‘Walden’ by Henry David Thoreau is a witty, refreshing book about a man at peace with the natural world around him.
Thoreau makes references to many varied subjects, and many different kinds of readers will find ways to relate to what he says. He refers to mythology, history, poetry, knowledge of plants and wildlife and carpentry, then comes full-circle and tells us what he is doing, but finally tells us that 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, when you can’t even see your hand before your face, and have to find your 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 to hunt and 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.
Thoreau questions what can be learned from others and encourages us to learn for ourselves.
Many visitors came to see Thoreau, more in summer and spring than in the icy winter when only the more adventurous came calling. They must have all enjoyed talking to Thoreau and he obviously liked talking to them. I cannot tell it better than Thoreau himself:
“At this season I seldom had a visitor.”
“Sometimes, notwithstanding the snow, when I returned from my walk at evening I crossed the deep tracks of a woodchopper leading from my front door, and found a pile of whittlings on the hearth, and my house filled with the oder of his pipe.”
“Or on a Sunday afternoon, if I chanced to be at home, I heard the crunching of the snow made by the step of a long-headed farmer, who from far through the woods sought my house, to have a social ‘crack’ … we talked of rude and simple times, when men sat about large fires in cold bracing weather, with clear
“The one who came from furthest to my lodge, through deepest snows and most dismal tempests, was a poet. A farmer, a hunter, a soldier, a reporter, even a philosopher, may be daunted; but nothing can deter a poet, for he is actuated by love.”
“(The poet and I) made that small house ring with boisterous mirth and resound with the murmer of much sober talk … At suitable intervals there were regular salutes of laughter, which might have been referred indifferently to the last muttered or forth-coming jest.”
Sometimes visitors told 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, 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 my world.
There were people in the 1800’s who believed lakes were bottomless, and the same was said about Walden Pond. Thoreau was the first to actually take depth measurements of the pond; in fact, he measured the lake from every corner and drew a diagram of the water body, both in width and depth. It turns out Walden Pond was not deep in some areas, but there was one big part of the pond that was over 100 feet deep! That’s pretty deep – and Thoreau points out that, if you compared the width of the oceans to their depth, Walden Pond is relatively deeper than the mysterious sea.
The conclusion to Thoreau’s work is to say that while we are eager to explore other lands, 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 giraffes would you want to hunt? Would you really even want to hunt them if they didn’t live so far away?
He says, “Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.” The idea is to 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