Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Thoreau Unplugged

Reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in the 21st century feels to me like this.

I get up just as dawn is about to arrive. I open the back door and walk barefoot onto the concrete patio slab. Behind the house I can make out dew fringing the grass. I sigh and do what I know I have to do. I bend over a tin bucket filled to the brim with water. Cold water. I begin splashing the water on my face. My skin tightens and I almost shout at the shock. I do a little dance as cold droplets fall on my already cold feet. And it is at this moment I realize what a man shouting across the expanse of more than 150 years wants me to know.

I am alive and living on an amazing planet.

There's more to it, actually. Much more. So this morning while I sip my coffee and the sun is inking the sky with patches of tangerine and coral I take my time and dip into Walden. I've planned this for some time. (See Gaze Into the Gender Mirror post.) I want to see if Thoreau can instruct me in how to live in my Van Winkled state.

Paper Houses
Thoreau came to mind a few years ago when our son was going through a paper craft phase. First, our son found a model of Bill Gates’ house he could build in miniature. I mean small. The $45 million, 27,000 sf house belonging to practically the world’s richest man ended up being no more than 2 x 3 inches in size and perfectly amenable to tiny fingers manipulating toothpicks and Elmer’s Glue. One hopes Mr. Gates, if he knew, would feel sufficiently humbled.

Then I ran across this paper craft (above) of Thoreau’s cabin that he lived in for two years and two months at Walden Pond in Massachusetts. I urged our son to build it. Which he did. Which gave me an opportunity to explain about this important figure from American history.

Who Was This Man?
Though Henry David Thoreau had little use for the ways of society, he was far from a misanthropic crank. In Walden he confesses that he loves to talk with farmers as he makes the rounds looking for a piece of land to settle on. On July 4, 1845, when he began his project to live alongside Walden Pond, he chose 14.5 acres within hailing distance of humanity. True, Thoreau lived alone in his cabin, but he was only 1.5 miles from the home of his good friends the Emersons. He states in Walden that he can see through the trees the roofs of the nearby village of Concord. Frequently he entertained visitors at the cabin and then he went visiting himself.

As sociable as he was, we need not make Thoreau out to be a smooth character. Encountered up close I think he may have had been like the homely unplastered, unchinked planks of his cabin. Planed mostly smooth, but still with some splinters and knotholes and lots of air leaking through. He was what we’d call a “character.”

The man was opinionated. To say the least.

A Thoreau-going Dislike of the News
About the news I think it fair to portray Thoreau as loathing it. He couldn’t understand why people were so avid to know what was happening to others, especially those who lived in faraway countries. The news seemed to Thoreau some kind of gossipy spectacle which he compared to everyone running to a fire when they heard the church bell peal in the middle of the night. It didn’t matter if the building was saved or burned to the ground. They just wanted to see it or hear about it.

Reconstructed Interior of Thoreau's Cabin
 Worse, according to Thoreau, all news amounts to the same predictables in play. All that changes are the names, dates and locales. In the end, paying attention to the news is hardly a harmless pursuit. The news leads people astray.

"Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous . . . By closing eyes and slumbering, and consenting to be deceived by shows, men establish and confirm their daily life of routine and habit every where, which still is built on purely illusory foundations."

I can’t help wondering what Thoreau would have to say about our large screens, 3D movies, books that arrive via pixels on an e-reader, or conversations with disembodied voices as we walk along talking on cell phones; in other words, our conscious cultivation of something other than physical, sensual, wrap-your-hand-around-it reality.

He might ask someone like me to add up the costs, the way he totaled precisely his expenses in constructing his cabin--$28.12, including 14 cents for hinges and screws and one cent for chalk.

The cost of my following the news and lapping up the latest greatest entertainment can't be expressed in dollars, though. The cost comes in the amount of reality I subtract from my own life.

And what is reality?

Consider the following episode. Thoreau awakens and hears something in his cabin.

“I was as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn, when I was sitting with door and windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang of fame.” 

In Thoreau's world the person attune to reality not only makes room to notice the mosquito, he or she actually celebrates its presence as a vital part of nature worthy of admiration. Thoreau in essence gives the mosquito its own headline and a glowing musical review.

R.I.P. H.D.T.
Thoreau died in 1862 at age 45. He’d suffered for years from tuberculosis. His health worsened after a trip into the woods in 1859 when he sought to count tree rings on stumps during a rain storm. His last full set of words were, “Now comes good sailing.”

This satisfying prediction was followed by two more words.



It’s possible heresy, but I like to imagine that if Thoreau had lived today he would have blogged while his Walden experiment unfolded day by day. As someone who felt called to announce humanity’s follies, he would have found the Internet the best way of communicating his message to the world. Slow down. Study at the feet of nature. Use nature wisely. Tread lightly wherever you go out of respect for all life. Get to know yourself deep down at the level of the soul.

As for his final utterance of “Moose” and “Indian,” Thoreau was such a realist I have to think he was not suffering from a death bed fantasy. Could it be he was knowingly speaking to the ones who stood ready to welcome him as he sailed off on his new adventure? I can see them now. Side by side the three of them move deep into the tall woods, crunching leaves and pine needles. Moose, Henry, Indian. Then at last, they are swallowed up by shadows. - V.W.



  1. I'm a spiritual director at a retreat center. I am widowed live alone at 77 years of age in the inner city of US's 4th largest not watch the TV news but do read (the headlines somewhat of the daily newspaper and internet). Just came in from spending about 2 hours setting out almost 60 little viola plants - new beginning for a 9 year old garden spot. I have a CP which I frequently turn off and forget to turn on...kinda figure the world will keep on even if I'm not "available". Many in my church community would tell you I am not a smooth character. Guess I'm rather Thoreau-like.
    Really enjoying your Rip Van Winkle year!

  2. Many decades ago, I walked around Walden Pond in the dead of winter and found it to be not dead at all for there were many things to see. Many things more than warm snow.(Whatever that might be.)

    Researched Thoreau a bit and found he often went home to Momma for dinner, worked at Daddy's store, and had his hippie friends out to party.

    Something of a wise man for shallow people....big deal!

    Suggest you loosen Bulwinkles' collar. Teach him some dog talk: "Grr-WOOF" is for play and "WOOF-grr" is for danger. Dogs know body laguage better than we, and can smell better too. Let him teach you and share the experience.

    Dean S. Bird