Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Some thoughts on Henry David Thoreau

After a few days of hot dry weather it was time to collect up the onions ready for drying out and storing. This morning I managed to complete the task before the predicted rain came. And rain it did all day, gentle but continuous. Apart from regularly checking on one of our sows who is due to farrow, much of the rest of the day was spent indoors; it was a time for musing and a philosophical interlude.

Henry David Thoreau 1817-62

A book that smallholders, frugal life-stylists and others might find of interest is Walden; Or a Life in the Woods, by Henry David Thoreau. This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Thoreau (1817-1862). His most famous work, Walden, was published in 1854. I first read this some years ago and re-read it from time to time and continue to find it of great interest.

Walden recounts Thoreau's two years, two months and two days spent living alone in the woods by Walden Pond outside the town of Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau describes building a cabin, growing crops and his detailed observations on nature and the changing seasons. In the process it also elucidates his own spiritual development as a result of this experience and it also provides a vehicle for expounding on his philosophy of life:-

"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."

Whilst Thoreau maintains an esteemed place in American literature, he has had some recent criticism largely in relation to contentions about the full authenticity of his experience in the two years spent in solitude at Walden Pond.  Nevertheless, much of his philosophy remains relevant today.

Thoreau was in many ways ahead of his time. He might rightly be regarded as a founding thinker of what eventually became the ecology movement. Moreover, as early as the 1840s he observed what he argued was the dulling effects on ordinary working people oppressed by the prevailing economic system. Thoreau also railed against the distorting effects of the cult of consumerism. He advocated a simpler lifestyle and doing without material objects that are unnecessary for a fulfilling life. He was an early frugalist and minimalist. Self-sufficiency and independence are the hallmarks of personal fulfillment. Despite his Harvard education and middle class, though not particularly wealthy, background he acquired and utilised many practical manual skills which he needed in order to survive his Walden experience. 

Thoreau saw an intrinsic value in nature and argued that we should therefore live in harmony with nature. Thinking about today's weather, for example, here is what Thoreau had to say about rain:-

"...the gentle rain which waters my beans and keeps me in the house to-day is not drear and melancholy, but good for me too. Though it prevents my hoeing them, it is of far more worth than my hoeing. If it should continue so long as to cause the seeds to rot in the ground and destroy the potatoes in the low lands, it would still be good for the grass on the uplands, and, being good for the grass, it would be good for me”.

Thoreau often used the seed as an analogy. Just as the seed provides evidence of nature's "creative genius" so human beings contain within them their own creative power. This should be allowed to flourish with vigour.

A central feature of Thoreau's thought was the importance of awareness. Taking time to observe minutely details of nature that might otherwise go unnoticed or taken for granted: the beauty of a flower; the changing shape of the bubbles under the winter ice covering the Pond. It was important to him to obtain the fullest experience from each moment of existence:-

"I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life..."

This sensitivity of the moment resonates with the current fashion for mindfulness as an antidote to anxiety and emotional disharmony.

I would not accept all that Thoreau advocated without reservation. His well known quote: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" did seem to have a ring of truth about it in the time when four hours of my day were spent commuting, but it has an otherwise dismissive, if not arrogant, tone. A critique of government might be justified but his undermining of state institutions (including a refusal to pay taxes) sits uneasily, especially with current political developments. It is somewhat reminiscent of recent attacks on Supreme Court judges as being traitorous for a decision some disagreed with. Finally, although Thoreau exhibited in some ways a deeply spiritual perspective on life he found all organised religion anathema.

Despite all this there is much else he did write about that remains relevant in our individual and collective attempts to make the most of our time on earth, and in a way without also wrecking it for future generations.

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