Tuesday, March 24, 2015


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.


lucindasans said...

I tried to read it but it was too heavy for me. Like wading through an allegorical swamp. And I think he's. Pompous middle class test. Sorry! He could only do it because he lived on a friend's property, because he could duck out to see mother and because he came from a class that knew when it was over he would have the means to move on.

The poor labourer - if he squatted on his friend's land, would probably have the authorities evict him as a gypsy or traveller (or at that time a Romany).

But as a philosophical construct, I think it is interesting. Though he could have gone and lived with some First Nation people as an experience to live without.

Actually that is what I start questioning. His patriarchal, white, middle class position. And his disengagement from society rather than contributing to it.

But back to you. I think you offer more thought and inspiration than him. Granted he does have a nice turn of phrase. But you have kids, and are doing so much to make a beautiful life for you and your kids.

I'd love to say if you wanted to build a shed, come done to my place. But unfortunately councils forbid this now!

lucindasans said...

Test = twat. But autocorrect didn't like it.

Jo said...

At last Lucinda, something we disagree on! I am so relieved! Our relationship was in danger of descending into a mutual admiration society, and now we can have a good argument:)

Let me make an inflammatory statement - being white and middle class is not a crime. Choosing voluntary poverty even though we have supportive financial resources is not a crime. It is not disingenuous to try radical social experiments just because we can stop them at any time. And here is another one - being bossy and argumentative doesn't mean someone is wrong. Otherwise I would have to face the fact that I am mostly wrong. Just ask my parents!

I think Thoreau was probably a very argumentative and annoying person. Possibly because he was in the throes of being gripped by a Big Idea. That tends to make anyone annoying.

But he had a profound thought - what if being middle class isn't a life sentence? What if we could use our considerable education as middle class twats to do something different from the general run?

You say that Thoreau didn't do anything to benefit society, but his writings have convinced thousands upon thousands of people to change their lives, and also, the part of Walden that concerns his love fro the natural environment he lived in directly influenced the people who began the National Parks scheme of America, which then spread all over the world. I think setting out to benefit society on purpose is a bit dangerous actually - what if society doesn't want to be benefitted? All those misguided good works!

But what if we all followed Thoreau's example and lived the simplest lives we could? We would solve the carbon issue tomorrow, and the world would be a much more pleasant place to be in.

Please do continue disagreeing with me though. There is nothing I like more than a good argument:)

Bek said...

Well done you! I've not yet made it through Walden in it's entirety. I've made the attempt several times, but I find it quite hard work and reading is very much lumped in the 'relaxing' category for me. But if I do it a bit at a time eventually I'll get there.
It's an interesting concept though: how much of life's essential tasks can be enjoyable and/or rewarding, and how much of the pleasures of life are truly worth what we 'pay' in terms of time/money/the demands of the working life to enjoy these pleasures. So many pleasures of life are free, yet we in this consumer culture feel more value (for want of a better term) in something we have paid for. After all, if it costs money it must be good! I'm working towards more free enjoyment in my life and only paying for things that are truly worth the money.

lucindasans said...

If being middle class and white was a crime, I'd be in Pentridge. But when you lecture those more vulnerable, you need to stand as charged.

And you know, if he was a woman, he'd be too busy to fact around. The whole argument that women have been unable to access the time to tap into creativity because they have been caring for others. So I suppose it's his maleness, while not a crime and I wish it to be noted I love men, but being male in that era with the freedom it enabled without acknowledging that his position gave him freedom that others did not have. Yes, it is that which annoys me. Lecturing others. Without acknowledging the power, preferancing and choices that are available only to one in such a position and because of the position. .

I say if he'd looked at and lived with the poor, he'd see that others were living simply. They had no choice.

Yes, you're right. He has had an impact. So why is it that those who have no choice but to live simply are not awarded the recognition?

I do love your line: Middle class is not a sentence.

But then I'm a fraud. I just couldn't read his stuff. Like the Bible. Too dense. Just like Bek, I wanted to but it was beyond me.

Not sucking up, but I get more from your posts than his waffle.

Jo said...

Bek, I think you have summed up a lot of Walden already - the joy of work that contributes to a free life, and working out what is really worth spending money on. That is certainly a worthy journey to be on.

Dear Lucinda, I certainly don't have a remit to force you to like Thoreau's writing, and I am certainly flattered that you like mine better:)

You are absolutely right that Thoreau lectured mercilessly - but a careful reading of Walden doesn't seem to me to preclude anyone anywhere from following his ideas. He eventually concluded that while living in a cabin in the woods had been a useful experiment, what was really important was learning to live simply whatever your circumstances, and that caring about what your neighbour thinks is a waste of a precious life.

Interestingly, none of his sisters ever married, so they didn't spend their lives caring for anyone - they and their mother and aunts were passionate abolitionists, and spent much of the summers of 1845 and 46 having picnic meetings with the Abolitionist League in and around Thoreau's cabin, so clearly all that family were completely eccentric and devoted to their own projects.

Actually, in all of Walden, Thoreau only lectured a labourer's family once, and only because he thought he could see a way out of their dilemma of poverty. Ninety-nine percent of his remarks and observations were directed at his middle class neighbours, in whose lives he detected an element of the mouse running on its wheel - 'wealthy' neighbours who were really only running to catch up and who had to work pitifully hard in order to keep up a certain lifestyle which Thoreau wished to demonstrate was quite superfluous to a meaningful life.

It is these shafts that really hit home to me regarding my lifestyle and those of my own neighbours. What on earth are we all doing that we need to drive SUVs and have shiny kitchens and huge houses and gorgeous clothes and over-scheduled children and things and experiences ALL the time? What is it about small and simple and local and quiet and thoughtful that is so terrible?

This is the path that my thoughts are running along right now..

Mimi Mama said...

Hi Jo. You've stretched my brain today, and I have to confess to you that it's not a sensation of which I'm all that fond at this stage of life! I did my fair share of notable reading when I was younger when it seemed important to be able to hold forth on the merits of Hesse and Dostoyevsky. I agree with Bek, that reading these days, is a pleasure and not one seen often enough in my day, so I retreat to biographies and novels based on historical events, in my scant reading hours. But I love the premise of Walden, and if it's given you food for thought, then isn't that the wish of all authors, great and small? Mimi xxx

e / dig in hobart said...

I have never read Thoreau but now I have read your post Jo and all these thought provoking comments.

in fact, i shall have to go away and think about them, then come back and read them again.

without having read T, i would agree with L - it's easy for men to have the space to think these things when they are not running a family/household all day. hmmm,. what does Virginia woolf say about 'a room of ones own'?

but really, i think one can have an honest and full life without hardship and 'cultivating poverty'. as someone who has lived in an inadequately-heated flat in a Tassie winter, i welcome my heating bills now that i do not have to be cold.

why does poverty mean a better more civilised interior life? to me the opposite. having a good job provides for my life. that doesn't necessarily mean more 'stuff', but more energy and space to pursue the things important to me. of course if i didn;t have a job, i'd have even more time, but not the resuorces and possibly not the energy (because i'd be consumed with thinking "how am i going to feed and shelter myself?").

thanks for a great forum. as i said, i'm going to have to read everyone's views again.

Left-Handed Housewife said...

It has been a long time since I read Walden, and I must admit to napping through much of it--but I was in college, so I napped through a lot of stuff. Maybe it's time for a re-read. I like the idea of cultivating poverty, which I interpret to mean deciding what we can live without and then living without it. I need more of that in my life--which is to say, I need less.


Jo said...

Mimi, I love throwing a philosophical thought about now and then - a sort of 'what if?' about life. What if I could change this or that about how I live? It keeps things interesting..

e honey, I do agree, being worried about money and how to pay the bills is awful. I think, as Frances mentioned in her comment, that deliberately cultivating poverty was to find that magic line which is 'enough' - Thoreau did not shiver through the winter in his cabin, but he did chop his own wood for his fire which was a revolutionary act for a 'gentleman' of his time. Gentlemen did not sully their hands with manual labour in the nineteenth century - they hired someone else to do that. We have substituted machines for servants, but the same attitude prevails.

I am not suggesting that you or I or anyone else shiver through winter for the good of our souls, but I know that you and I and many of the readers of this blog are thinking about the question - 'What is the Good Life? Can I substitute some simplicity for the complexity which modern life throws at me every day?'

Frances, yes, absolutely. I need more of less as well:)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...