Henry David Thoreau

Walden

“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the art.”

Living simply can be exhausting. We run away from life’s busyness only to find ourselves as busy as ever.

When journalist Sylvain Tesson left society to live in Siberia, he packs and orders his materials so carefully and plans his days so ferociously, one wonders if he abandons society’s trappings as thoroughly as he hoped.1

In Henry David Thoreau‘s (July 12 1817 – May 6 1862) Walden, as important and meaningful a work as any you’ll have the chance to read, Thoreau famously announced an intention “to live deliberately.”

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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close.

I doubt Thoreau felt a need to abandon “fifteen types of ketchup” like Tesson, but the underlying need to simplify remained. And of course there is Mary Oliver’s simple desire to “escape life’s busyness.”

Thoreau states it similarly:

Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously course labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.

Thus, on July 4 1865, with this desire to live life deliberately billowing his sails, Thoreau left society for the pebbled shores of Walden Pond in central Massachusetts, to a parcel of land owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Photograph of Reeds Lake, featured in Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" in the Examined Life Library.
“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature,” wrote Thoreau, “It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” I grew up near this lake in Michigan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

And yet, despite his self-promise to live with only the essentials of life, there is quite a bit of domesticity in Walden, a fair amount of quotidian duties, the very thing we might say keeps us from that rich, essential life.

I picked out as many fireplace bricks as I could find, to save work and waste, and I filled the spaces between the bricks about the fireplace with stones from the pond shore, and also made my mortar with the white sand from the same place. I lingered most about the fireplace, as the most vital part of the house.2

Some of the brightest moments of Walden involve Thoreau making ‘home.’ Whether familiarizing himself with the land as if it were an extension of his intimate quarters, or growing his own food (those famous bean vines), building his shelter, a simple space of four corners from which he “made some progress towards settling in the world” or replenishing his wood pile.

Thoreau works diligently to live simply.

If we ascribe deliberateness to a modern daily slog – what Albert Camus called “weariness tinged with amazement” – Thoreau’s directed work and simultaneous desire to escape such futility may seem conflicting.3

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particulate picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful, but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the art.

Photograph of a pond formed by the Thames estuary featured in Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" in the Examined Life Library.
“A green and silent spot, amid the hills,/A small and silent dell! O’er stiller place/No singing sky-lark ever poised himself.” from “Fears in Solitude” by William Wordsworth. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Yet it is from that focused, deliberate living, what Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön called “moment to moment curiosity” in the latent greatness of small, seemingly insignificant things, which percolates the most endless depths of feeling and more than feeling, knowledge.

“There was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight.

[…]

In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.

Walden is such a tremendous book, it gives us bottomless pools of wisdom. But it is this business of deliberate living – of boring, simple, seemingly quotidian living – that I gravitate to most. In that we quiet the dominant noise, shush the demons, welcome in everything else.

Photograph of pond formed by the flooded banks of the River Arun featured in Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

After two years Thoreau returned “to civilization” with a lifted chin from living deliberately between those eternities. He walked out of the forest but it remained in him, like it does.

I read Thoreau to keep my eye on that eternity, to feel a vast peace open up as I tidy cupboards, make lists, plant the spring bulbs, stroll up over the hills. Before too long, the eternity enters, expands.

Carry with you into Walden’s spell a copy of Mary Oliver’s poetry (she was a disciple of Thoreau) Annie Dillard’s wander into the woods or my study of emptiness and being or hands outstretched and met.