Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, or Life in the Woods. Norwalk Connecticut: The Easton Press, 1854.
“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 the labor of my hands only. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again…”
In 1845 Henry David Thoreau built himself a cabin on the shore of a pond. He lived there for the next two years writing, farming, and observing nature. This famous book is about his experiences during those two years. Thoreau was twenty eight years old and had been to Harvard at a time when very few people attended college. He had tried his hand at teaching, writing and editorial work but so far had not made a success of anything. Thoreau wanted to live simply and by himself so he could write with no distractions. He also wanted spiritual clarity:
“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.”
He did not own the land he built on, but he had the owner’s permission. The land was not considered valuable. He built the house from wood he cut himself and recycled lumber. It cost him $28 at a time when the typical New England house would cost around $800. Thoreau spent his time writing, hiking, talking with visitors and passers-by, and watching the seasons on the pond. One summer he cultivated several acres of beans and sold them for a modest profit, but he wasn’t seriously interested in being a farmer. He also earned some money doing odd jobs for neighbors. For food, Thoreau didn’t attempt to live off the land. He bought inexpensive groceries. He baked himself a kind of bread made of rye flour and corn meal. He also ate rice, molasses, apples, vegetables he grew, berries he picked, and some fish from the pond. He ate very little meat, and drank no coffee, tea, or alcohol. He heated his house with wood he cut himself. Although Walden pond was surrounded by trees then (as it is today) it was not exactly a wilderness. Thoreau lived a mile from the nearest neighbor but he saw plenty of people around the pond in every season except winter. His intellectual friends would hike in from town to see him. Train tracks ran along one side of the pond, and railroad laborers would work on the tracks. Fishermen and wood cutters would come in any season, and teams of men came in the winter to harvest blocks of ice from the pond. Also, Thoreau regularly hiked into town to have dinner with friends and see his parents. Thoreau liked his life on the pond, but you couldn’t expect a young man like him to do the same thing forever:
“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”
What we learn from reading Walden: Solitude is good for you, especially coupled with physical exercise. It focuses the mind and helps you appreciate the world around you. Thoreau could never have thought or written what he did sitting at a desk in a busy household. In my own life I find that I get all my best ideas while hiking alone. Thoreau was alone a lot, but you get the sense from his book that he rarely sat still – he was always walking somewhere. Living cheaply isn’t the same thing as being poor. If it is part of a deliberate strategy it can be very satisfying. It is OK to claim your freedom from the demands and expectations of others, as long as they aren’t your dependents (Thoreau had no wife or children.)
“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.”