Walden by Henry David Thoreau

“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by labor of my hands only.”

Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden, his magnum opus, during a two year stay on lands owned by his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Walden Pond, situated in Walden Woods, was an untouched centre of beauty among the agricultural lands of Concord, Massechusetts, and his sojourn there allowed Thoreau the peaceful reflection that he so earnestly sought.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.  I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

Thoreau’s reasons for retreating to the woods, his construction of a cabin, his pastoral descriptions of nature, and his philosophy surrounding interaction with nature and solitude, permeate the pages and take us into a world and perceptions that stretch our thinking and make us long for something simpler. Thoreau makes us face the realities of life and prods us to examine the value received from our choices.  Do we live according to our own hearts and convictions or by society’s dictates, and how are we changed by our choices?

Surprisingly, given its present popularity, Walden was rejected by eight publishers before being printed, and experienced only a negligible success during Thoreau’s lifetime, finally becoming popular during the 20th century with the advent of the Civil Rights era.

Walden Pond in late June
source Wikimedia Commons

There were parts of this book that I loved and could completely relate to.  I have my own version of Walden Pond in the summer.  I know the call of the eagle, the blue blur of a dragonfly, the slap of a beaver’s tail on the water.  I understand the workings of an isolated community, with close interactions, yet subtly observed personal boundaries.  I understand what silence means and the benefit of the education received through it.  Returning to a life unhampered by unnecessary busyness and useless striving certainly renews your spirit and allows you to become more synchronized with nature and with humanity.

My Walden Pond
© Cleo @ Classical Carousel

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep.  I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour.  It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do.  To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”

© Cleo @ Classical Carousel

Thoreau entreats us not only to strive to live simply but to be happy with little and therefore, recognize that as we grow poor in possessions, we grow rich in spirit.

“However mean your life is, meet and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.  It is not so bad as you are.  It looks poorest when you are richest.  The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise.  Love your life, poor as it is.  You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse.  The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its doors as early in the spring.  Cultivate property like a garden herb, like sage.  Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends.  Turn the old; return to them.  Things do not change; we change.  Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts …….  Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.  Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”

“My greatest skill in life has been to want but little”

While Thoreau’s wilderness experience was unique, I’m not sure that he was recommending that everyone pack up and make for the woods.  In his words, I heard him entreat people to have some sort of experience with nature, to take the time to explore it, to open yourself up to it in a quiet, introspective kind of way and, within that experience, nature will teach you to know yourself better.

“For a week I heard the circling groping clangor of some solitary goose in the foggy mornings, seeking its companion, and still peopling the woods with the sound of a larger life than they could sustain.  In April the pigeons were seen again flying express in small flocks, and in due time I heard the martins twittering over my clearing, though it had not seemed that the township contained so many that it could afford me any, and I fancied that they were peculiarly of the ancient race that dwelt in hollow trees ere white men came.  In almost all climes the tortoise and the frog are among the precursors and heralds of this season, and birds fly with song and glancing plumage, and plants spring and bloom, and winds blow, to correct this slight oscillation of the poles and preserve the equilibrium of Nature.”

While I loved reading about Thoreau’s temporary experiment, this is not the easiest book to get through.  At times Thoreau overwhelms you with his spiritual philosophy and I found myself wondering at how he could become an expert with merely a two year stint in only comparative isolation, as he was near Concord and often had visitors to his abode.  However, these flaws did not diminish some rather obvious truths in Thoreau’s vision.  He allowed nature to be his Muse, simplicity his guide and he leads us on a soul-searching journey into the woods, opening our eyes to the world around us.

I found this video on YouTube and I think it echoes some of Thoreau’s thoughts beautifully ….. “and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

 Figuring Life Out