Over a hundred and sixty (160) years ago Henry David Thoreau (HDT) published ‘Walden or Life in the Woods.’ Some number of years ago (undefined without so much thought or effort here) I read the book for the first time. Recently I finished it again.
What do I understand differently between the first time and the last time I read this classic outdoors manifesto of independence from the unnatural complexity of modern life?
Well, as a teenager I felt like HDT was kind of an old man complaining a lot. I did like the fact that he was outside and mostly working for his own interests. Now I feel more like that man complaining a lot (I’m not old damn it! Get off my lawn!).
What happened? Well, I did get closer to his age when he wrote the book and did for a while complicate my life immeasurably despite the advantage of having read his most famous book (Is it? To me it is…).
As a kid (in the 20th century) you mostly did what you wanted with your ‘free‘ time. (see also Goonies) Hike, ride bikes, throw rocks, swim in ponds, camp, fish…. anytime and nearly anywhere*. As an adult participating in these ventures in the same carefree manner might result in arrest, fines, loss of home, and possibly loss of privileges to continue with that outdoorsy lifestyle (access or permits).
With responsibilities taking up most people’s time and preventing them from living a natural life…we spend much of our time fretting about things that matter ONLY as much as we let them. HDT advocated for a simpler life in order to cast off the yoke of ‘civilization and get back to nature. How do you do that in today’s society?
Till recently, living within our means with a very small footprint was mostly counter to societal pressures. To show how successful you are one had to acquire more. The drive for more Starbucks, more channels, bigger cars, and better clothes, occupies the minds of most people either consciously or subconsciously.
Recently an ebb of this mode of thought has dragged many off the hallowed mound of super-consumerism. Tiny houses, sustainable living, off-grid, vanlife, self reliance, and small gardens in front or back yards… all these ideals used to be the domain of war time conservation, hippies, extremists and other outliers.
Have we as a species lost touch with nature at the risk of our own demise? Like a swarm of locust demolishing and unbalancing ecosystems, then moving on to the next… Pandemics, pollution, and resource scarcity could imply, ‘yes’. How close are you to the natural world? How much waste do you create?
In your head contemplate these questions:
- When was the last time you sat under a tree and just watched a day go by with no agenda (or even a part of a day)?
- How much do you understand the natural world in your region, the natural behavior of the animals, and how flora/fauna work together?
- Do you get all of your food from the grocery store?
- Do you have the skills to live if food was not available at the store?
- How much food do you throw away?
- How often do you over eat?
Yea, I am guilty too…
HDT advocated for a simpler life, with less, in order to become richer and more fulfilled. The less you have/need the more fulfilled you can be.
I feel like as an adult I might actually understand HDT’s drive to ‘tune in and drop out‘ (to borrow from another outlier) like the hippies that came so many years after him and the generation right now who are looking for experiences rather than ‘shiiii….er….stuff’.
HDT’s ideal was that a division of labor has resulted in us not having the skills to do much on our own. We might learn chemistry from experts and from books in classrooms or laboratories but not how to make bread…
* As a kid I had frequent run ins with ranchers and sometimes the law for trespassing to get to lakes, streams, and ponds where I knew there were good fish. Sometimes the owners or blockers of access were cool with my access. Other times they were the opposite of cool.. shooting or calling the sheriff.