“Simplify,” Henry David Thoreau tells us in Walden. I am reading this advice in the airport, awaiting a jet plane excursion, just moments after downloading a 464-page collection of his works onto my Kindle, delivered courtesy of the airport wi-fi via Amazon’s “Whispernet” technology in a matter of seconds. Currently, I have Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Arnold’s Culture and Belief, Homer’s The Odyssey, Aristotle’s Poetics, and the entire New Oxford American Dictionary packed onto my Kindle, too. And this mini-library has barely begun to crack the device’s capacity.
I’m lugging these hundreds of thousands of digitized words onto a plane in a 10-ounce electronic device that I easily cradle in the palm of my hand, wondering if this technology, in its own way, falls neatly within Thoreau’s “Simplify” dictum. Or is it a gross perversion?
This is not the only conundrum I will face rereading Thoreau in the year 2013, some 40 years after my first encounter with him as a college student.
Thoreau was a counter-cultural hero to those coming of age in the 1960s-70s. One would say he marched to his own drummer, though so unacquisitive and disdainful of most all material objects was he that no way would he have owned a drum.
Probably his greatest and most persistent message was to challenge our need for “things” as a source of happiness, even going that point one better by positing that most of the objects we typically surround ourselves with in life decrease our happiness because they clutter our minds as much as they do our physical space. And their cost keeps us working too long and too hard in order to afford them, thus preventing us from enjoying enough of the simple, beautiful, and free pleasures of life ever available to us: a walk in the woods, a summer’s day book-reading and nap, the company of kindred spirits.
He once refused a friend’s offer of a doormat to the hut he built with his own hands at Walden Pond (shown above, actually a decent-sized “lake” in Concord, Massachusetts where Thoreau was born, lived and died). He preferred, he said, to “wipe my feet on the sod before my door. It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.”
The slippery moral slope of a simple doormat—who knew?
It is tempting to dismiss Thoreau as a relic, a quasi-nutcase from a bygone day before the imperatives wrought by industrialization, technology, and modern media begat the lives we lead in first-world countries today. So complete was his dismissal of materialist culture that he once beheld a dirt-poor immigrant lugging everything he owned on his back and observed:
“I have pitied him, not because it was his all, but because he had all that to carry. If I have got to drag my trap, I will take care that it be a light one, and do not nip me in a vital part. But perchance it would be wisest never to put one’s paw into it.”
He picks up this image of our possessions ensnaring us in a trap a little further on when he figuratively rolls his eyes at the mere idea of buying furniture:
“Furniture! Thank God, I can sit and I can stand without the aid of a furniture warehouse. He was a lucky fox that left his tail in a trap. The muskrat will gnaw his third leg off to be free.”
But before we dismiss him as just a reclusive crank with a fear of body fluids, let us recall his great, even sensuous love of nature, of deep thought and often soaring reflection…
Ah, freedom! That word, that word. We acquire wealth in its name, positing that it can protect us from want of enough food and shelter (and health care when we need it), while also ensuring us the opportunity to perhaps travel beyond walks in our neighborhoods, however edifying those walks may be. (And then there’s the matter of college tuition for our kids, the ability to invite our friends over and offer them something more than the bread and water that served as Thoreau’s staple food and drink, etc.)
That said, Thoreau carefully did the math on this matter of how-much-work-for-how-much-free-time, and unlike our 48-weeks-of work-and-4-weeks vacation (if we’re lucky), he found that by working six weeks a year, he could meet all his expenses of living, and thus:
”The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study.”
Hmmm…Certainly the world has changed since Thoreau’s habitation of his Walden hut from July, 1845 to September, 1847. But imagine a world in which even six months of work would do us for our material comfort, with the other six to relax, create, convene with friends, observe nature and travel slowly by foot or boat or train.
I muse on this while still thick in the midst of a profession and a life that sometimes leaves my brain seeming so impossibly crowded with projects&deadlines&emails&tweets&texts&updates (“ping ping ping beep beep beep your hard drive is vulnerable to attack…”) that I am like to burst. And as I take my eyes momentarily off my computer screen to behold the barely budding maple tree outside my office window, it becomes rather more difficult to hold onto any thought of: “Yeah, that Thoreau—what a dingbat.”
Walden is almost impossibly rich with insights, challenges, cheeky rejoinders to the madness that has too often motivated men and women in every age to dig themselves holes in their lives and then frantically set about filling them back up. This would be a long essay indeed if I were to attempt to do it justice. Far better to read it yourself (free on your Kindle!).
So I think more along the lines of take-aways from Thoreau and his beloved Walden. Does he stand as any kind of guiding light for our time?
As much as he cherished his solitude, one can’t help but think that its dark side—loneliness—also wrapped its gnarly fingers around his heart. Though there is some speculation that Thoreau may have been a repressed gay, we do know that he thought highly enough of a woman at one point to ask for her hand. Unbeknownst to him, his brother had done the same—yes, to the same woman. She rejected them both, her reason in Henry’s case having to do with her father, a Unitarian minister, catching wind of it and beholding eccentric, n’er-do-much Henry as a potential son-in-law. Nothing doing, absolutely forbidden, he told his daughter. And that was that.
Later, another woman apparently proposed to him and he recoiled in near terror, confiding to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“I sent back as distinct a ‘no’ as I have learned to pronounce after considerable practice, and I trust this ‘no’ has succeeded. I really had anticipated no such foe as this in my career.”
No such foe. Now there’s a definitive take on women and the institution of marriage!
Thoreau either lacked or successfully thwarted normal carnal desire, according to multiple sources, including his friends at the time. In a paper entitled “Thoreau and Eros,” Walter Harding cites Emerson’s eulogy of Thoreau, at which he said:
“He chose wisely, no doubt, for himself to be a bachelor of thought and Nature…He had no temptations to fight against, -no appetites, no passion.”
More from Harding:
“The sexual act he apparently thought of only with abhorrence and disgust. He complained, ‘We are begotten and our life has its source from what a trivial and sensual Pleasure.’ He even found it difficult to imagine ‘what the essential difference between man and woman is that they should be thus attracted to one another.’”
Well then: Perhaps we do not extend to Thoreau the status of all-defining source of wisdom on all things human. But before we dismiss him as just a reclusive crank with a fear of body fluids, let us recall his great, even sensuous love of nature, of deep thought and often soaring reflection:
“How many mornings, summer and winter, before any neighbor was stirring about his business, have I been about mine!…It is true, I never assisted the sun materially in the rising, but doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it…So many autumn, ay, and winter days, spent outside the town, trying to hear what was in the wind, to hear and carry it express! I well nigh sunk all my capital in it, and lost my own breath into the bargain, running in the face of it.”
How many mornings, indeed, do we ignore the morning altogether, huddling and cloistered with our coffee cups, our laptops, in the stale static air. One can almost feel Thoreau’s easy propensity for rapture. Not a bad model at all for how to drink deeply of life.
Perhaps the primary take-away from Thoreau in this and every age is this: Get outside! Breathe, walk, watch, repeat!
And for the love of God and all that is most human, do not drive your car to a gym so you can walk nowhere on a treadmill, or ride a stationary bike, the very term “stationary bike” being an oxymoron of such monstrous moral proportions as to surely give Thoreau’s heart a shiver where it currently lies. (That being “Author’s Ridge” at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord. The Hawthorne, Alcott and Emerson family plots are nearby.)
“When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest woods the thickest and most interminable and, to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place,—a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow, of Nature. The wildwood covers the virgin mould,—and the same soil is good for men and for trees. A man’s health requires as many acres of meadow to his prospect as his farm does loads of muck. There are the strong meats on which he feeds.”
So wrote Thoreau in one of the many lofty passages of “Walking,” a late essay published posthumously in Atlantic Monthly in 1862, after he died of pneumonia at age 44. But for want of modern antibiotics, Thoreau might have lived as long as his friends Emerson (78) or Bronson Alcott (88). We’ll never know what he might have cast his eye and considerable, often sardonic intelligence on in later years. Perhaps he would have lampooned Henry Ford, the Wright brothers, and all the rest of the forward-and-upward moving strivers as mere fools, ignorant and unappreciative of the terra firma unto which they were born.
This I know, however: Forty years later, Thoreau is a voice in my head again. Sometimes prickly, occasionally misbegotten, frequently funny, always provocative on the baseline question that has always fueled philosophy and currently fuels this very blog you behold on your very un-Thoreauian digital device: How are we to live?
The question is no less relevant—and perhaps even more challenging to answer—for us in 2013 than it was for Henry David Thoreau when he arrived at Walden Pond some 168 years ago.
We would do well to take a nice long walk to reflect on it.
Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Thoreau portrait at top of page courtesy of www.thoreausociety.org, which maintains a vast treasure trove of Thoreau materials, knowledge and artifacts.
Thoreau illustration above reprinted courtesy of Ben Wiseman. All rights reserved. Much more of his work can be viewed at: http://work.ben-wiseman.com.
For multiple blog posts over many years by a Thoreau aficionado, see blogger (and birder) Loren Webster at: http://www.lorenwebster.net/In_a_Dark_Time/category/longer-works/thoreaus-walden.
Although I've read some negative comments about Thoreau's personal life, I never realized just how opposed he was to marriage (and sex) apparently. He's always seemed to me like a Transcendentalist monk, dedicated to living out Emerson's ideas. I suspect that if I was in danger of having a child every time I had sex there would have been much less sex in my life.
I'm still not sure if it's Emerson or Thoreau who stated, "Things are in the saddle and ride mankind," but I was taken with that idea even as a freshman in college. Somewhere, one of them also said something like not wanting something is even better than owning it because it doesn't weigh on you. That's saved me a lot of money over my lifetime and made it possible to get almost everything I've ever wanted — because I've never wanted very much.
I"ve never read "Walking" even though I downloaded it at some point. I think I need to get back to it.
That line about "things" sent me scurrying, Loren, and yes, it was Emerson, from his poem, "Ode, Inscribed to William H. Channing." Interesting, though, because my take on it is not that Emerson was disparaging materialism so much as he was citing its centrality. (I addressed this topic in a previous post, "The Sacramentality of Things.") I could be wrong about this, however—poetry, like all sacred literature, is subject to exegesis! Here's Emerson's full stanza:
The horseman serves the horse,
The neat-herd serves the neat,
The merchant serves the purse,
The eater serves his meat;
'Tis the day of the chattel,
Web to weave, and corn to grind,
Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind.
Once again, excellent advice offered by a very wise fellow. Since I had not the inherent wisdom of HDT to start with, I had to acquire lots of stuff and then painfully shed it to appreciate the peaceful conclusion. I've had some expensive habits, both legal and illegal, yet now in old age, I'm happy in retirement with "three hots, a cot and a reading light."
Excellent advice that is too frequently ignored, I'm afraid. However, the growing population makes HDT's advice more relevant than when he wrote it. Who is ringing this same warning bell today?