Walden Part 1: Economy, Chapter 4

As described in recent posts, I’m creating a new adaptation of Walden by Henry David Thoreau. After months of editing and research, I’m excited to finally share the first several chapters with you. The following is chapter four, which includes edits by myself and Billy Merrell, my co-editor. Please note that the printed edition will include annotations for reference material and words or phrases that bear explanation. For more about this project and the forthcoming Kickstarter campaign, read this essay. If you’re just now jumping in, you’ll find chapter one here.

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4. Labor

Before I finished my house, I wanted to earn a little money by some honest and agreeable method, and in order to cover my expenses. I planted about two and a half acres of light and sandy soil near my house mostly with beans, but also a small part with potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips. The whole lot contains eleven acres, mostly forested with pines and hickories, and was sold the previous season for eight dollars and eight cents an acre. One farmer said that it was “good for nothing but to raise cheeping squirrels on.” I put no fertilizer on this land, since I was merely a squatter, and not expecting to cultivate so much again; and I didn’t quite hoe it all once. I pulled out several cords of stumps while plowing, which supplied me with fuel for a long time. They left small circles of virgin mould, easily distinguishable through the summer by the greater luxuriance of the beans there. Dead and mostly unsaleable wood behind my house, and driftwood from the pond, supplied the remainder of my fuel. I had to hire a team of oxen and a man for the plowing, though I held the plow myself. My farming costs for the first season were, for implements, seed, work, etc., $14.72 1/2. The seed corn was given to me. This never costs anything to speak of, unless you plant more than enough. I got twelve bushels of beans, and eighteen bushels of potatoes, beside some peas and sweet corn. The yellow corn and turnips were too late to come to anything. My whole income from the farm was:

Produce sold: $23.44
Minus the outgoes: 14.72 1/2
There are left: $8.71 1/2

Beside the produce I consumed and had on hand at the time, I estimated a value of $4.50 — the amount on hand much more than balancing a little grass which I did not raise. All things considered, that is, considering the value of a soul and of this moment in which it lives, and partly because of my experiment’s transient nature, I believe that I did better than any farmer in Concord that year.

The next year was even better. I dug up all the land which I required, about a third of an acre. I learned that if I could live simply and eat only the crops I raised, and raise no more than I could eat, and not exchange it for too many luxuries, I would need to cultivate only a few rods of ground. I also discovered that it is cheaper to dig up that ground than to use oxen to plow it, and to select a fresh spot from time to time than to fertilize the old. In this way, I realized that a person could do all their necessary farm work with one hand at odd hours in the summer, so to speak; and thus we need not be tied to an ox, horse, cow, or pig. I want to speak impartially on this point, and as one uninterested in the success or failure of the present economical and social arrangements. When I lived at Walden Pond, I was more independent than any farmer in Concord. I was not anchored to a house or farm, but was free to follow the bent of my imagination, which is a very crooked one, every moment. If my house had been burned or my crops had failed, I would have been nearly as well off as before.

It seems that we are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of us, since the former are so much the freer. People and oxen exchange work; but if we only consider necessary work, oxen will be seen to have the greater advantage, since their farm is so much the larger. Man does some of his part in his six weeks of haying, and any farmer will tell you it is no child’s play. No nation that lived simply in all respects, that is, no nation of philosophers, would commit so great a blunder as to use the labor of animals. True, there never was and is not likely soon to be a nation of philosophers, nor should there be. However, I would never break a horse or bull and stable him for any work he might do for me, for fear that I might become a horseman or a herdsman exclusively. And if society seems to gain something through such practices, are we certain that one man’s gain is not another’s loss, and that the stable boy has as much cause for satisfaction as his master? Granted, some public works would not have been built without animal aid. Does it follow that we couldn’t have accomplished works still more worthy of ourselves? When we begin to do work that is pointless or in service to luxury, it’s inevitable that a few will do all the exchange work with the oxen. In other words, they become the slaves of the strongest. We work not only for the animal within us, but for the animal without. Though we have many sturdy houses of brick or stone, the prosperity of the farmer is still measured by the degree to which the barn overshadows the house. Concord is said to have the largest houses for farm animals hereabouts, and the town isn’t behind the times in the size of its public buildings. But there are very few halls for free worship or free speech in this county. Would it not be better for nations to commemorate themselves by their powers of abstract thought, rather than their architecture, which will surely crumble first? How much more admirable is the Bhagavad Gita than all the ruins of the East!

Towers and temples are the luxury of princes. A simple and independent mind does not toil at the bidding of any ruler. Inspiration serves no earthly power, nor does its value consist in silver, gold, or marble. Why do we haul and hammer so much stone? Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. What if we took equal care to smooth and polish our manners? One scrap of good sense would be more memorable than a monument as high as the moon. I much prefer to see stones in their natural place. The grandeur of Thebes was a vulgar grandeur. A stone wall that bounds an honest farmer’s field is more sensible than a hundred-gated Thebes that has wandered farther from the true purpose of life. The religions and civilizations which have been historically considered barbaric built splendid temples; but by and large, what you might call Christianity does not. Most of the stone we hammer goes toward our tomb. We bury ourselves alive. As for the pyramids, there is little cause for wonder in them besides the fact that so many slaves could be found to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and braver to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs. As for the religious and aesthetic fervor of the builders, it is much the same around the world, whether the building be an Egyptian temple or the U.S. Bank. It costs more than it comes to. The source is vanity, assisted by the love of comfort and luxury. Mr. Balcom, a promising young architect, designs it, and the job is given to Dobson & Sons, stonecutters. When the thirty centuries begin to look down on it, mankind begin to look up at it. As for your high towers and monuments, there was once a crazy man in this town who tried to dig through to China. He got so far that, as he said, he heard Chinese pots and kettles rattling; but I don’t think I will go out of my way to admire the hole he made. Many are concerned about the monuments of the West and the East — to know who built them. For my part, I would like to know who did not build monuments in those days, that is those who were above such trifling. But let’s return to my statistics.

By surveying, carpentry, and labor of various other kinds in the village (I have as many trades as fingers), I earned $13.34. The cost of food for eight months, from July 4th to March 1st, the time when these estimates were made, though I lived there more than two years — not counting potatoes, a little corn, and some peas, which I had raised, nor considering the value of what was on hand at the last date — was:

Rice: $1.73 1/2
Molasses — cheapest form of saccharine: 1.73
Rye meal: 1.04 3/4
Indian meal — cheaper than rye: 0.99 3/4
Pork: 0.22

Experiments which failed:
Flour — costs more than Indian meal, both money and trouble: $0.88
Sugar: 0.80
Lard: 0.65
Apples: 0.25
Dried apple: 0.22
Sweet potatoes: 0.10
One pumpkin: 0.06
One watermelon: 0.02
Salt: 0.03

Yes, I ate $8.74, all told. But I wouldn’t be so bold to publish my guilt, if it weren’t true that most of you are equally guilty with myself, and that your deeds would look no better in print. The next year, I occasionally caught fish for my dinner. I once went so far as to slaughter a woodchuck which ravaged my bean field — effect his transmigration, as a Tartar would say — and devour him, partly for experiment’s sake. But though the meal afforded a momentary enjoyment, notwithstanding a musky flavor, I saw that in the long run this wouldn’t be a good practice, however nice it might seem to have your woodchucks cleaned and dressed by the village butcher.

Clothing and incidental expenses within the same timeframe, though little can be inferred from this item, amounted to:

$8.40 3/4
Oil and some household utensils: $2.00

Except for washing and mending, which for the most part were done out of the house, and their bills have not yet been received — and these are all and more than all the ways by which money must go out in this part of the world — all the pecuniary costs were:

House: $28.12 1/2
Farm one year: 14.72 1/2
Food for eight months: 8.74
Clothing, etc., for eight months: 8.40 3/4
Oil, etc., for eight months: 2.00
Total: $ 61.99 3/4

I will speak now to those of you who have a living to get. To meet this need, I earned the following income:

Sales of farm produce: $23.44
Earned by day labor: 13.34
Total income: $36.78

Subtracting from the sum of costs, this left me with a balance of $25.21 3/4 on one hand — very close to the funds I start with, and the measure of expenses to be incurred — and on the other, beside the leisure and independence and health thus secured — a comfortable house for as long as I chose to occupy it.

These statistics, however accidental and therefore uninstructive they may appear, as they have a certain completeness, have a certain value also. Everything I was given has been taken into account. It appears from the above estimate that food alone cost me about 27 cents a week. For nearly two years after this, my diet was rye and Indian meal without yeast, potatoes, rice, a little salt pork, molasses, and salt. My only drink was water. I suppose it was fitting that someone so enamored with the philosophy of India should live mainly on rice. I dined out occasionally, though when I did it was usually to the detriment of my domestic arrangements. But since dining out was a constant element, it doesn’t affect a comparative statement like this in the least.

I learned that it takes incredibly little effort to obtain one’s necessary food, even in this climate, and that a person can maintain health and strength on a diet as simple as the animals. I have made a satisfactory dinner, satisfactory on several accounts, simply from a dish of purslane (Portulaca oleracea) which I gathered in my cornfield, boiled and salted. I give the Latin on account of the savoriness of the weed’s trivial name. Tell me what more can a reasonable man desire, in peaceful times, than a sufficient number of ears of green sweet corn boiled, with the addition of salt? Even the little variety which I used was a yielding to the demands of appetite, and not of health. Yet some people have come to such an impasse that they starve, not for lack of necessaries, but for lack of luxuries. I know a good woman who thinks that her son lost his life because he took to drinking only water.

You will notice that I’m treating the subject more from an economic than a dietetic point of view. Perhaps you won’t put my abstemiousness to the test unless you have a well-stocked pantry.

At first, I made bread from pure Indian meal and salt, real hoecakes, which I baked outside on a shingle or the end of a piece of timber sawed off in building my house; but it tended to get smoked and would take on a piny flavor. I tried flour as well, but eventually found a mixture of rye and Indian meal most convenient and flavorful. In cold weather, I would warm and amuse myself by baking several of these small loaves in succession, tending and turning them as carefully as an Egyptian his hatching eggs. They were a real cereal fruit which I ripened, and they had a fragrance like that of other noble fruits, which I kept as long as possible by wrapping them in cloths. I made a study of the ancient and indispensable art of bread making, going back to primitive times, when from the wildness of nuts and meats men first discovered the mildness and refinement of this diet. Traveling gradually down through the accidental souring of dough which taught the leavening process, and through various fermentations thereafter, I came to “good, sweet, wholesome bread,” the staff of life. Some consider leaven the soul of bread, the spiritus which fills its cellular tissue, and is religiously preserved like the vestal fire. Some precious bottleful, I suppose, first brought over in the Mayflower, did the job for America. Its influence is still rising, swelling, spreading in cerealian billows over the land. I would get this seed from the village, till eventually one morning I forgot the rules, and scalded my yeast. By this accident I discovered that even yeast was dispensable. I have gladly omitted it since, though some housewives earnestly assured me that safe and wholesome bread requires yeast, and elderly people prophesied a speedy decay of my vital forces. Yet after going without yeast for a year am still in the land of the living; and I am glad to escape the trivialness of carrying a bottleful in my pocket, which would sometimes pop and discharge its contents to my embarrassment. It is simpler and more respectable to omit it. More than any other animal, humans can adapt ourselves to all climates and circumstances. Neither did I add any sal soda, or other acid or alkali, into my bread. It would seem that I made it according to the recipe which Marcus Porcius Cato gave about two centuries before Christ. “Make kneaded bread thus. Wash your hands and trough well. Put the meal into the trough, add water gradually, and knead it thoroughly. When you have kneaded it well, mould it, and bake it under a cover,” that is, in a baking kettle. Not a word about leaven. But I did not always use this staff of life. At one time, owing to the emptiness of my wallet, I saw none of it for more than a month.

Every able-bodied person from Maine to Mexico might easily raise their own grain, and not depend on distant, fluctuating markets for it. Yet we have traveled so far from simplicity and independence that fresh grain is rarely sold in stores, and hominy and corn in a still coarser form are hardly used by anyone. The farmer gives most of the grain he produces to his cattle and hogs, and buys flour, which is no more wholesome, at a greater cost, at the store. I learned that I could easily raise my bushel or two of rye and Indian corn, for the former will grow on the poorest land, and the latter does not require the best. I ground them in a hand-mill, which allowed me to go without rice and pork. If I wanted some concentrated sweetener, I found by trial and error that I could make a very good molasses of either pumpkins or beets, and I knew that I needed only to set taps into a few maples to obtain it even more easily. While these were growing, I used various substitutes beside those mentioned.

Finally, as for salt, that grossest of groceries, to get some might be a good reason to visit the seashore. Or if I did without salt altogether, I would simply drink less water. As far as I know, the Indians never troubled themselves to look for salt.

I was able to avoid all trade and barter as my food was concerned. Having a shelter already, all that remained was to get clothing and fuel. The pants I now wear were woven in a farmer’s family. Thank heaven there is so much virtue left in man. I think the fall from the farmer to the operative was as great and memorable as that from the man to the farmer. As for fuel, the surrounding woods provided all I needed, and in two years’ time I barely made a dent. As for a habitat, if I hadn’t been allowed to squat, I might have bought an acre at the same price for which the land I cultivated was sold — namely, eight dollars and eight cents. But as it was, I believe that I enhanced the value of the land by squatting on it.

There are doubters who question whether I can live on vegetable food alone; and to strike at the root of the matter at once — for the root is faith — I tell them that I can live on board nails. If they cannot understand that, they won’t understand much that I have to say. For my part, I’m glad to hear of experiments of this kind being tried; like the young man who tried to live for two weeks on hard, raw corn on the ear, using only his teeth for mortar. The squirrel tribe tried the same and succeeded. The human race is interested in these experiments, though a few old folks who are incapacitated for them, or who own their thirds in mills, may be alarmed.

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Want to keep reading? Here is chapter five. Until the Kickstarter campaign begins on February 16, I’ll post a chapter each week until the first six are up on Medium. If you want to read the rest of this adaptation, then I invite you to support the campaign when it comes out and help us bring this book to life!

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