“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.”
“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”
“This world is but canvas to our imaginations.”
Let’s be honest. One could devote an entire post to quotes by Henry David Thoreau. I’m sure he spoke ordinary old sentences once in a while, but they must have been squeezed in between the words of wisdom he imparted though his incomparable writings.
Born in 1812, Thoreau grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, the son of a pencil maker. He graduated from Harvard in 1937, then took a job as a schoolteacher, where he lasted two weeks before resigning rather than administer corporal punishment. After a stint in their father’s factory, he and his brother John opened a grammar school that included unusual experiences for students such as nature walks and visits to town. The school came to an early end when John contracted tetanus after cutting himself shaving. He would die in his brother’s arms.
It was soon after that Thoreau would meet the man who changed the course of his life. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a fellow Concord resident who had taken an interest in Transcendentalism and would become a mentor to the young man already gaining interest in the more ethereal aspects of life. Emerson encouraged Thoreau towards writing, and in 1941 had the younger man move into his house as a handyman.
After a time he returned to the pencil factory, but it was not where he belonged. He began to plan for a different kind of life, in a place that would allow him the space and freedom to pursue an altogether different kind of living.
And so, in 1845, Thoreau began the process of building a home for himself on Walden Pond. Framed in May of that year, the 10′ x 15′ structure cost $28.12 and was completed on July 4, when he moved in.
“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.”
It was everything he needed. In his book, Walden, he goes over the materials and the construction – in its final form the cabin featured
“a bed, a table, a small desk, a lamp, and three chairs – one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”
Thoreau would spend the next two years in his little house, mostly with his own thoughts and observations. His goal, as he noted, was to reduce his needs to a minimum. To make the small amount of money he needed he planted a bean garden, while reversing the tradition of a six-day workweek and 1 day off. This allowed him to study nature, read, and philosophize on the benefits of simple living and virtues of civil disobedience and self-sufficiency.
Walden‘s chapters include “Economy,” “Where I Lived, What I Lived For,” “Reading,” “Sounds,” “Solitude,” and “Visitors” – as he contemplates nature Thoreau’s eyes and ears sharpen and he is able to distill the human experience in a way few have. It is as though by shedding the wardrobe of regular society he becomes a more pure being, bound only to laws and norms set forth by the natural world.
He reads the classics (in the original Greek and Latin), ponders the value of vegetarianism – along with chastity and teetotaling – and moves through the seasons with a watchful eye that catches each one’s distinct blessings and beauty.
It is this engagement with the Earth around him, along with his pursuit of simplicity and meaning, that propels Thoreau to the top of my Inspirers list. Despite being born into a time when each day brings new noise, I find myself longing to pare down, scale back, get to the essence of my own human experience.
It seems all but impossible. In most moments, it appears I have at least a dozen things I could be doing. Distractions buzz at my ear like flies, while problems (past, present, and as yet unknown) hover in the air. With each breath, it sometimes feels, I am commanded to do some new thing to achieve some deadline or fulfill some obligation. On and on it goes, until the routine movements smother the original ones looking for an entrance.
The ghost of Thoreau beckons – if I try, I can hear him ask, “Do you think you are immortal?” I look down at a desk full of papers, an in-box full of messages, and wonder how much time I will have to build my cabin in the woods. And if indeed I can, how much time will I have left to spend there?
For today, I read Thoreau’s words and am grateful – but this time, as I thank the universe for teachers of wisdom and truth, I also make a silent promise to do as he advised: