We often talk about writer's lives & habits as much as their actual work, and this is good. But I recently re-read "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau and I would like to get into the content of the work itself. Walden is a witty, refreshing look at a man at peace with the natural world around him and bears some re-visiting.
Thoreau makes references to many things, so many different readers can relate to what he says. He refers to mythology, history, poetry, knowledge of plants & wildlife & carpentry, and then he even comes full-circle and tells us what he is doing, but then says none of those things matter as much as living life in the present without pretense. Chapter 1, Economy:
"The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles! What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant? We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour; ay, in all the worlds of the ages. History, Poetry, Mythology! - I know of no reading of another's experience so startling and informing as this would be."
We know Thoreau went to live on Walden Pond, but you should read his description of late dark night, solid black night, walking through the woods, you can't even see your hand before your face; and finding his way by the familiar marks - roots or trees, clearings, dense brush - the babble of a brook off to the left or right. The owl meets you eye to eye.
To build his cabin, Thoreau says he had to borrow an axe, but he returned it sharper than when he got it. He believes there are natural laws which transcend the written laws of the land. These natural laws are, as it were, written upon our hearts or in our minds. He lays out the cost of his house, item by item (boards, nails, used brick, hinges & screws, etc.) and it come to $28.12. Not bad. He grew beans and hunted & fished, but apparently came to the conclusion that eating fruit & vegetables was superior to meat in that it was cleaner (to use his word). But he says it's not a bad idea for all young men hunt & fish as teenagers for the experience. He seems to have little interest in alcohol or coffee, preferring water as his main drink. He asks why people make such a big deal over what clothes we wear when even the Bible says a poor beggar can come to the temple to worship God.
He questions what can be learned from others and encourages us to learn for ourselves.
Thoreau met wood cutters, farmers, poets, and fishermen and respected them all as they respected him. Sometimes visitors would tell stories about visiting Thoreau and then getting lost in the woods upon leaving, sometimes in rain or mist! Ah, can you dig what an experience that would be - taking a wrong turn in Walden woods after a talk with Henry David and off to find yourself and your bearings - I get the same feel today when driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood after jazzing my mind with some good enlightening fellowship and setting out on my own, temporarily lost until some familiar landmark brings me back to earth . . .
The conclusion to Thoreau's work is to say, we are so eager to explore other lands yet we often don't even know our own "back yard". He says, what if a rich person could afford to go on a safari to Africa to hunt giraffe? If you could really do that, just how many giraffe would you want to hunt? Would you really even want to hunt them if they didn't live so far away? Instead of dreaming of other lands, why not explore our own back yards so to speak. He takes it a step further. He says, "Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought." The idea of exploring your mind. You don't have to leave home to take the trip.
"The life in us is like the water in the river." - Henry David Thoreau