“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.”
After reading Annie Dillard’s remarkable Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Walden, doubtless an inspiration for Dillard, seemed a natural next step. Walden is a book I’ve had in my possession for some time, not that this prevented me from buying (yes..buying) a beautiful new copy from the MacMillan Collector’ Library range. It is perhaps so famous that there is little point in me saying much about it here, but for those who aren’t familiar Walden is the record Thoreau made of his time spent living simply in the woods by Walden pond just outside the town of Concord, Massachusetts. The woods were owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, another prestigious philosopher/naturalist and another influence of Dillard’s (also Marilynne Robinson cites Emerson as a key influence). During his time at Walden pond, Thoreau sought to live simply and self-sufficiently, reliant on neither bought goods nor society, though it appears he had plenty of company during his time there.
The book itself is composed of a series of essays, the first of which ‘Economy’ is the longest and perhaps the most striking, but also somewhat different in tone and theme to the rest of the book. In it Thoreau expounds his views on reliance, debt and poverty, on how a man (and I think where he refers to ‘man’ he means male, much of what he proposes would not have been open to women of the time) could live without the need for support from others and how people run themselves into debt trying to attain social status, or out of the natural grind of trying to produce or acquire more than is strictly needed. He derides ‘fashion’ and the social pressure to strive for a bigger house, for admiration, for property and status. Published in 1854, and written around ten years before that, his observations have remarkable currency such that it could be someone writing now about the consumerist society and irrepressible lure of the internet which both reduces distance but exposes us to debilitating desires. Because more is available, we want more. But what do we really want and, more than that, what do we actually need? Thoreau proposes a different way of living, one which involves greater connection and less dependency, but also fewer things. Thoreau proves that it can be done by doing it, and he shows that such a life isn’t terrible either in terms of deprivation or isolation.
The rest of the essays deal with Thoreau’s time in the woods, his observations and experiences. Like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the essays are often focused on particular aspects of the experience like solitude and the natural sounds, life on the pond, his neighbours, the merits of a life lived intimately with nature. Thoreau, like Emerson before him, expounds the virtue of nature in opposition to modern, consumerist society in which man is pitched against man in an endless battle of want. He sees his diminished existence as undiminished because he has traded stuff for experience, debt for self-sufficiency and gossip for the sound of the whippoorwill and the cackle of the ducks in the morning as they go about their business. He doesn’t present it as something idyllic but rather something which meets a need that we all have deep within us, as he describes here:
“We need the tonic of wildness – to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed because we are unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigour, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thundercloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pastured freely where we never wander.”
Despite its moments of beauty, its sharp wisdom and honest appraisal of what constitutes a lived life, Walden is a difficult book. At its core is something marvellous and true, something which asks the reader to consider what they truly need in life and whether everything that’s offered to us – be it the railroad or the internet, newspapers or social media – is really what we want or need. But around all of that is Thoreau who on one hand writes beautifully but on the other often resorts to proselytising or, in the worst case, preaching, who is critical of his neighbours and lacks empathy for their struggles (though doubtless many lacked empathy for his chosen life). There are elements which are complete clap-trap; Thoreau is inconsistent and I couldn’t help thinking as I was reading that his ability to conduct this experiment, in his proof of the need not to ‘work’ to pay ‘rent’, was entirely reliant on the generosity of a friend, an advantage that many of his neighbours would not have. Perhaps it is because his experience was so at odds with what his social peers would expect that he had to write with such certainty and persuasive tones, but at times it turned me cold and when he presented himself as a poet-philosopher, sometimes it just felt like a pose. But then he was writing in the 1850s, in a very different place with quite a different social experience and perhaps that alone was enough to create a sense of dissonance between me as the reader and Thoreau as the writer. Or perhaps it is just that I’ve picked up Walden on the back of reading Dillard and Thoreau lacks Dillard’s warmth and openness but has an abundance of judgementalism which I recognise because it is a trait he and I share but which Dillard does not.
All reservations aside, Walden is a fascinating book; one which provokes thought and self-reflection. Despite the dissonance in outlook, his desire to “live deliberately” resonates strongly with me, and whilst I can’t take myself off to live in a cabin in the woods I can choose to stop reacting to what’s around me – all the pulls and lures and demands and expectations – and decide what those essential facts of life are, so that I, too, can truly live before I die. Just as Thoreau did.