This space starts with a quote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…”. Cliché, I know, but what’s interesting now is how much that quote used to mean to me. The quote is shortened considerably here, but at my first reading the whole of that quote stood as truth for me. Here was a writer that knew what was wrong with society in his time as well as our own. Its message stood as a petition for a reconnection with the natural world, or even a call to head to the hills and leave behind the frustrations of our modern way of life.
But my understanding of that quote has undergone it’s own evolution. In that quote, and in Walden as a whole, does Thoreau concretely answer any of the questions that are drawn by the criticisms he poses? Or did he intend the work to exist as a collection of sweeping generalizations with strong opinions about the decay of the social constructs that he valued and viewed as integral to cultivating human enlightenment? Well, yes and no.
The work is universally understood as a call to action, but what action is being called for? He offers his story as his attempt at reconciliation, but he never offers it as a broad prescription for his audience. Instead he utilizes the motivational nudge to inspire the reader to address their own criticisms within their own environments. To create their own personal blueprints so to speak, and apply the remedies that they see fit. But really nothing concrete.
When I first read through Walden almost 30 years ago, it felt like a fire had been stoked inside of me. The broad strokes of ideology excited me. The frustration, anger and resentment I felt about the mechanisms of the world at work around me was suddenly justified. The environment was damaged, the government was damaged, and nobody seemed to notice or care. I felt like I was right and they, as a whole, were wrong. Because Thoreau said so.
I read through this work again a decade and half later. It seemed to have evolved and was now very different than before. The philosophical undercurrents of the work had changed. Thoreau’s perspective had shifted. The prose had somehow become more delicate in its structure, more nuanced in its argumentation. The ideologies of beauty and peace had somehow come to the forefront. I was almost convinced that the words themselves had been altered, although I knew that was impossible.
Fast forward to present: The work has changed again. In this latest read I wasn’t energized like before. Nor was I in awe of the bait and switch of my second read through. This time the words just sat plainly before me page after page. The structure and messaging was simple: Thoreau went to the woods. He wished to live deliberately. He wanted to see what it meant to live simply. He wrote a series of detailed essays regarding his experience and they were later published into the work I was reading. The End.
But this latest read was more reflective than the previous two. I empathized more with Thoreau the man this time, versus Thoreau the essayist. I felt like that was me in the cabin. That was me rowing on the pond. Of the detailed descriptions of thoughts and motivations: those were my thoughts and my motivations. But then I turned the last page. The story was over. I was now free to take my leave from the cabin on Walden Pond and return to my suburban Colorado home and don my own well-worn jeans and flannel shirt. The journey I had undertaken with Thoreau had run its course.
But something was not right. I felt like there were questions unanswered. Maybe I had left some pages unturned. I revisited the work: words were still plain, structure and messaging still simple, Thoreau was still there in his cabin, the pond sat still with no one upon it. Then I looked at my suburban existence and felt the rub: where was my cabin? where was my pond? How had the quietude I felt at Walden escaped me?
And there I started a my journey, my journey without Thoreau. My journey to find rectitude and reconciliation for this new angst. My journey to find gratitude and mindfulness amidst the confusion – a journey where every step is based in factual evidence received from the natural world, and one that turns away from the sense of obligation that rises from the collective unconscious. A journey to regain my quietude.
What should be right and true in our modern world where everywhere we turn we receive messages about all the things going so wrong? Where do I find the map detailing the right way to go in my days, where I am mostly confronted with rules and laws informing me against transgression? Mostly this space will be dedicated to exploring new ideas and their merit, discussing novel topics and their potential efficacy. Also exploring old ideas and values that perhaps we should not have left behind, searching for the wisdom of the past that perhaps might serve as a favorable guidepost in navigating our modern world to a brighter future.
Thoreau went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately. I deliberately went back to Thoreau, to Walden, to see if there wasn’t something I had missed before. Some instruction or reflection that would point my way towards peace and understanding – towards quietude. But I went back and found only a book about a man in his cabin. No, that’s not right. I found a book about a man in his cabin on a journey. And there was my start.
“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.” –Walden, Where I lived and what I lived for.