 2011


I became completely absorbed in this classic written by Henry David Thoreau in 1854 - had been intending for years to read it and had glanced once or twice but been intimidated. The same thing happened this time. Like picking up War and Peace or something, it just looked too dense. I started picking and choosing chapters that looked interesting but by the time I was done, I'd read it all (out of order) and some of it several times. And I will buy myself a copy. This is a very beautiful book, albeit wordy by twenty-first century standards.

Thoreau's premise in Walden is like that in Wordsworth's poem, written 40 years earlier: "The world is too much with us; late and soon/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;/Little we see in Nature that is ours/We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!" Thoreau was well read and I'm sure he knew those lines. He believed that we sell our soul to earn a living and because of that, he says "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." To get himself off the treadmill, he took two years as an experiment to live very simply in a cabin he built by Walden Pond, just half a mile out of town (Concord, Massachusetts). His goal was to live deliberately - the same idea as that embodied in the more recent term of living intentionally.

I couldn't even begin to summarize all the ways he did this. A lot of them turn my ideas of time upside down. In winter he "frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree, or a yellow-birch..." Some summer mornings he just sat on his porch from sunrise till noon, reflecting later that he "grew in those seasons like corn in the night." It was not time subtracted from his life, he says, but so much over and above his "usual allowance." He had three chairs: one for himself, two for friendship and three for society. When good friends came on infrequent visits, he says the woods around his cabin rang with laughter that would make Times Square seem dull.

His ideas have some interesting applications for me 160 years later. Thoreau said the more you work, the more you have to eat, and then, to pay for (or even grow) the food, the more you have to work. He lived mostly on fruits and vegetables that he grew or collected wild those years, and sometimes fish he caught. His diet was spartan in the extreme. That principle can be extended from food to other areas of life. I liked this book because I work too much, eat too much and spend too little time outside, where I love to be. I haven't researched how consistent Thoreau was with his principles for the rest of his life, but for these two years, he ate less, worked less, and basked in nature and I would love to try that.

After describing his year in the most exquisite detail (hoeing beans: "Daily the beans saw me come to their rescue armed with a hoe, and thin the ranks of their enemies, filling up the trenches with the weedy dead"), he abruptly finishes his story (except for the conclusion) by saying: "This was my first year's life in the woods completed; and the second year was similar to it. I finally left Walden September 6th, 1847." This said much to me about the way he experienced time and nature out there, apparently not needing to record every unique experience but just rolling with the seasons and being satisfied enough to remember that the two years were the same.

However flawed or unrealistic his two-year experiment may have been, it's pretty clear that he found a peace in those two years that many of us dream of.


  1. :o)
    (words aren't necessary for this one)

  2. Thanks again for the nudge to re-read the ice parts. I posted that section to one of my Flickr groups for ice geeks and it was appreciated over there too.