Literature: Rereading Walden

“Simplify, simplify.”
-H.D. Thoreau, in Walden (1854)

Every few years, I reread Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; Or Life in the Woods, and this time as I’m reading it, I feel like I’m finding a friend. In 1845, Thoreau decided to take a retreat to the woods near Concord, Massachusetts, where he lived for over two years on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau’s cabin was on the shores of Walden Pond, and while he was there, he recorded the details of the natural world with such a brilliant vividness that they burn so true to me today.

My life’s circumstances are not the same as Thoreau’s; however, I understand what he means when he says: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…”

Isn’t this at some level what we all want: to live?

I only spent two nights last week in the woods, but I have been thinking a lot about my attraction to natural beauty and my desire to live within it. These things are sometimes hard to explain, but I think that Thoreau, who explains his reasons for living in the woods in Walden, also best explains my own reasons for living the way that I do.

Living deeply doesn’t have to mean living by oneself in a cabin, or living in the mountains, or living in a tent. I think that what Thoreau was trying to learn was far more important than the way he went about doing it. The woods worked for him, and Walden is full of wisdom (some below) that Thoreau gained from his “experiment.” But in the end, he says, “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live…”

More wisdom from Walden:

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.”

“Why should we live with such a hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a stitch in nine saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches to-day to save nine to-morrow.”

“Time is but a stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. The current slides away, but eternity remains.”

“In proportion as [a man] simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.”

“However mean your life is, met it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are.”

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that it 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.”

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”


One response to “Literature: Rereading Walden

  1. It was good to see your text. I’m re-reading Thoreau because his words have special meaning for me. I grew up in Sam Staple’s Camp on Fairhaven Bay, about a mile through the woods from Walden (1946-1952). For six years my brothers and I swam in Walden when the ice was just melting out, Skated on Fairhaven Bay in the winter, played in the swamp, in the woods, and along the banks of the Concord River. The tall white pines, the swaying birch trees, the duck-weed on the river, the lady slippers in the spring, the concord grape vines loaded with their sweet blue grapes in the fall, the snapping turtles laying their eggs in a sunny clearing in the middle of June, the woods filling up with snow on a January afternoon. Many of these things that Thoreau writes about , I remember. It is all a long time ago and far away. I live in the Canary Islands now and reading Thoreau makes me nostalgic. Thanks for your thoughts!

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