So goes one of my favorite quotes from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; Or Life in the Woods. Thoreau’s metaphor speaks volumes to his intent in writing Walden and in seeking a life of self-reliance and kinship with nature.
Today, the morning wind still blows, but it is drowned out by the rapid pace of 21st-century life. The poem of creation continues uninterrupted, don’t get me wrong, but with so much competing for our attention these days, it seems a monumental task to switch off all the distractions and listen to the quiet whispers of the earth.
So what does it mean to revisit Walden in 2018? After reading an article questioning whether or not Walden Pond itself will exist in the future, I’ve decided to dive back into Thoreau’s text to see what there is to provide a little guidance and respite for today’s world.
Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at;
Much of Thoreau’s first chapter, “Economy,” is an account of how little he spent on basics such as food, clothing, and shelter. He uses this information as a reminder of how little in life is actually necessary for survival. (We’ll gloss over the fact that Thoreau did not have to buy the land on which he built his cabin.) The things that Thoreau considers unnecessary are viewed as extravagances or distractions. In this quote, Thoreau makes that point clear: all our inventions are simply toys that distract us from reality.
Such a claim resonates across the ages because it takes aim at the very nature of progress and technological advancement. For Thoreau, simplicity is always more desirable than progress, because progress distracts us from living meaningfully.
The items we create, the advancements we make, they are praised as “improved means” but they serve “an unimproved end.” In other words, getting caught up in progress for its own sake can blind us from what’s valuable, what’s important, and what’s necessary.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.
The first part of this quote is one of the most oft consulted from Walden; however, its meaning is a little vague, a result of Thoreau’s penchant for scattering ambiguous aphorisms throughout his works. (This is common among transcendentalists, who wanted their readers to come to their own conclusions.) If we unpack this, the “quiet desperation” that Thoreau claims the mass of humanity experiences is due to their having forgotten an important truth: they can choose how to conduct their own lives.
This claim is important to Thoreau and the other transcendentalists. Individuals are in charge of their own destinies and do not have to resign themselves to their purportedly fated lots in life. Now, Thoreau’s truths should be taken with a grain of salt; he was writing from a standpoint as a white man with means in the 19th century, which afforded him privileges unavailable to others. However, if we take the spirit of his sentiment, there still is value in this quote for us today.
Thoreau makes this claim because he saw people not actively choosing their own paths in life; rather, they trusted in the so-called wisdom of older generations. Like the neighbor in Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” they simply follow tradition without question.
Here is where Thoreau offers some guidance. In emphasizing choice and the power of autonomy, Thoreau says that received wisdom does not apply to everyone. In fact, received wisdom may not be wisdom at all, because no one can tell you how you ought to live your life. We must be open to change and find the right way to live for ourselves.
Reconnect with Nature
Finally we come to one of Thoreau’s most famous quotes: the essence of his experiment in living at Walden Pond. Thoreau makes it very clear that his reasons for living in the woods were not only his own, but also for a particular purpose: to live deliberately is to not live desperately.
Thoreau’s choice to live in nature, then, represents a reaction against the received wisdom of those who came before him. He sought out a different path in order to establish what was essential for his own happiness and satisfaction. He goes on to say that he desired “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” and in order to do that, he cut out the distractions of the city and found contemplation in the solitude of Walden Pond.
This is important. Nature is not civilization; it’s removed from the whims and desires of industry, from the stifling regulations of tradition, and from the false perceptions of happiness and success.
In “Ponds,” Thoreau describes the absolute beauty of Walden Pond itself: “lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the colors of both.” Removed from the hustle and bustle of city life, Thoreau marvels at the sights and sounds of the natural world, from the way the wind blows through the trees to the inspiring tranquility of the water itself.
Thoreau’s self-isolation allowed him to connect with Nature. In that connection, he not only created a stronger spiritual connection between himself and the natural world, but also found the solitude in which to think and write without interruption. Walden, then, is a physical representation of one man’s decision to listen to the poem of creation, uninterrupted.
What does this all mean for us today?
Having read this text several times, the best advice I can give you is to revisit it every now and then. While Thoreau can be obtuse, pedantic, and preachy, he is at his best when describing nature and emphasizing the importance of a kindred relationship with it. So, I would like to leave you with a few takeaways from my re-reading of Thoreau’s Walden in 2018:
- Embrace simplicity: Thoreau tells us to pursue our dreams and strive to live the life we’ve imagined, but how do we live our dreams? How do we know what to pursue? We must embrace simplicity and cut through the chatter and expectations of others. Living an inspired, purposeful live is possible when you know what matters most to you.
- Seek autonomy: Thoreau’s concern in Walden is directed at living a good, purposeful life, and he only considers this possible when we are true to ourselves. But what is a good, purposeful life? Thoreau’s answer is not a prescription; it’s a call for self-determination: Do not blindly accept the received wisdom of others. Challenge, question, and follow your own moral compass.
- Reconnect with Nature: Away from the civilized world, Thoreau’s experiment allowed him the opportunity to discover a spiritual connection with his self and the wild woods around him. But what about the rest of us? As mentioned earlier, Walden Pond’s fate is in danger, as are many of the world’s natural spaces. We need to recognize that Nature provides the solitude needed to reconnect with ourselves and support efforts to not only conserve it for future generations, but also make it accessible for everyone.