Many Americans are in danger of losing their humanity. Believing themselves to be separate from Nature, they attempt to cocoon themselves from it, never realizing that by doing so they are excising their ability to connect with what is reality itself. Denying mankind’s attachment to his own environment is nothing less than unconscionable cruelty.
Between 1845 – 1847, the author lived near Walden Pond in a forest owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson near Concord, Massachusetts. Having built himself a 10 x 15′ cabin for about $28 (which comes to around $863 in today’s highly inflated Federal Reserve Notes), Thoreau then begins to philosophize not only about his own life and the individual lives of others, but also the social underpinnings of Western civilization itself. On the presumption that literature and nature can both be valid approaches to learning the truth, Thoreau muses about the quality of the classics as well as the benefits of being observant of one’s immediate surroundings.
As a transcendentalist, Thoreau often took a dim view of institutionalization, believing that its socialization agents ultimately corrupted the purity of individuality. Although I do share Thoreau’s distrust of authority itself, this does not therefore mean that the socialization within an institution causes individuality to become subjugated, for it is only equally possible that it does so, relative to the possibility that it does not. Personally, I prefer the Ayn Rand approach, which is to grit your teeth and bear it while minimizing any more contact with it than you otherwise would, and then once you’re out of contact with that institution, you breath some fresh air and “get to know yourself again,” as it were.
The very idea of “simple living” itself evokes a sense of voluntary poverty. Despite its adherents playing semantics, the fact of the matter is that such “voluntary simplicity” carries religious overtones because its roots lay in monastic asceticism. If you’re the more spiritual type, then kudos to you, but don’t expect the rest of us who aren’t as much to be impressed by your devotion to what essentially amounts to your faith. Frugally enjoying your liberty is one thing, but willingly “going without” only to make some inane point is pointless.
Thoreau’s style of prose was much like experiencing a trance, and it reminded me of how I felt whenever I’ve gone out into the woods by myself. Near my apartment building there is a wooded area where people seldom go, and being the insatiably curious type, I decided to go exploring. What I found there was a perfectly secluded area wonderfully cleared out, almost as if it were done on purpose so one could camp here. Unfortunately, there was a ton of broken glass and other debris around the place, so I returned a few days later with gloves, a few trash bags, and a hammer, and just spent a few hours cleaning up the place. Once the refuse had been disposed of, I proceeded to drive out all the protruding rusty nails from the partially rotted wooden pallets, which I then easily converted to impromptu seats. Having made the location enjoyable again, it is a place I still return to whenever I want to escape from the city and just contemplate alone with my thoughts within this profoundly quiet sanctuary of Nature.
Interestingly enough, Thoreau referred to his arrest for refusal to pay that poll-tax to fund the Mexican-American War, just like he did in his earlier work, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Thoreau says:
“One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler’s, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house…wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society.”
Again, Thoreau mentions that the heavy-handedness he experienced is systematic and not incidental to the nature of government. If anything, one could infer quite a bit from Thoreau’s statement that:
“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root…”
This single phrase has inspired not only an image meme depicting the tree of statism, but also an entire website dedicated to the abolishment of the government monopolies upon courts and police. “Root-striking” is now a household term, as are the “root-strikers” who delegitimize these government monopolies, such as Dr. Roger Roots has done regarding the constitutionality of government police. Providing alternatives to these monopolies through the private production of security and arbitration services could also be considered a form of root-striking, and this verbal lingo was all made possible thanks to Thoreau.
“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves…[h]ow worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”
Unlike some people who believe that you should live in a so-called “tiny house” for the rest of your life, Thoreau was completely upfront about the fact that his time at Walden Pond was a temporary affair to provide him with a kind of emotional refuge. He also said:
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours…[i]n proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, the solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
Yet again, Thoreau emphasizes the fact that his cabin at Walden was an experiment, not a way of life! Although much of what Thoreau mentions would appeal to the statists who call themselves “progressives,” they really have a tough time even mentioning Thoreau’s intense dislike of government, which they try to downplay or ignore, often portraying it as nothing more serious than an idiosyncratic eccentricity. Just like Sam Konkin said back in 1985, “Look for the action,” and the action here was Thoreau scavenging for most of the materials to build his cabin, and then living in what would now be considered a “tiny home” in Emerson’s forest for two years while philosophizing about life and nature. Even if it was only a form of psychotherapy, Thoreau certainly learned something about himself as well as the world around him that he couldn’t have done any other way other than spending time alone at Walden Pond.