Grouchy old coot tells you how to live your life

I spent the better part of six months reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I think it took so long because every time I picked it up I felt like I was being scolded by a sanctimonious old coot, and the fact that he was usually right did not make the lesson any easier to take. I knew the basic outline of the book before I started: Old New England weirdo Henry David Thoreau goes and lives like a hermit in the woods for a couple of years, paring his life down to its essentials and thinking philosophical thoughts while eating lots of beans. And that’s pretty much it.

He opens the book with uncharacteristic false modesty, with the claim that he wouldn’t obtrude his affairs on the world but that the frequent inquiries he’d received persuaded him to set down some of the details. But based on the extravagance of prose stylings on that very page, and the far-reaching reverie of the ensuing chapters, I would say that Thoreau had a deep fondness for obtruding his affairs on anyone within earshot, and this book would be no exception.

After describing the gist of his experiment and its philosophical underpinnings, he then describes different aspects of cabin living and his experiences there, in much the same way Melville goes on about whales. Thoreau considers himself a poet and a philosopher, and his prose runs at many speeds and in many directions, often within the same sentence, and you’ve pretty much just got to give yourself over to him as your tour guide and let him get to the point in his own meandering way. He almost always gets there, and he certainly has a knack for grabbing the details that snap the scene into focus. He’s also a master of the folksy turn of phrase, so that the book reads like an almanac of sayings.

What surprised me most about the book was how much effort and energy Thoreau spends on tearing down his fellow men. I suppose as a philosopher, you’ve pretty much got to spend a certain amount of time providing critiques, but he seemed to go on his little nagfests about the villagers often enough to come across like a scolding sourpuss. One of the things I always think about as I’m reading a book is what the author would have been like to have dinner with. From Walden, I came to the conclusion that dinner with HDT was probably pretty unpleasant, because he’d inevitably spend a certain amount of time scolding and schooling you for some shortcoming or bad decision you’d made. And then he’d stick you with the bill. Made me wonder if he was living out at the woods because the townspeople were all sick of him.

A basic thesis of the book is that people work too hard in pursuit of material wealth and leave not enough energy for spiritual pursuits. His whole experiment is designed to tip the scales in the other direction: What would happen if you got your life down to the absolute bare minimum and devoted yourself to spiritual pursuits? He sees property as the rough equal of prison, and he marvels at the chains that men willingly put onto themselves, with their lands, their farms, and their cushioned chairs. As he says early on, “None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty.” If nothing else, you have to admire the earnestness with which Henry David Thoreau embraces this idea:

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdile and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Note his intention to publish from the start.

Thoreau is a poet, and he spends some of the best passages of the book marveling at nature, talking about the way the mist clings to the lake in the early mornings, the mystical baths one takes in its waters, the sounds of the wildlife, and the utter fullness of his solitude. He writes like a raconteur, and huge passages of the book would make great monologues in the right hands, with high-flown metaphors, folksy snaps, and extremely long-winded common sense. He’s not exactly charming, but he has the charisma of the committed and the native appeal of someone who is just not kidding around whatsoever. He is also, if I haven’t made it clear, a damned good writer.

I felt a bit hounded as I read his book, because Thoreau was in such stark opposition to exactly how I have chosen to live much of my own life, featuring as it does much hard work, superfluous wealth, and inadequate energy devoted to spiritual pursuits. I could see myself in passage after passage, as he held up for inspection the guy doing it the wrong way. This made the whole enterprise more than slightly draining for me, as it required me to run a constant response in my mind to the things he was asserting, an endless series of mental caveats, counterexamples, and flat rejections to the things he was saying. And of course, as I said above, it was all the more draining because he was almost invariably right.

Interestingly, as I read, I pictured him as an old man—an old coot, actually—but it turns out he was only in his late twenties during his time at Walden pond. When I was in my late twenties, I was enjoying the first taste of professional success, having built up and then sold my interest in a small software company, and having come to enjoy at the time what seemed like extravagant living on something like 30k a year. But in that transition from small business partner to free agent, I decided that I would aim to make half the money in a quarter of the time, which would give me an effective double in pay rate and provide me with the luxury I wanted most, which was time. I have never written about those two years, but they were my salad days. I was young and lived in a little one-bedroom apartment in Berkeley, worked sixteen hours a week, played golf, read and wrote, took naps, and tried in my own way to suck the marrow out of life. Professional success, in that case, was to minimize the intrusion of professional cares, and to enjoy maximum downtime. I have to say that it sounds not unlike, if quite a lot less extreme, than what Henry David Thoreau did himself. Of course, the difference is I frittered my time away in leisure, rather than in philosophical inquiry.

But it’s easy to make that commitment in one’s late twenties, with no responsibilities and nothing to hold you down. Once you have a family things look different, what with mortgages and orthodonture and the rest. Where I could suck the marrow out of life in my twenties, by the next decade I was too busy busting my hump trying to provide for my family in a way that Henry David Thoreau would have no doubt looked upon very sternly, and at times I’ve not been too keen on myself. But while reading the book I could imagine him frowning down on me, and this was wearying.

As another example of this I read part of this book on a trip with my family in the Sierra, and we met up with another family who happened to be anglers, and we spent the afternoon with them trying to coax fish onto our hooks. There was some, but not a lot, of fish-catching in the end, and my children took a keen interest in in. But at the same time, I’m also reading about HDT’s view on fishing and hunting, which is born of deep experience and thought. He grew up in New England, and he extols the value of young men hunting and trapping, arguing that this communion with nature is a formative experience. But ultimately, Henry David Thoreau argues that fishing and hunting are immoral, and he takes to eating just vegetables and other things that are “clean,” leaving the animals and fish to live their lives just as he’s living his. In a later chapter he talks about the various animals coming in to consume his potato parings, and it sounds like they all lived together nicely. So I imagined him there with us on the boat, shaking his head wisely at the joy my kids took in reeling one in.

So Walden was a good read and I was glad for the opportunity to go into the woods with Thoreau, for a time, just as I was glad at the end to be done with done with him on the last page.

Excerpt from Walden, by Henry David Thoreau

When first I took up my abode in the woods, that is, began to spend my nights as well as days there, which, by accident, was on Independence Day, or the Fourth of July, 1845, my house was not finished for winter, but was merely a defence against the rain, without plastering or chimney, the walls being of rough, weather-stained boards, with wide chinks, which made it cool at night. The upright white hewn studs and freshly planed door and window casings gave it a clean and airy look, especially in the morning, when its timbers were saturated with dew, so that I fancied that by noon some sweet gum would exude from them. To my imagination it retained throughout the day more or less of this auroral character, reminding me of a certain house on a mountain which I had visited the year before. This was an airy and unplastered cabin, fit to entertain a travelling god, and where a goddess might trail her garments. The winds which passed over my dwelling were such as sweep over the ridges of mountains, bearing the broken strains, or celestial parts only, of terrestrial music. The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it. Olympus is but the outside of the earth every where.

The only house I had been the owner of before, if I except a boat, was a tent, which I used occasionally when making excursions in the summer, and this is still rolled up in my garret; but the boat, after passing from hand to hand, has gone down the stream of time. With this more substantial shelter about me, I had made some progress toward settling in the world. This frame, so slightly clad, was a sort of crystallization around me, and reacted on the builder. It was suggestive somewhat as a picture in outlines. I did not need to go outdoors to take the air, for the atmosphere within had lost none of its freshness. It was not so much within doors as behind a door where I sat, even in the rainiest weather. The Harivansa says, “An abode without birds is like a meat without seasoning.” Such was not my abode, for I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds; not by having imprisoned one, but having caged myself near them. I was not only nearer to some of those which commonly frequent the garden and the orchard, but to those wilder and more thrilling songsters of the forest which never, or rarely, serenade a villager,—the wood-thrush, the veery, the scarlet tanager, the field-sparrow, the whippoorwill, and many others.

I was seated by the shore of a small pond, about a mile and a half south of the village of Concord and somewhat higher than it, in the midst of an extensive wood between that town and Lincoln, and about two miles south of that our only field known to fame, Concord Battle Ground; but I was so low in the woods that the opposite shore, half a mile off, like the rest, covered with wood, was my most distant horizon. For the first week, whenever I looked out on the pond it impressed me like a tarn high up on the side of a mountain, its bottom far above the surface of other lakes, and, as the sun arose, I saw it throwing off its nightly clothing of mist, and here and there, by degrees, its soft ripples or its smooth reflecting surface was revealed, while the mists, like ghosts, were stealthily withdrawing in every direction into the woods, as at the breaking up of some nocturnal conventicle. The very dew seemed to hang upon the trees later into the day than usual, as on the sides of mountains.

This small lake was of most value as a neighbor in the intervals of a gentle rain storm in August, when, both air and water being perfectly still, but the sky overcast, mid-afternoon had all the serenity of evening, and the wood-thrush sang around, and was heard from shore to shore. A lake like this is never smoother than at such a time; and the clear portion of the air above it being shallow and darkened by clouds, the water, full of light and reflections, becomes a lower heaven itself so much the more important. From a hill top near by, where the wood had been recently cut off, there was a pleasing vista southward across the pond, through a wide indentation in the hills which form the shore there, where their opposite sides sloping toward each other suggested a stream flowing out in that direction through a wooded valley, but stream there was none. That way I looked between and over the near green hills to some distant and higher ones in the horizon, tinged with blue. Indeed, by standing on tiptoe I could catch a glimpse of some of the peaks of the still bluer and more distant mountain ranges in the north-west, those true-blue coins from heaven’s own mint, and also of some portion of the village. But in other directions, even from this point, I could not see over or beyond the woods which surrounded me. It is well to have some water in your neighborhood, to give buoyancy to and float the earth. One value even of the smallest well is, that when you look into it you see that earth is not continent but insular. This is as important as that it keeps butter cool.

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