I think I mentioned a couple of months ago that I was trying to get through Walden again. Well, I did it! It is actually a marvellous book, but there were so many moments where I felt that Thoreau was peering out of the pages and wagging his finger right at me that I got quite uncomfortable and had to put the book away again for a week or so. And it's not just me who felt the wrath of Thoreau - Emerson, whose land Thoreau built his cabin on, and whose children Thoreau tutored for some years, said at his funeral that Thoreau was the most argumentative man he had ever met.
I can imagine the conversation where Thoreau broaches the idea of borrowing some of Emerson's land to try a social experiment. 'Build a cabin in the woods? Of course you can old boy, take as much land as you like! How about that bit right over by the far side of Walden Pond? Yes, excellent, excellent. Let me know when I can give you a hand to move out. Believe me, I am right behind you in this splendid endeavour..'
Thoreau's most famous quote of course, is the paragraph where he declares he went to the woods 'to live deliberately, to suck the marrow out of life, to see whether he could front only the essential facts of life'. But what, after all, does this mean?
Thoreau lived in the woods for only two years, and his experiment was to see how simply he could live, and whether living simply could enable him to live the Good Life, which for him, meant plenty of time to be a philosopher, time which in his 'normal' life was being eaten up by social conventions and the necessity of earning a living. His questions were: Can I build a simple shelter which will keep me warm in the winter? And, how simple can it be? Can I feed myself simply and produce enough extra to provide for the simplest necessities of life? And how simple might those necessities be? Can this simple life be satisfying and meaningful enough that I can recommend it as a course of action to others?
The answers to these questions were, 'Yes' and 'Very simple indeed'. For instance, once he was lecturing a poverty stricken labourer about how much less he could work, and how much more time he could spend fishing on Walden Pond if he chose not to 'need' butter, meat, tea and coffee. Which just goes to show I am not quite ready to live at that level of simplicity either! Thoreau himself lived on bread made with rye and cornmeal, dried beans, vegetables and the occasional fish. He drank water from a spring. Of course, he did pop into town every so often to lunch with his mother, and who wouldn't? But the point is - he knew he could live on very little, and for him, the payoff was worth it - the freedom to do whatever he wanted.
And of course he found, as many have found before and since, that the work involved in providing for his simple needs was also a profoundly satisfying part of his day - building a house, fishing, chopping wood, hoeing his beans and stopping to chat with a woodchuck, walking through the woods to town - all of these were as pleasurable a part of his life as his hours of reading and writing.
This revelation of the pleasures of work would have been revolutionary and probably appalling to Thoreau's contemporaries, for whom manual labour was NOT something that ladies and gentlemen undertook under any circumstance. But there is no reason to look back and sneer at the absurdities of the nineteenth century gentry, because the whole of our society is also geared towards avoiding work. Most of the technological advances of the past century have involved harnessing finite and precious fossil fuels so that we can avoid washing our clothes or doing dishes by hand, or even walking anywhere, if we are willing to pay for that privilege.
And most of us are. I flick a switch to wash my clothes, do my dishes, light up the darkness, keep myself warm and cook my toast, among many other tasks. When I want to transport myself from A to B I insert myself into a padded armchair and use million-year-old sunlight to whoosh myself to my destination, which sometimes is the gym where I lift weights to develop a couple of muscles so I don't atrophy away from lack of physical exercise. I tell you this, if Thoreau thought his nineteenth century contemporaries were leading pathetic and meaningless lives, he would be apoplectic observing ours..
The challenge that I took away from Thoreau is this: what are the necessities of my life? How simple could my life become? How much is my heedless life of comfort worth? Would I be willing to forgo some of my comforts for the freedom of providing for some of my own necessities?
I don't work very much at the moment, and am contemplating having to work more to keep body and soul together in the near future. I have to say I do have a very low-stress job working with lovely people, and as I work relief I can choose whether to work or not on a day-to-day basis. But it is intriguing to think of the possibilities of working... differently. I would rather work at home than even in my pleasant job. Well, mostly. If I could lower my outgoings and ramp up my insourcing (have a look at Mimi's great insourcing posts for ideas about how to do everything better at home), grow a lot more food, use less utilities, and buy less stuff, I could work a lot less days, live a very simple life and be a philosopher in my head while preserving pears with my hands. And hang out with the kids and the dog. I would still have to work a bit of course, because the council still don't accept barter arrangements for rates, but hey, did I mention my nice job? And again, like the philosopher Thoreau, I would like to consider a more creative life in my future, and that is also something I could plan while I preserve pears and plant peas and lettuce.
So again, my life is one great big experiment at the moment. I like it. I am amusing myself by thinking of all the most unlikely ideas I can, and then deciding to give them a go. It is such a surprising, joyful experience, living. I cannot believe that anyone is ever bored when we only have a scant threescore-years-and-ten to pack in everything we want to try..
Let's have a little more advice from Thoreau to go on with:
'Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage... if you are restricted in your range by poverty... you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences. It is life near the bone where it is sweetest... Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.'
from Conclusion in Walden.