Thoreau: "As Long as Possible, Live Free and Uncommitted"


I'm on my way home today after two humanities retreats in Idaho. Although both of them were nominally focused on John Neihardt's classic 1932 book Black Elk Speaks, we've spent about half of our time discussing my favorite American book, Henry David Thoreau's Walden.

The air is crisp and cold this morning. The great trees of the Bitterroot Mountains look tight and leaden, and not much seems to be stirring. I've been shoveling gear (snowshoes, scarves, printers, cameras, and bags of books) into my car for the past fifteen minutes. The minute I finish this column, I'm going to drive east towards North Dakota and Bismarck.

If you haven't read Walden, or haven't read it lately, I hope to persuade you that it's a worthy exercise, especially as the new year begins. Many people resist Walden, either because they reckon it is a boring book about ponds, loons, beans, pine needles, and cabin building, or because they had a bad experience with the book at some previous point in life. I found it hard to fathom the first time I read it (in high school), but now I regard it as the number one "self-help" book I've ever encountered and I try to read Walden once per year. It was the only book I took on my long Little Missouri trek a few years ago. I read it slowly, at the end of hard days of hiking, the way one reads a sacred text.

Walden is a great nature book by a man who had a magnificent capacity to observe the world around him, especially the miniature world that we clomp over indifferently in our hikes. It contains some of the most beautiful passages ever written about wild things. But that is not why Thoreau wrote the book.

Walden is a manual for those who are discontented with their lives. If you are satisfied with the life you have built, Thoreau says carry on and don't look back. But if you want more from life—more joy, more time, more freedom, more vitality, more authenticity, more presence—Walden can help you figure out what exactly you want, and how to reorganize your life in order to achieve it. The most famous line in Walden is, "The mass of men leads lives of quiet desperation." In other words, most people are vaguely unhappy, not quite sure why, somehow overwhelmed by the routine business of life, unfulfilled but still functional, with a gnawing sense of being tied down or even perhaps enslaved by the glut of things we have accumulated. Americans of Thoreau's time (1817-1862) and now are the most prosperous and materialistic people on earth, but he believed that all this getting and spending, all the stuff we choose to surround ourselves with, actually clogs our spiritual arteries and reduces our quality of life. He wrote, "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone."

The key chapter of the book is the first, "Economy." Unfortunately, it is also the most difficult—which is one reason people put down Walden in frustration. What Thoreau wants you to do is ask yourself what you really truly need in life and what it "costs" for you to obtain it. Our most basic needs are food, clothing, and shelter. Today, we also need energy and transport. Thoreau calls these our "grossest groceries." Everyone's list will perhaps be a little bit different, but he wants you to be very rigorous in your analysis of your lifestyle, and to differentiate things that you actually need from things you merely want. I place "cost" in quotation marks above because Thoreau wants you to determine the cost of the essential ingredients in life both in dollars and cents, and in how many days per year and how much of your soul you must give to obtain them.

Thoreau was a minimalist. He was convinced that we should be able to service our "grossest groceries" in about six weeks of work per year. By paring your needs and wants down to a dignified minimum, Thoreau argued, you free up a great deal of time and energy to wander about the countryside, read great books, keep an active journal, write poetry, travel, dream, and reconnect with nature and what Jefferson called "Nature's law." Most of us don't want as much time in nature as Thoreau, but the "grossest groceries" exercise is still very valuable, because it forces us to ask ourselves such questions as, "Do I want an Audi that much more than a Honda Civic? How long does it take me to earn the additional $30,000?" "If I buy that new set of dishes, where will I put them, how often will I use them, and what will I do with the perfectly good older set of dishes they will displace?" "How much house do I really need?"

Whenever I look into the Thoreauvian mirror, I get a queasy feeling. My life feels more like an out-of-control vehicle careening down an icy winding mountain road than a simple and purposeful stroll through the woods. I know for a fact that my life has always been deeper and more satisfying when it has been simpler and more Spartan. For about a month per year I reduce life to something approaching "it's lowest terms." When I go backpack camping I push things towards their minimum—that's one of the reasons I love to go camping. Out on the Lewis and Clark trail every summer, when I go "back to basics," squat around a campfire, eat grub, my spirit inevitably revives. At times it even soars, and fills me with happiness and optimism and a new sense of purpose. But those are special moments of the year, vacation time, retreat time. Why I am so bad about following these beautiful life principles during the other 335 days of the year I don't know.

I know without the slightest doubt that my life would be better if I got rid of 75% of what I possess, moved into a home that might justly be called a cottage, and put all of my televisions out on the curb during the week when they'll haul virtually anything away. Last night—awake after midnight thinking about these things—I nearly resolved to buy a new book hereafter only when I have read at least 2/3 of the last one I purchased. If I made that resolution and could make it stick, I'd save a ton of money and I'd give more time to reading, if only to reach the trigger point for the next purchase.

The flesh is weak. The challenge of living a simpler, less materialistic, less "wired" life is a huge one for almost everyone. It certainly is for me. But I do want Thoreau's "soul-payoff" in my life. Don't we all? Fortunately, Thoreau ends Walden with a passage of breathtaking optimism. "I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him . . . and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings."

The public domain image — a postcard, "Site of Thoreau's Hut, Concord, Mass." printed by the Detroit Publishing Company c. 1898-1931 — appears in 2016 via NYPL Digital Collections. We extend our gratitude to the NYPL and their commitment to archival work and the public domain.