Walden by Henry Thoreau

Caveats: this post won’t have photos and won’t detail any of my travels lately.  Also, no page numbers, but Walden is FREE on Amazon for the kindle!  Buy it for $0!

Walden

I’ve been camping for much of my time since I arrived in Punta Arenas (Chile) and traveled throughout Patagonia (since Jan 25)..  And of course I relax in hostels after strenuous hikes, or have done workaways where I stay in a nice bed for the duration of my work-exchange.  I just want to say that I’ve done a fair amount of camping, whether it’s in a hostel campground or in a national park campground!  Here are two reasons I’ve done it so often.

  1. I love camping!! The sounds of nature are very soothing to me, whether it’s the insects croaking or the water going by.  Additionally, no one snores, enters way late in the night, or keeps me up with conversation or other noise.  My sleep is undisturbed – and wonderful quality.
  2. It’s cheap. It’s cheaper than a bed in a hostel (perhaps obviously), and camping in national park sites are often free.
  3. I already spent $480 on camping equipment.  So now I HAVE to, right??

I mention the camping because it’s been a catalyst for various thoughts of mine.  Also because I read my Kindle so much.  🙂  Because I love camping so much, at least when I’m warm (omg fleece sweat pants are the bomb), I’ve thought about how I can have more outdoors experiences in my life, especially my life back in the states.

First, is camping one weekend a month enough?  I don’t know.  Seems like a bare minimum for me, and not even a happy minimum – but I don’t see any more time as being feasible unless I radically alter my life.  So secondly, why wouldn’t I alter my life?  I don’t want to live out in the woods and commute in to work in the city, as I loathe commutes generally.  Thirdly, I’ve had a lot of thoughts provoked by Walden, a timely book by Henry David Thoreau – at least the first half.  I’ve been pretty bored reading the second half, so I restarted the first half and it’s as thrilling and impactful as the first time I read it.  I wanted to take some time now to discuss with you some of the themes that he mentions in the book.

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  1. Theme 1 – We make ourselves slaves to our things.

“Most of our luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.  With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor.” 

 “Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more respectable box, who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this (referring to those metal cargo containers on ships or trains).  I am far from jesting.”

 “The very simplicity and nakedness of man’s life in the primitive ages imply this advantage, at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature.  But lo, men have become the tools of their tools.”

 

It appears to me that Thoreau is correct.  Not to be glorify grinding poverty, as I’m sure Thoreau does not, but there is something really important and valuable about living a simple life.  And really what do you NEED to have?  Thoreau answers: shelter, water, food.  Shelter is quite easy to have, as Thoreau builds his own house from scratch by himself (it’s small but sufficient with a basement and a single room, 10’x12’) in 4 months (if I remember correctly), including cutting the trees down and hauling rocks on his back – and once you have it made, it’s yours for life!  Unless you rent of course.  🙂  On a simple level, the fewer things one has, less maintenance/cleaning that one now has to do.  Moreover, as Tim Ferriss says, it is hard to showcase treasure among junk, so if you have treasure that you want to display and showcase to the world, it’s best done with fewer things covering it up, no?

Now I only have 50L of things, and I really don’t think that I have many spare, unnecessary things, but I’ve been thinking about living off in the woods in an increasingly likely fashion.  And also what kind of life I would want to construct if I was back in the states.  We’ll continue this thought later.

  1. Theme 2- Self-Limiting Beliefs (4 quotes)

“It appears as if men have deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other.  Yet they honestly think there is no choice left.”

One of the best things about traveling is realizing how different people can live.  Not only just living, even, but different values.  I don’t recall if it was my first or second week, but I was at a hostel, and with me was a Silicon-Valley yuppie (basically, everything you would picture in your head was true) who was there for 8 days, me with my savings fund and an indefinite amount of time, and I was like “Wow, we are so different.”  I’ve only met more different people, for everyone you meet is on their own journey, with what they hope to accomplish or find (or not), what they hope to get away from, different constraints, different values, different ideas of success, different fears, different abilities, just pure difference.  It really is stark sometimes.  We’re all on our own path and I like how Thoreau says that he doesn’t want anyone to follow him on his path because he wants everyone to be different – just different in a way that suits them, not in a way that suits what society tells them to do, or their neighbors, or their parents, or their close friends.  Follow your heart, your true north.  And dream big anyway!  We all fail, but we all go toward what we aim at, so you might as well aim high.

For instance, why can’t I go off and live in the woods?  It wouldn’t be hard.  I could totally make it work.  I could build my own house of wood, live in a tent until it was done, dig a little cellar, cook and eat outside until my chimney was constructed, etc.  I’ve not only seen it done, and I can imagine doing the rest (or asking local villagers for assistance with ideas) but Thoreau talks about his entire process of doing so in his book!  I just don’t know if that’s what I want, and if not, what kind of life do I want to construct?  Options are too many.  Open your mind!

“I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.  If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit?  If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes.  All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.  Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty or old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles!”

Our consumeristic society loves to tell us that we need to change our clothes constantly – different seasons, different looks are in or out, different colors and color combinations are fashionable or ugly, we need to change clothes after we use them instead of re-using them over again (I wear almost all of my clothes 2-4 days in a row.)  Thoreau reminds us to look within, to be determined by who one IS instead of how one APPEARS.  This lesson may be easier to learn while camping solo and being determined for months and months at a time by 50L of stuff (half of which is clothes and half of which is other necessary stuff, like a sleeping bag, tent, etc.)  But still, it’s a lesson I’m enjoying learning – to keep in mind the important things (which is my identity(s), to be open to new layers of self-revelation, to treasure the shadow of my own being.

“What of architectural beauty I now see, I know has gradually grown from within outward, out of the necessities and characters of the indweller, who is the only builder – out of some unconscious truthfulness, and nobleness, without ever a thought for the appearance and whatever additional beauty of this kind is destined to be produced will be preceded by a like unconscious beauty of life.  The most interesting dwellings in this country, as the painter knows, are the most unpretending, humble log huts and cottages of the poor commonly.  It is the life of the inhabitants whose shells they are, and not any peculiarity in their surfaces merely which makes them picturesque.” 

 A couple weeks ago, I camped at a place where the guy was, quite literally, building his own house, and it was super nice with brand new boards and logs and everything.  He bought it and had it shipped over so it would be to spec and proper measurements (he made cuts when necessary, but he wasn’t out in nature chopping down trees if you know what I mean).  And his house was beautiful!  No, it didn’t have that rustic charm of a log cabin that Abe Lincoln made with his bare hands because the boards had the unstained shine of new boards you might see at Lowe’s or Home Depot.  But there was an undeniable beauty in it – it was functional, specifically designed a certain way, and not just to waste energy to make it “ornate” or “pretty” or anything like that, like we do in our suburbs.  Thoreau goes on a rant about how fake beauty, or maybe I should say non-functional beauty like adding designs that doesn’t help do anything, is everywhere in the world and he condemns it saying we all know it’s a waste of energy and time.  True beauty, for him, is pure function that’s maybe hard to describe but easily recognized and perceived.  I can’t say I disagree with him for the wood or bamboo houses.

“This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet.”

Hard to think of a better summary of one of my three reasons for traveling – the mini-retirement idea!  Unfortunately, the best time of your life to travel is when you’re young, healthy, without attachments.  But simultaneously, the best time of your life to work really hard and save/invest a lot of money is ALSO when you’re young, healthy, and without attachments.  Can’t do both – you gotta pick one.  So pick wisely!  Oh, and not choosing is a choice.

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  1. Theme 3- The danger of consumerism and capitalism

 “When formerly I was looking about to see what I could do for a living, some sad experience in conforming to the wishes of friends being fresh in my mind to tax my ingenuity, I thought often and seriously of picking huckleberries; that surely I could do, and its small profits might suffice – for my greatest skill has been to want but little – so little capital it required, so little distraction from my wonted moods, I foolishly thought. While my acquaintances went unhesitatingly into trade or the professions, I contemplated this occupation as most like theirs; ranging the hills all summer to pick the berries which came in my way, and thereafter carelessly dispose of them; so, to keep the flocks of Admetus.  I also dreamed that I might gather the wild herbs, or carry evergreens to such villages as loved to be reminded of the woods, even to the city, by hay-cart loads.  But I have since learned that trade curses everything it handles; and though you trade in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.”

I laughed out loud (no one was nearby) when I read this by a waterfall.  Honestly, seriously, and often – our man Thoreau thought of picking huckleberries as his “real job”.

But why not, really?  I see the attraction actually.  If you have to work for someone for a wage, so that you can have money to trade for other goods and services that you want, picking huckleberries isn’t a bad choice!  I’m reminded now of some German girl who would travel every year to Australia to pick oranges as her main job for 3 months, and then fly back to Germany where she would live for the rest of the year…just off the savings she accumulated from picking oranges.  Not a bad life, really.  Work hard for 3 months out of the year, out in nature no less, and then not work at all for 9?  She must have a simple and cheap life in Germany, but … maybe I should look into that.

But even if I did…how would my pursuit of MONEY affect my satisfaction with life?  Maybe Thoreau is right, that it would poison the experience.  I kind of think he is.

Theme 4 – Who do you surround yourself with?

“Many are concerned about the monuments of the West and the East – to know who built them.  For my part, I should like to know who in those days did not build them – who were above such trifling.”

I really hate the idea that I am the average of the 5 people who I spend the most time with.  I think it’s false, but talk about a kick in the pants!  I was reminded of that idea when I reflected on Thoreau’s quote which….what a great quote!!  The people that Thoreau values are those who do their own thing, who aren’t sucked into the current world – with its specialization of labor, being told what to do, being directed by the circulation of capital, ruled by the accumulation of money, the pursuit of goods and status symbols. The ones who do their own thing, who decide for themselves what they’re going to do and go and do that, instead of submitting to others’ plans and ideas and filling a cog in a machine role.  Granted, if that’s WHO YOU ARE, then Thoreau would say fantastic, go and do that as best you can.  But he doesn’t think that the majority of people in the world are like that, which is why he laments how people just don’t seem like themselves.

And as I’ve traveled, I’ve also met some of these people, and these are truly special and inspiring people, who encourage me to be myself, to focus on what I want (or my selves want), to follow my own direction, and to not be discouraged.  I do my best to stay in touch with them, even though I may never see them in person again, just because of how much I treasure their influence and effect in my life.

 

“Not till we are completely lost or turned round – for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost – do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature.  Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as he awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction.  Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

Lest I conclude by implying that “who you surround yourself with” can only be human persons… this quote reminds me that my sphere-of-being-influenced also includes nature.  It’s the infinite extent of my relations, which is not just human friends but social groups, identities, affiliations, desires or repulsions, the natural world, the unnatural world, the realms of the internet.