I suppose the best place to read Walden by Henry David Thoreau, first published in 1854, is in the garden. How sweet it is to recline in one’s favourite chair with Walden in one hand and a cup of tea in the other after having done some pruning and planting, or at the very last after having mown the lawn. Mowing the lawn always gives one such a sense of achievement, of having improved the garden no end even though it probably still looks a bit straggly round the edges. Working in the garden and then reclining and enjoying one’s leisure brings the reader close to the spirit of Walden: one won’t get a true sense of the purpose of the book if one has never attempted to make anything with one’s own hands, and neither will one appreciate it without the necessary leisure to contemplate it.
Walden; or, Life in the Woods describes an experiment, namely that of the author attempting to live self-sufficiently and independently on the outskirts of civilisation in a cabin he built himself near Walden Pond, a lake near Concord, Massachusetts. The cabin stood on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s friend and mentor. Thoreau, thus, was not living like a hermit in the wilderness: famously he went home to his mother occasionally to have his clothes washed. But then he never set out to be a hermit: what he wanted to prove was that one could live simply, without engaging in commerce, simply by the fruits of one’s own labours and occasionally by that of one’s neighbours.
The book is perhaps less of an advert for green, sustainable living – although it is that, too – than an anti-capitalist battlecry. Instead of a life devoted to the capitalist mantra of ‘do more, earn more, get more stuff’, Thoreau advocates a life of “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity”. He suggests that people are made unfree by the trappings of the things they strive for: property, possessions and wealth. Accumulating stuff doesn’t lead to happiness, by which Thoreau, just like Aristotle, means a rich life of contemplation. Instead, people are caught in the hamster wheel of keeping up their living ‘standards’. Acquiring things becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end:
Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labours of life that its finer fruits cannot by plucked by them. . . . [The labouring man] has no time to be anything but a machine.
A farm labourer is unfree because he has to constantly seek work to survive. A farmer is likewise tied to his farm, to the cycle of production as much as to the house and land itself. He might be prosperous, but he is not free. Division of labour is seen to be an evil because it robs people of important experiences, e.g. that of building a house:
I never in all my walks came across a man engaged in so simple and natural an occupation as building his house. We belong to the community. It is not the tailor alone who is the ninth part of a man; it is as much the preacher, and the merchant, and the farmer. Where is this division of labor to end? and what object does it finally serve?
Thoreau, of course, does precisely that.
Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber.
He builds his cabin, designs a garden, plants vegetables and lives virtually self-sufficiently for just over two years. And, importantly, his lifestyle allows him the leisure to read, think, observe, wonder, and experience life. In other words, he reaches Aristotle’s highest form of happiness, namely that achieved through contemplation. Oddly enough the aristocratic Aristotle would probably never thought that living alone in a cabin on the edge of society could lead to happiness. But if Thoreau is to be believed, life on Walden Pond led to spiritual and material contentment.
What I find interesting is that Thoreau rarely reflects on the craft – the art, the aesthetics – of his endeavours. He builds a cabin and is rightly proud of it, but his approach seems to be entirely functional. If there is any beauty, it lies in its functionality. Similarly, he “came to love” his rows and rows of beans, but he only fleetingly describes them in terms of beauty: “It is a fine broad leaf to look on.” What he focuses on is the “small Herculean labor” it takes to raise them, particularly as he attempted this on ground “which had yielded only cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort, and the like, before, sweet wild fruits and pleasant flowers”. He is proud of conquering nature, of the fact that he is successfully eking out a living – not whether his rows are straight and his beanpoles look professional.
I’m not suggesting that Thoreau should have worried about whether his life was picturesque. Maybe the idea of “simplicity” meant seeing beauty in what is functional. I don’t think Thoreau was unaware of beauty. His chapters on “Sounds” and “Solitude”, as well as his later book Walking (1962) express the aesthetic aspects of being close to nature. But craft to him clearly is about making things work, not about making things beautiful. It is certainly not about making beautiful objects that in the long run would have weighed him down just as much as the possessions of the capitalist. Yet, I can’t help wondering whether this approach – if it is taken to be more than an experiment – is not overly ascetic. Surely, the beauty of surrounding oneself with carefully chosen, hand-crafted objects and to be able to give these objects to friends and family also makes life more beautiful and worthwhile?