Living like Henry David Thoreau
One hundred and forty years ago this July 4, Henry David Thoreau moved into a house he had built himself on someone else's property by the shores of Walden Pond. He stayed just over two years. His aim was to live deliberately, to simplify his existence to its essentials, and to be a sojourner in nature rather than the increasingly hectic civilization of the mid-19th Century.
"Walden," the product of his experiment in living, is now considered a classic. It is an exceedingly good book to begin reading as Independence Day approaches, for it is written by a man who especially valued his freedom. I reread it the other day and, like any book that confronts eternal truths and principles, its words ring clearly and resonantly across the centuries.
As a practical New Englander who has recently built a house, I was fascinated by the author`s efforts along that line. He built his largely without assistance, while I was a humble laborer among many far more skilled. He used natural or secondhand materials mainly; I was in debt to the lumber yard.
Both dwellings included cellars. Thoreau dug his, a hole 7 feet deep and 6 feet square, in two hours. Choosing the old excavations of a woodchuck as the site may have hurried matters along, but the time given implies that the author was not living so deliberately that day. It took me two hours (spread over several weeks) simply to get a potential excavator to come to the phone.
At virtually every phase of construction, Thoreau`s schedule makes a mockery of mine: framing, raising, siding, chimney and the rest. He began in April and was settled in, as I mentioned, in early July. It took me three times as long. Turning the page, I came to the real corker: the cost. The expenditures for the house by Walden Pond totaled $28.12.
And the price of my home? Mind your own business, as Thoreau often urged (albeit in a different context).
Granted, my abode is considerably larger than the author's 10-by-15-foot hut, not to mention inflation (or the Jacuzzi). I consoled myself with such reasoning - that is, until I read the following and it struck home more than I cared to admit: "And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him." If I were a lawyer, I would object to said declaration as irrelevant, my not being a farmer. Thoreau might reply: "While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them."
I don`t want to leave the impression that I am dissatisfied with my house or that shelter is the prime topic of the discourses in "Walden." However, immediately upon finishing the book, I canceled my contract with Chemlawn, lecturing the poor man who answered the phone with: "At what cost bluegrass?"
Thoreau would smile -or more likely despair -at my feeble attempt to throw off the bonds of modern, civilized enslavement. In fact, much of what we do in the latter half of this century would strike him as unconscionably odd. Most of the practices and beliefs against which Thoreau railed in his time have been compounded a thousandfold these last 140 years.
Imagine what this man would think, were he among us today, of not merely our houses, but our wars, our weapons, Trivial Pursuit, our compulsion to watch television by the hour, Madonna, South Africa or, for that matter, this column. Indeed, he was never fond of newspapers. "Read not the Times. Read the Eternities," he urged. Opening (or reopening) "Walden" would not be a bad place to start.