Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Solitary Life

In Thoreau’s Walden, he says, "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."

It’s probably the most famous quote from Thoreau’s journals, written in the mid-1840s right after he built a small 10x15 cabin on his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s woodlot. Millions of people since then have taken it as the clarion call for a stab at their own mystical wilderness experiences, and a fine set of words they are. But the truth is, as deliberate a life as he might have lived, as solitary as he may have been, secluded he was not.

His rude cabin on the shores of Walden Pond was a mere mile and a half from Concord, and within calling distance of a spot where two active roads converged. Emerson allowed him to build his cabin in exchange for some work around the 14-acre property—namely clearing away brush and replanting trees--and Thoreau used his time there to write.

He was not a hermit, even though he called himself one fairly often in his writings. Turns out it was tongue-in-cheek, even though, again, the legend lives on. He was a mere 23 years old when he moved to Walden Pond, and he lived there for only two years before moving into Emerson’s house in town.

When I was younger and locked away in the city, I read Walden (and later, Civil Disobedience, when "disobedience" against the ruling factions was still seen as our patriotic right, if not our duty).

In the midst of the chaos of my young life, the thought of living so simply in a small cabin in the woods was heartbreakingly seductive. Thoreau did it when he was broke and without a job, and it worked for him—yes it did. So why not? And during a fair number of fleeting moments, I worked at devising an escape plan that would take me away and plunk me down in a Walden Pond of my own.

Apparently I wasn’t alone. I swear, it’s what kept multitudes of us city-dwellers going. So imagine my surprise when I discovered just how close to town Walden Pond really was? How unlike any kind of wilderness Thoreau’s setting really was? Instantly, I thumbed my nose at him—lousy dilettante!—and dropped him from my then nearly-stagnant list of role models.

I looked on his writings then as silly (Cultivate the habit of early rising. It is unwise to keep the head long on a level with the feet) and puffy (I stand in awe of my body)—an ode to his unworthy self. Who did he think he was, anyway? Well, it turns out he was a writer, and a pretty good one. That’s why the longevity. (Consider this: Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself than this incessant business. And this: Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.)

He was a blogger of his time, and I can’t help but imagine a 23-year-old Henry writing about his simple life today:

“Pulled up some weeds this AM, and got a couple rows of beans planted. Jeez, what a job! How’d I get into this, anyway? Oh, yeah, now I remember. Waldo’s fault. He says, “Want to build you a house on my property over there? You can blog yourself to death, and all I want is some of that brush cleared and a few trees going in.”

So I said, Cool! It’s quiet there. Nobody to bother me while I’m thinking thoughts. I said, throw in WiFi and you got yourself a deal!”

Look here for more on Henry David Thoreau.


  1. This was a timely and interesting post. I'm reading thru his book a 2nd time - trying to digest it. I've picked out the quotes I've identified with and loved (some are placed on my blogs) - but sometimes his "judgments" are a little hard to take. Seeing the Dick Proenneke documentary "Alone in the Wildnerness" had more of a profound influence me and definitely helped lead to building our log home.

  2. Hi Shelly, thanks for commenting. I've only seen bits and pieces of "Alone in the Wilderness" on YouTube, and it's fascinating. When we were a lot younger we dreamed of living a kind of pseudo-wilderness life. (Not DEEP wilderness. . .neither of us were exactly hermits, but I had read many books about couples taking off into the hinterlands and living simply, and I could see us doing that--for at least a little while.)
    But when the time came when we finally could go almost anywhere we wanted, we also had to come to terms with the fact that we were probably too old to live that kind of dream. Instead, we chose a cabin surrounded by nature but still close enough to the byways.
    The nearest hospital is a ferry-ride and an hour's drive away, and when we bought our cabin 15 years ago and moved up here, we acknowledged that there would come a time when health restrictions for one or both of us would force us to move closer to the cities. A terrible thought but here we are, 15 years later, and we're still relatively healthy and having a go at living in a place we love! Maybe that's why we enjoy it so much--because we know it can't last forever.
    I'm enjoying reading your blog, Shelly. There is still so much I have to learn about adding things to mine. But I'm working on it!