This is the first of Henry David Thoreau (pronounced like "thorough") I've ever read, and also
his most famous. It was published in 1854, written in the two year period when he lived in a cabin he built himself near Walden
Pond, which looks more like a lake to me, on land owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, just outside Concord Massachusetts, where Thoreau was born. I
found the beginning rather difficult reading, as his thoughts rambled on, constantly making new discoveries about life, and also making strange, to me,
metaphors, or comparisons, as he perceived the world in a unique way, especially for his time. Reading became easier as I went along. And after the
first section, which was more "philosophical," most of the rest was his experiences in the two years he lived in the woods. That part was
very easy reading, and totally entertaining. The last two sections, Spring and Conclusion, again became deeply philosophical.
He was a friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose works I also often find difficult to read, and I've read many, and of Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May Alcott.
Thoreau was . . . gosh, he was so many things, where do I begin? He was a Transcendentalist, like the people named above. The blurb on the back of my copy of this Dover edition, which may be different than the updated one pictured, but probably not, calls him a "naturalist, essayist, and early environmentalist."
Walden offers abundant evidence of Thoreau's ability to begin with observations on a mundane incident or the minutiae of nature and then develop these observations into profound ruminations on the most fundamental human concerns, Credited with influencing Tolstoy, Gandhi and other thinkers, the volume remains a masterpiece of philosophical reflection.
Wikipedia adds Martin Luther King, Jr.. About Thoreau, they also say that he was a lifelong abolitionist, and practiced
civil disobedience, of which he also wrote an important work. It seems, at least from what I perceive is being expressed in this present volume, that he
did not see himself as a good man, but I'm not sure he saw humanity as being good at all, and to that I absolutely relate. Fortunately, history
remembers him differently. Thoreau was born in 1817, and died in 1862 at the way-too-early age of 44 from tuberculosis, which also claimed the lives of his
both his elder and younger sisters. His elder brother died of tetanus, both terrible diseases to have suffered.
In spite of his short life, Thoreau was able to author a great many works. As we learn in these essays, he labored only enough to support himself with necessities, therefore having time to do what was important. I found a great many of his ideals harmonious with mine, although some decidedly not. However, had I lived back in his time, I believe I absolutely would have welcomed the lifestyle in which he lived. Compared to the way most people live today, at least here in the U.S., I suppose I do live much like him.
I was pleased to find Project Gutenberg offers a page on the works of Thoreau, as I expected they would. While it appears the list is small, upon glancing through, many are collections containing a number of the short works listed on Wikipedia, so I suspect most of them are available as eBooks. Having a digital text available online makes it SO much easier to write a review, because doing quotes is only a matter of copy and paste. Therefore, many quotes from this book will appear here. Really, the work is filled with potential quotes, and I found myself jotting down pages and pages of notes. But I will begin with what might perhaps be the most important quote from the book. It comes from the second section, "Where I Lived and What I Lived For," here quoted from Wikipedia's page on Walden . Part of it is on a plaque in the park, mentioned at the end.
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.
It takes courage to reduce one's life to its barest bones.
Before I go on to the book, I want to include the first paragraph from Wikipedia's page on Transcendentalism, which will help make sense of Thoreau's ideals.
Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement that developed in the late 1820s and 1830s in the eastern United States. A core belief is in the inherent goodness of people and nature, and while society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual, people are at their best when truly "self-reliant" and independent. Transcendentalists saw divine experience inherent in the every day, rather than believing in a distant heaven. Transcendentalists saw physical and spiritual phenomena as part of dynamic processes rather than discrete entities.
And now, on to the book. Wikipedia says: "The text is a reflection upon simple living in natural
surroundings. The work is part personal declaration of independence, social
experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, satire, and—to some degree—a manual for self-reliance." I will take it from there.
The first section, "Economy," is the longest, taking up 52 pages in this edition, but focusing on different themes. The beginning theme, "economy," contains Thoreau's general thoughts about how he sees the local people living before his decision to move into the woods. He speaks of farmers in particular, who live on lands they inherited with a debt that will probably be passed down to the next generation, no matter how hard they work. He begins with satire:
The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor. They have no friend Iolas to burn with a hot iron the root of the hydra's head, but as soon as one head is crushed, two spring up.
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 wood-lot! The portionless, who struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.
This is the theme that continues throughout the book. Why do people burden themselves with debt and
all those things that created the debt—farms, homes, furniture, ornaments,
clothing? Certainly not only has nothing changed here in 2021, but with credit cards and easy loans, not to mention the incomprehensible government deficit, we
as a nation and race are drowning in debts that will never be paid off. (Not all of us . . . .) This was the inspiration for Thoreau to break down life into
it most essential needs, then put the rest of his focus on observation, discovery, and enjoyment of all things natural and simple. He says, "The
mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation," and again, it applies now even more.
He also speaks of breaking away from the norms; what is considered the "conventional" way to live. "So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change." And today, we see that antiquated attitude killing all life on earth. People who are unable to see the truths plainly before their very eyes, and unable to not only speak out, but change their toxic behavior. Really, if he were alive today, he would fit right in with the people in my circle—those who value truth, independent thinking, and of course an immense respect for Nature.
He reduces what is necessary to four items: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. He notes that most luxuries are not only indispensible, but positive hindrances. Just look at us today. We are surrounded by toxic gadgets that not only are making us sick, they are making us stupid. We are drowning in a sea of trash, and will inevitably cause our own extinction, with all or most life on earth, buried in a sea of useless junk. Thoreau says, "None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty." I've been saying that for years. No one who does NOT adjust to this ideal has a chance to survive what is coming.
The next sub-theme in this section is clothing. Of this he says:
I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit? If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes.
Again, he stresses growth and change, from the inside, and uses these necessities to exemplify his theme of
expanding outside one's comfort zone. He says, comparing clothing to bird feathers, "Our moulting season, like that of the fowls, must be a crisis
in our lives." And even more appropriate for today, "The condition of the operatives is becoming every day more like that of the English; and it
cannot be wondered at, since, as far as I have heard or observed, the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably,
that corporations may be enriched."
The next necessity is shelter, and he questions whether one needs it at all, saying that mankind "was at first bare and out of doors," but concludes that weather made shelter a necessity. He says, "every child begins the world again," by playing "house" and finding shelters in caves, for instance. With me, it was "tents." My mother used to put a huge bedspread over the dining room table and I played with my dolls under there. It was my own little "house." In the winter it was snow igloos.
The rest of this section compares housing; the homes of the well-off and the shanties of the poor, but he also points out that, again the rich are in debt. He says, at that time, only three families in Concord actually owned their farms. He also describes dwellings of the Native Americans, who he referred to as "savages," which I found offensive but he didn't mean it that way. He points out that the "savage" was actually degraded by civilization. Yes, I agree with that.
Next Thoreau tells in detail how he built his tiny little house, begun "near the end of March, 1845" with a borrowed ax on the site he had chosen near the pond. As his goal was to do with as little as possible, much of the building materials were second-hand. Of course he had the trees right there to chop and hone, and he dug a little root cellar beneath. Also included were two nice windows, a door, a garret, a very nice fireplace, and a little woodshed out back. I stress the word "little" because it was 10x15 feet with 8 foot posts! In the end, the cost was $28.12 1/2. Not sure what the 1/2 meant, and though that seems a trifling to us today, it was actually around the same cost as a college student's yearly board. He is very meticulous throughout the book on many occasions, and in this one, he has itemized his expenses for us.
Before he completes his house, he hoes up about two-and-a-half acres, in which he plants mostly beans, but also potatoes, peas, turnips and corn, in order to make about "ten or twelve dollars by some honest and agreeable method," which would be his yearly income. He points out that he will only spend about six weeks altogether in labor, and have the rest of the year to study and do more important things. I really mostly agree with his attitude toward money, although I was not always like this, and he was not either. His second summer, he only planted a third of an acre and grew what he needed to feed himself. Incidentally, he did not drink coffee, tea, or alcohol, and ate little to no meat. He ends up making 8.74 in profit from his little agricultural venture, plus doing some other odd jobs.
He goes on to speak of architecture, furniture, and more on the economy. He supported getting rid of excess belongings by throwing them away, and describes a Mucclasse Indian rite that does just that, as a form of cleansing and starting anew. He tells an amusing story about the auction of a late deacon's effects:
As usual, a great proportion was trumpery which had begun to accumulate in his father's day. Among the rest was a dried tapeworm. And now, after lying half a century in his garret and other dust holes, these things were not burned; instead of a bonfire, or purifying destruction of them, there was an auction, or increasing of them. The neighbors eagerly collected to view them, bought them all, and carefully transported them to their garrets and dust holes, to lie there till their estates are settled, when they will start again. When a man dies he kicks the dust.
I don't particularly agree with the throwing away and burning, especially in these days, where people had
better learn to "reuse, reduce, recycle." By the time I throw something away, there's not much left to it. Anyways, enough of this section.
The next is entitled "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," and it is where the quote at the beginning of this review is from. Beginning here, the
book is divided into chapters, of sorts.
In this quote, he describes his feelings for his new temporary home:
Both place and time were changed, and I dwelt nearer to those parts of the universe and to those eras in history which had most attracted me. Where I lived was as far off as many a region viewed nightly by astronomers. We are wont to imagine rare and delectable places in some remote and more celestial corner of the system, behind the constellation of Cassiopeia's Chair, far from noise and disturbance. I discovered that my house actually had its site in such a withdrawn, but forever new and unprofaned, part of the universe. If it were worth the while to settle in those parts near to the Pleiades or the Hyades, to Aldebaran or Altair, then I was really there, or at an equal remoteness from the life which I had left behind, dwindled and twinkling with as fine a ray to my nearest neighbor, and to be seen only in moonless nights by him.
And here is yet another socio-political view that is so appropriate for our time. And this in the
mid-nineteenth century. We have indeed gone downhill!
The nation itself, with all its so called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it as for them is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast.
He speaks at length about reading, the classics, especially, in the language in which they were written, Greek and Latin, which were not the same as the language that was spoken, which I did not know. At that time, there were no translations, so he did some. At least two, one of Pindar and one of Aeschylus are included in Project Gutenberg's Excursions, and Poems. He then makes some very satirical remarks of the popular reading materials in Concord! This is the way I feel about those who read trashy romance novels!!
There is a work in several volumes in our Circulating Library entitled Little Reading, which I thought referred to a town of that name which I had not been to. There are those who, like cormorants and ostriches, can digest all sorts of this, even after the fullest dinner of meats and vegetables, for they suffer nothing to be wasted. If others are the machines to provide this provender, they are the machines to read it. They read the nine thousandth tale about Zebulon and Sephronia, and how they loved as none had ever loved before, and neither did the course of their true love run smooth,—at any rate, how it did run and stumble, and get up again and go on! how some poor unfortunate got up on to a steeple, who had better never have gone up as far as the belfry; and then, having needlessly got him up there, the happy novelist rings the bell for all the world to come together and hear, O dear! how he did get down again!
He then goes on to speak about sounds, which, I thought would be about the birds and creatures of the woods, but was more about the noisy trains, and the track that ran along the opposite end of the lake. He goes on about bells, compares the lowing of cattle to the sound of certain singing minstrels, (and he did not mean it insultingly); he speaks of the Whippoorwills who sang punctually at 7:30 p.m. outside his door for part of the summer; baying dogs, rumbling wagons, bullfrogs—but my favorite was the screech owl.
They are the spirits, the low spirits and melancholy forebodings, of fallen souls that once in human shape night-walked the earth and did the deeds of darkness, now expiating their sins with their wailing hymns or threnodies in the scenery of their transgressions. They give me a new sense of the variety and capacity of that nature which is our common dwelling. Oh-o-o-o-o that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n! sighs one on this side of the pond, and circles with the restlessness of despair to some new perch on the gray oaks. Then—that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n! echoes another on the farther side with tremulous sincerity, and—bor-r-r-r-n! comes faintly from far in the Lincoln woods.
Solitude is his next theme, and he states that at one brief moment he felt lonely, but never after that. I absolutely empathize with this feeling:
I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was something unpleasant. But I was at the same time conscious of a slight insanity in my mood, and seemed to foresee my recovery. In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary, and also that the nearest of blood to me and humanest was not a person nor a villager, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.
However, the next section is about his visitors, and he received many—sometimes people he knew, and other
times, wanderers through the woods. He says, humorously, "I had more visitors while I lived in the woods than at any other period in my life; I mean
that I had some." He also stated that he's had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under his roof. Oh, my. He points out that,
having only three chairs, most opted for standing. He also said that he would
often come home to find he had missed a visitor, who left a calling card—some flowers or a message scratched on a leaf.
After that, he talks humorously of his bean field, whose rows, end-to-end, came to seven miles! He was very big on math and statistics! Much of the humor about his bean field was derived from gossip he overheard. He says, "Fellow-travellers as they rattled by compared it aloud with the fields which they had passed, so that I came to know how I stood in the agricultural world. This was one field not in Mr. Coleman's report." And he puts more words into the mouths of birds, like the brown thrasher, who says (as he planted the seeds), "Drop it, drop it,—cover it up, cover it up,—pull it up, pull it up, pull it up." No doubt, Thoreau was a man able to find humor and delight in even the most mundane experiences. This is a reward of living a simple life, not bogged down with materialism. He also mentions digging up ancient implements, a clue to those living long ago, who once occupied the land.
And he ends the section with this sobering thought, with which I also agree. When I was a child, growing food was a vocation, not a profession, and to that I have returned.
By avarice and selfishness, and a grovelling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives. He knows Nature but as a robber.
Thoreau worked in his bean field from morning until noon, then spent the rest of the day often exploring,
walking many miles. He went into the village nearly every day, and walked home late at night with no light, relying on tree markers, even in the dark, for
instance, a certain place where two trees were very close together. That amazed me, and it is something we have lost in our modern world of lights and
flashlights. Just try it, even on your own property, and see how difficult it is to get around. I have had some incidents that downright disturbed me
because, here on my own property which I have known for 65 years, I've become disoriented in the dark.
I will end this long review here, even though I still have pages of notes left, and so many other interesting comments to make. But I will end with this: Perhaps of all Thoreau's mingling with nature in this experiment, it was the pond itself that he held in highest awe and reverence. He fished in it, swam in it, bathed in it, took midnight boat excursions, marveled at its uniqueness and wonderful colors. He measured it through the ice—did actual depth soundings, which apparently no one had done before, because many thought it was bottomless. He even mapped it, including its depths at different places. According to Wikipedia, it was formed by retreating glaciers, which accounted for its abnormal depth for such a relatively small body of water. He also wrote of its history and cycle of vastly different depths over a great many years, which was apparent to him by the shoreline and trees. It was fed by an underground spring, though, at least in his time, no one could find it. In the winter, he spent hours analyzing and marveling over its ice bubbles.
According to Thoreau (and these figures differ in the Wikipedia article), it was a half-mile long and one-and-three-quarters miles in circumference, taking up sixty-one-and-a-half acres. The greatest depth is one-hundred two feet, not so deep but I wouldn't want to fall through the ice in that spot in the winter Yet he seemed not to care, and spent much time on it during those months, also using it as a shorter route to leaving the woods and entering the village.
I cannot tell you how highly I recommend reading this book, especially if you support simple living and reverence toward nature. If you don't perhaps you should read this book to change your foul ways! Thoreau's map is included in both this paper book and the digital book linked above. I plan to read more of this great author's works.
Below is a reconstruction of Thoreau's house near Walden Pond. The actual original site was marked by a cairn, or pile of rocks in 1908, and is now marked by granite posts. The whole Walden area is part of a state park and recreation site, and because of Thoreau, is also a National Historic Landmark, and that is good.
All material on this site copyright © 2021 by Laughing Crow.
This site designed and written by Laughing Crow.