Life in the Woods

I read Walden on a tiny electronic screen, primarily socked away in the back of trains, planes and automobiles, and missed out on all the classic typesetting and ink prints that might accompany a quality hardback.

But the content was there, and I think Thoreau would have understood.

The book takes a clever form. Thoreau sets out the entire thing as an experiment – “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately” – a test both of self (to determine if he could free himself from the chains of Man) and society (to view it from the outside). So the entire premise has a philosophical, almost scientific grounding.

Nowadays we have a stereotype that practicing scientists are divorced from artistic, subjective pursuits, and their hypotheses are narrow and minuscule. Walden was written at a time when thrill of the enlightenment was still riding the sooty coattails of the industrial revolution, and even artists and poets participated. Thoreau isn’t only musing on society – he conducts measurements of weather, the depth of the pond and its ice, the makeup of the surrounding flora and fauna. He investigates the past inhabitants, builds a small cabin and plants crops. He’s a biologist, a geologist, an ecologist and an anthropologist. He’s even an astronomer – “The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles! What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment!”

But first and foremost he’s a philosopher. He starts his investigation with the necessities of human life: food, shelter, warmth – and narrows these things down to their core. He finds he’s able to obtain these things from the land with a makeshift cabin, a fire and small plots of grown vegetables, subsisting primarily on pancakes! He contrasts this with the laborer who slaves for long hours, only to return to a shack for a meager meal of bread and meat, indebted to a landlord. He identifies that the “system” exists to enslave men into a sort of perpetual indentured servitude. “Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born?” he writes. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

This is what he preaches against, even including a record of his expenses to prove the viability of his plan. Of course, the numbers now stand merely as historical curiosities. But his point is that society’s system of debt and consumption can be avoided by resisting its temptations (luxurious food and drink, extravagant houses, mindless “things”, and prestige). He trades all these for freedom and time, long hours breathing in nature. And he urges his readers that it’s not too late to break free: “…alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices.”

Thoreau ‘s not a Luddite – his remarks on the telegraph and the steam engine are not negative; and he’s not a hermit – inviting all sorts of characters to share his cabin for warmth and conversation. But he does seek to stand outside of culture, to find the cracks in the system, and subvert them. He doesn’t pay his taxes that support the institution of slavery, and spends a night in jail for it. He has little to say for existing institutions, traditions or religions. He goes so far as to say he’s never learned anything from an elder. But he is a champion of books – “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!” delving into the classics in the original Greek and Latin, quoting them throughout the text.

But the natural world is his true muse. Even if you ignore all maxims and anecdotes of 19th century life, read Walden for the beautiful imagery of nature. The lake and the forest and surrounding hills in all seasons, from the bursting green of spring to the ice blue clarity of winter.

Just a taste:
…One November afternoon, in the calm at the end of a rain-storm of several days’ duration, when the sky was still completely overcast and the air was full of mist, I observed that the pond was remarkably smooth, so that it was difficult to distinguish its surface; though it no longer reflected the bright tints of October, but the sombre November colors of the surrounding hills. Though I passed over it as gently as possible, the slight undulations produced by my boat extended almost as far as I could see, and gave a ribbed appearance to the reflections. But, as I was looking over the surface, I saw here and there at a distance a faint glimmer, as if some skater insects which had escaped the frosts might be collected there… Paddling gently to one of these places, I was surprised to find myself surrounded by myriads of small perch, about five inches long, of a rich bronze color in the green water, sporting there, and constantly rising to the surface and dimpling it, sometimes leaving bubbles on it. In such transparent and seemingly bottomless water, reflecting the clouds, I seemed to be floating through the air as in a balloon, and their swimming impressed me as a kind of flight or hovering, as if they were a compact flock of birds passing just beneath my level on the right or left, their fins, like sails, set all around them. There were many such schools in the pond, apparently improving the short season before winter would draw an icy shutter over their broad skylight, sometimes giving to the surface an appearance as if a slight breeze struck it, or a few rain-drops fell there. When I approached carelessly and alarmed them, they made a sudden splash and rippling with their tails, as if one had struck the water with a brushy bough, and instantly took refuge in the depths…

The bulk of the book is devoted not to deep philosophy or the persuasion of the common man, but simply Thoreau communing with the birds and squirrels and trees. It’s not preachy conservationism, like the Lorax, but a gentle wonder and devotion and love for the land.

It’s there that Walden is most relevant today. The zeitgeist has jumped on the green bandwagon, a marketing term that at best means “carbon-offsetting”, but is more often a simple mission statement and a logo dyed emerald. But Thoreau embodied a true American conservationism – not as political and active as John Muir or Teddy Roosevelt. But a simple, quite respect for his neighborhood.

He’s not out cutting deals with the industrialists. A railroad track cuts through the corner of Walden, and rich southerners cart off massive blocks of lake ice in winter to cool their summer sweet tea. He observes all this, documents it, and watches how the lake replenishes itself, and the whistle of the steam engine merge with the cry of the peregrine. He can only live his own life, and tell others what nature has meant to him.

Fierce individualism has been forever fused with America’s DNA, and Thoreau is no exception – “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

That’s the model that we should think about, adopt into our own lives. Instead of vitriolic debate and division, quiet and subtle conversation. Respect for both people and the land.

Thoreau is not without his own contradictions and failings. Take the following contradictory quotes –

“I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher … spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both.”

“He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out of him day by day, and the divine being established.”

In this, Walden is less a solid philosophical treatise than a memoir of a philosophical journey. It’s messy, and incomplete, and truly American.

Thoreau left the woods after two years. He writes: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” I’ll vouch for that.

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