You don’t have to read far in Walden before you get to this:
I have travelled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways … I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? They have got to live a man’s life, pushing all these things before them, and get on as well as they can. How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot! The portionless, who struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.
When I read that on the road to Boston, I knew I was hooked, though my intention of getting through it before visiting Walden Pond turned out to be a pipe dream. Between one thing or another, I didn’t finish it for another couple of weeks, so all the beautiful nature prose didn’t wash over me until I was back in the big city. It’s easy to forget that Thoreau didn’t start his experiment out of a desire to frolic with the squirrels—it arose, rather, out of a touch of schadenfreude at the landed plight of his fellow townsmen.
The reason Walden’s opening sat so well with me is that it jives nicely with my own stuff-aversion, à la shelfworthiness. Thoreau’s message, translated into modern terms, allows those of us not burdened down with owning a house to feel pretty darn good about it. Sure, while romanticizing the life of the mind, he sometimes comes off as a little naive by romanticizing the life of the pauper, but if you’re like me and you’re occasionally consumed by the pressing desire to just throw away half of what you own, you’ll groove on passages like this:
At present our houses are cluttered and defiled by [furniture], and a good housewife would sweep out the greater part into the dust hole, and not leave her morning’s work undone. Morning work! By the blushes of Aurora and the music of Memnon, what should be man’s morning work in this world? I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust. How, then, could I have a furnished house? I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground.
I do wonder what Thoreau would have thought if he could have had an iBook, though. He railed against the material responsibilities that demand our attention, but his concern was really one of time more than matter. His grand experiment would have looked very different if he were carrying it out today. For one thing, he’d be much less likely to have a friend’s piece of land he could conveniently squat on for free. Having grown up among the literati, he probably wouldn’t have that convenient set of handyman skills to bring to bear. And there’s that troubling matter of health insurance. In 2004, his best bet for getting by on $400 a month or so would be to live in a group house, work part-time at the co-op, and maybe write all about it on the weekend at the coffee shop with the free wi-fi. Which leads me to what, I’m afraid, is my sole stunning insight upon rereading Walden:
If Thoreau lived today, he would so totally be a blogger.
I’m not talking about Walden as it was published, but as it was first written. Thoreau started off with daily musings scribbled down over the course of several seasons, and only much later shaped the thing into a cohesive whole. But even in its revised and organized form, the seams of what was essentially a running journal constantly shine through. Walden is series of short vignettes and everyday observations, descriptive paragraphs and flippant rants. Heck, the guy could be downright snarky at times:
As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.
“Ambitious booby!” I’d link to that! Acerbic wit aside, Thoreau was also prone to making wild statements off the top of his head, sometimes spilling over with wisdom, but often highlighting his inability to see that his grand vision might not be for everyone. In one section he describes the visit he paid to a poor Irish farmer, and how he explained to the guy that if he just quit his job and went to live in the woods (with his whole family!) that things would be groovy. It doesn’t take too much reading between the lines to imagine the farmer turning to his wife after Thoreau had left and saying “Jeez, what a jerk!” Which, again, has “blogger” written all over it—where would the blogosphere be without brilliant, eloquent people who are wrong as often as they are right?
I don’t know whether Thoreau’s day-to-day manuscripts are still available, but if they are, it would be quite easy to take them and post them sequentially, along the same lines as the Beatles Blog. Easy, but time-consuming, so I leave the task to some grad student studying American Transcendentalism with too much time on their hands.
Thoreau went to Walden loving simplicity, not nature, so it’s a little bit ironic that he’s best known as a nature writer and grandfather of the conservation movement. What he was was a writer, and his experiment in simplicity demanded that nature was what surrounded him, and so it was nature that he wrote about. Had he gotten it into his head that everybody should live ostentatiously instead of deliberately, he might have spent the time in Paris and written a very different book—though certainly one just as worth reading. Still, nature takes center stage fairly early on, to the benefit of a great many readers and nature lovers. I felt an unearthly tingle the whole time I was reading about his encounter with the loon, not least because I’ve played the very same game on Lake Anne-Marie in the Upper Peninsula. I’m tempted to quote the whole section, but it’s too long—go to the Gutenberg version, text-search for “As I was paddling,” and read on from there. Wonderful stuff.
Nature becomes Thoreau’s working material, but he’s ultimately interested in other things. Maybe it’s just as well that he wasn’t a blogger, because the necessity of somehow tying it all together is what made him think big. The call to heed our inner life never gets old, especially when the outer concerns are as shallow as they’ve ever been.
Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought. Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice. Yet some can be patriotic who have no self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay. Patriotism is a maggot in their heads.
When you’re thirty-two and the bulk of your day is spent attending to the needs and desires of a 10-month-old baby, the notion of hopping aboard a Santa Maria of the mind for some probing inner exploration sounds rather exhausting, frankly. But the real core of Walden’s message—live deliberately—still rings true, and I doubt its lustre will ever fade. Make choices about how you live your life. Strip it down and build it back up again on purpose. Don’t do something because society does it or your peers do it or the conventional wisdom says that it seems sensible—do it for your own good reasons. It’s stuff everyone needs to be reminded about now and again—I’m not going to let another fifteen years go by before I read Walden again.