Being the current times what they are, I have been thinking a lot about Thoreau these days. His books Walden and Civil Disobedience have always appealed to me, but lately, his words have been resonating even more. Thoreau has been my spirit animal since I was 16 years old, and he is the reason why I say that “I don’t want to work my life away.”
Thoreau was allegedly not an easy person to like, but he was an easy person to admire. (Or, as Emerson put it: “I love Henry, but I cannot like him.”) The fact that he was unlikeable doesn’t bother me in the least. I admire his thoughts and respect his opinions. Thoreau lived his life the same way that I desire to. His retreat into the woods in order to live a quiet existence is a source of inspiration for me. Thoreau’s transcendental search for that place where man and nature meet compelled him to live life simply and with few attachments. He believed that nature was where humans could truly find themselves. Nature was from whence humans came into the world, and it was in nature where our inner life could only be found. Our cerebral selves innately identify with the language spoken by the greater outdoor world, and Thoreau’s intention was to sustain a dialogue with our organic natural selves. He went into nature in search of balance, a balance that he believed was inside all of us so long as we let ourselves go.
Thoreau didn’t believe that man needed all the accouterments that he weighs himself down with. He knew that life could be a lot simpler if man let go of his attachments and allowed more nature in. He believed that mankind didn’t need much in order to live. He didn’t believe that life needed to be poor, but he did believe that life didn’t need to be lived in excess. Man always wants too much. Thoreau tried telling man that he needed to want less, a lot less, in fact. Man, Thoreau believed, needed only as much as was necessary to sustain himself, anything else beyond that amounted to distraction.
I don’t know why it is human nature to always be so greedy. Man is never satisfied with anything that he has, and it is a natural feeling to always want more. It baffles me how mankind can behave so counter-intuitively when compared to how the natural world behaves. Plants never need more than what their nature dictates them to need, nor do animals eat beyond the point of satiation. So, why are we like the way that we are? How can we improve ourselves when we allow nature to be our mentor? This was the question that Thoreau asked himself when he lived for two years alone in a cabin in the woods. He worked the land just enough to sustain himself, and he sold the beans that he grew in order to make a small amount of cash. Most of the days were simply his to enjoy doing the things that he wanted to do. The art of simple living involved having simple tastes. He went for walks. He read. He wrote. He had visitors. He was himself. He was free.
Harnessing freedom was a driving factor that motivated Thoreau to go into the woods. He believed that modern civilization was a stranglehold on man’s ability to be his true self. It was impossible to be a natural human being when one does things exactly as society dictates one to do. Where is the self when the self is part of a greater whole? Conformity kills identity, and Thoreau cherished individualism. Thoreau just wanted to be. He practiced non-resistance and tried to accept life, all life, just as it was. He believed that to live well, one needed to live life at its core — without paraphernalia, naked and raw. He believed that a beautiful life was one that was lived in stillness with plenty of time allotted for thought.
Unfortunately, it seems that today there is never enough time available to think with modern life being as busy as it is. I believe wholeheartedly in Thoreau’s philosophies; however, I find it almost impossible to fully embrace his mantras due to my own personal attachments. I guess that it’s one thing to admire Thoreau and a whole something else to emulate him. I can get into the zen on my days off, but the whole thing gets blown the moment I have to go to work for twelve hours at a time for several days at a stretch. The balance is all thrown off once I have to submit to do what is expected of me for an extended period of time that I do end up losing myself. I become one with the system. Yet, the more I read about Thoreau, the more I think that he was right. I am exactly the sort of person that Thoreau was referring to when he said that people have submitted too much to the system. I never really thought of myself as a conformist, but I now know that I am. Thoreau has proved that to me.
Thoreau believed that an individual didn’t need to rely on anyone else other than oneself. It was his exercise in self-reliance that resonates with me the most. I have thought about quitting my job and holing myself up in a cabin in the woods on many occasions, but I get discouraged whenever I look at the price of real estate. I know that Thoreau built himself a shack to live in, but he only endured it for two years. I, however, always search for something a little more substantial when I peruse the real estate listings. I suppose that I am not doing the simple living thing right when I desire to live in a place with insulation and proper heating. I always consider the prospect of building an efficient tiny house someplace, but I can never find a plot of land that doesn’t impose some arbitrary minimum square footage requirements. I can buy land someplace that has no access to water that I could put a tiny house on, but then my entire existence would revolve around having to find a source of water every day. Thoreau was able to stay in his hometown, and he didn’t have to give up the comforts of friends and family. But, to live like how he did nowadays requires an off-grid solution and a complete removal from society.
Another thing that people can’t do today that Thoreau could easily do was sell enough beans at a market to sustain a meager living. First of all, one needs to spend money before one can even make money. One has to purchase a vendor’s permit, a health permit, a business license, a canopy tent, and all the other paraphernalia that goes along with it before one can even think about selling food for a living. Then one has to subtract a portion of that earned income to pay business-related taxes and other miscellaneous fees. Whatever money Thoreau made selling beans might have sustained his frugal existence, but no one could replicate what he did and still survive on an equivalent amount today. To work the land and sell at a farmer’s market now requires a serious commitment and a whole lot of land on which to grow things. The days of hobby farming are over unless one wants to simply grow enough food to sustain oneself, which would be a modification of the Thoreauvian philosophy. The land wouldn’t provide income, but it would provide sustenance. Earning money would have to be achieved by some other means, which unfortunately puts one at risk of falling into the system again. It’s a circuitous track when I try to invent a modern Thoreau system, but I think that the problem lies with me, not with him. I think that I not only want too much, but I expect too much. I have gotten too used to being comfortable with my standard of living. I am very much a part of the machine, and I fear that I would be a cog in my own wheel if I tried anything different. I think that I’m afraid of letting go of everything that I built up because doing so would make me feel like I would be left floating. Oh, man, I think that I just heard myself say something when I wrote that. Floating. Free. That was Thoreau’s whole point. One must remove the known ground that one stands on in order to find freedom. The floor just doesn’t drop away on its own, one has to consciously remove it. I have to want to let go if I want to be the change I desire to be.
Life doesn’t need to cost as much as we think it does. Indeed, living in America has gotten more expensive since Thoreau’s day, and attaining a simple life isn’t as simple anymore due to inflation and certain unavoidable expenses. Yet, I can’t help but wonder what exactly made Thoreau different from any of us. What reason do we have not to quit our jobs and retreat into a more natural existence? Why do men allow themselves to live lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau so eloquently put it? What prevents so many of us from living well or living the life we would prefer to carve out for ourselves? Is the reason because we are all too scared to actually live?
Not only has life gotten more expensive, but it has gotten more convoluted. Never was there a time when people needed to simplify more than now, but simplifying is not something that people are even remotely thinking about doing. We want more, always more, and we will go to whatever lengths we need to in order to get it all now before someone beats us to it. There is no “nature” in our quest to satisfy our insatiable appetite that can never be fulfilled. We are not nature anymore because we have reduced ourselves to concrete. We have become the cities that we created. We have turned our backs on nature and have built inward, hardening our internal organs in the process. We breathe in exhaust fumes and pollution and fail to see the stars at night. Modern cities exist to cater to the needs of the people; they are not built for the benefit of the natural world. It matters not where wildlife has to go when it’s more important to put up a strip mall where the fox den used to be.
Thoreau really tried to create a new world order when he wrote Walden. His book was not only a meditation, but it was also a manifesto. He knew that a future where humans lacked a connection to the natural world was going to be a grim one. His life in the cabin was a demonstration of how the future could be saved. A life well balanced needn’t be that hard, but how would anyone know that? We have lost our natural equilibrium long ago and have gotten used to walking in a state of perpetual intoxication. Thoreau’s notions might have been slightly idealistic, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that he was also absolutely correct.
I believe that embracing even a small measure of his philosophies can bring nothing but good into the world. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a calmer person and allowing oneself to be more receptive to nature. Thoreau believed in taking long walks every day and witnessing how nature unfolded in every season. He believed that exposing oneself to the wild world allowed one to feel small. Man sometimes thinks that he is bigger and more important than he is. Only nature is brave enough to tell us that we are nothing but a bunch of braggarts. What fools we will prove to have been when we destroy nature to such a degree that we will leave no place for anything to live. Valuing nature is critical for human survival, but it’s difficult to care about something when one conveniently forgets that something even exists. To man, nature is there only when he wants it to be, otherwise man’s impact on the greater outdoors is largely out of sight, out of mind.
Our dependence on fossil fuels, clean water, rare earth minerals, and plastic containers are just a few examples of things that everyone casually takes for granted, not realizing how the overuse of such products is detrimental to the long-term survival of the planet. To embrace Thoreau’s word of warning, what everyone needs to do is scale back even more than they think that they need to. We all don’t need to live in a cabin in the woods to give us a reason to treat the planet with more kindness, as we should all be conscientious of our actions anyway. Yet, it seems that we are not conscientious of anything. We are more like a nation of natural-born zombies that go around ravenously devouring everything in our path. Humans have never been the best role models when it comes to environmental preservation, but it almost goes without saying that we have enacted some grievously worse environmental policies since Thoreau’s day.
I am happy to know that a man of Thoreau’s caliber existed at one time. It gives me hope that the world has the capacity to make another like him someday.
thank you for reading!