A lesson from a man who lived in the woods


Recently I have had occasion to revisit Henry David Thoreau and his most noted work, “Walden,” which came to life as a result of Thoreau’s experiment in living in solitude and relying totally on his own resources for his survival. He wanted to learn whether it is possible to simplify one’s needs so completely that one is able to provide for the most basic of these needs independently of society. To accomplish this feat, he built himself a bare-bones dwelling in a secluded, wooded area adjacent to Walden Pond, one of many such bodies of water near Concord, Mass.

Thoreau is best remembered as one of the intellectuals known as Transcendentalists, who believed in the supremacy of mankind and nature to the exclusion of organized religion, which these thinkers thought imposed an unnatural barrier to independent thinking. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most prominent members of the group, wrote a treatise called “Self-Reliance,” in which he propounded the theory that one can depend on oneself to produce what he needs and then some. He can learn to appreciate and cooperate with nature and rely on that cooperation for his survival so long as he maintains respect for both himself and nature. Emerson’s theory was put to the test by his friend Henry David Thoreau.

During the two years he spent in the woods, Thoreau had time to closely observe nature and to wonder at the beauty of his surroundings, including the animals, the plant life, the seasonal changes, and the very landscape. Though many of the townspeople probably thought he was missing something, he pitied them for their lives of “quiet desperation.” He came to believe that their endless pursuit of personal achievement left them bereft of understanding how much they sacrificed for that “advancement.” To him, personal goals were achievable so long as the goals were simplified and did not require that one sacrifice his soul to accomplish them. If one’s needs are simple, they are simply met. What a marvelous philosophy!

I first came upon Thoreau and his experiment in simplicity as a non-traditional student with a husband and three small boys to care for, a house needing my attention, and a budget stretched to the limit to pay not only my tuition but that of two of the boys who attended parochial school. I wanted to keep my home looking like the showplace of my dreams, but my husband’s salary could cover either future dreams or current ones, not both. We had decided to invest in the future, and thanks to my discovery of Thoreau and his concept of simplicity, I was able to come to terms with the fact that by simplifying our expectations, we could get along with what we had because that was what we required. By deciding that what we needed was what we wanted, we were able to stay within our means and accomplish what we thought was important. We may have “wanted” some non-essentials, but we never were in want.

As for the potential conflict between Transcendentalism and religion, I eventually was able to reach a compromise. I respect the right of believers in other traditions, and I agree that those traditions include much that is worthy of respect and perhaps even acceptance. Any belief that includes love of nature and self-reliance has my attention.

Ann Dow is a retired teacher.