I Finally Read Walden

Published May 5, 2020

We all grew up knowing the story – Henry David Thoreau built a cabin on the shore of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, and lived there for two years (1845–1846) and eight years later (1854) wrote about it in a book titled Walden, or Life in the Woods. Living alone in the woods gave Thoreau time to study nature at a micro level as well as to reflect on the lives and values of people consumed with the day-to-day obligations and distractions of raising families and earning livings.

Walden is now regarded as a foundational text of natural history, ecology, and the modern environmental movement. A million backpackers carried copies of the book to every corner of every national park in the United States and to wilderness areas around the world. The book tempted untold numbers of college students to drop out, build their own cabin (or in my case, a geodesic dome) in a rural area, and take a stab at “living off the land.”

For 44 years I carried battered yellowed paper-back editions of Walden from apartment to apartment and then house to house, in boxes and backpacks and the saddlebags of motorcycles, reading bits and pieces of it along the way, but I do not recall ever reading it cover-to-cover until just the past month. I used for the occasion the stunningly beautiful 150th anniversary illustrated edition published in 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company in cooperation with the Walden Woods Project. This edition, being oversized and profusely illustrated with color photographs, is a joy to read. You should go on Amazon.com now and buy one for yourself and two more as Christmas gifts.

My overall reaction to Walden is one of delight… or rather, of one delight after another, over and over again, often four or five times on a single page until I have to set the book down and just muse for a few minutes, lest my cup flow all over my lap and shoes. The book is one funny or wise or heart-felt or enlightening revelation after another, spun out in a stilted nineteenth century style that often seems deliberately set up for comic effect, as if the author knew how a twenty-first century reader would react to his era’s peculiar vocabulary and cadence. Consider this from the very first page:

I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.

Sorry, but that’s just funny, doubly so because of the way it is so carefully phrased and obviously rehearsed, so funny I just had to read it out loud to my long-suffering spouse. But such witticisms come so closely upon each other that at times I was compelled to read entire chapters out loud to her. On one occasion I read out loud for three straight hours, stopping only because I was hoarse.

Later in the same paragraph just cited, for example, Thoreau writes:

Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students. As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them. I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits.

What a wonderful image, that! But the whole book is like this, a continuous flow of aphorisms and clever plays on word often appearing in ridiculously long sentences cut with a dozen or more semicolons and embedded in sprawling paragraphs that cover entire pages. At first I tried to mark the most-clever phrases with little Post-It notes, but in just a couple dozen pages I ran out of notes and realized that if I continued, my map would become the territory. I recognized some famous lines, such as “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (p. 6) but many more were new to me:

“One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.” (p. 7)

“There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live.” (p. 11)

“I also have in my mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.” (p. 12)

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion. I would rather ride on earth in an ox cart, with a free circulation, than go to heaven in the fancy car of an excursion train and breathe a malaria all the way.” (p. 27)

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York.” (p. 39)

“I am wont to think that men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men, the former are so much the freer.” (p. 43)

And so on and so forth, with a score of probably better examples left out even from these few pages. But enough with clever one-liners; the  substance of the first chapter of Walden is Thoreau’s attempt to demonstrate that most people work so long and hard to accumulate “dross” and achieve status that they have no time or energy to enjoy art, leisure, or solitude. “For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks a year, I could meet all the expenses of living,” he reports (p. 51). Many men work so long and hard during their “careers,” he says, that they are too worn out to enjoy their “retirement.” And philanthropy, he says, is “greatly overrated.”

The second chapter (for they are unnumbered) describes what Thoreau sought to find at Walden Pond. It contains this famous passage:

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, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. (pp. 67, 69)

“To live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”; I remember reading that line sometime in my youth and thinking I was doing this when I hiked the Appalachian Trail in Maine and the Sioux Hustler Trail in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota.

Subsequent chapters are too brilliant and exciting to summarize. “Reading,” “Sounds,” “Solitude,” and “Visitors” are filled with details, insights, and truths so compelling they demand that they be read over and over, out loud, and followed by silence and introspection. “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!” (p. 81) “Commerce is unexpectedly confident and serene, alert, adventurous, and unwearied. It is very natural in its methods withal, far more so than many fantastic enterprises and sentimental experiments, and hence its singular success.” (p. 93) “I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls.” (p. 107)

There follow several chapters describing wildlife at Walden Pond and surrounding areas in different seasons, confirming Thoreau’s talent as a naturalist. However, one chapter, titled “Higher Laws,” breaks from Thoreau’s somewhat detached and playful descriptions of nature and human peccadillos to express his deep emotional connection with wild things. While walking home through the woods after a day spent fishing, he “caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for that wildness which he represented.” He goes on,

I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild no less than the good. The wildness and adventure that are in fishing still recommended it to me. I like sometimes to take rank hold on life and spend my day more as the animals do. (p. 168)

He goes on to describe the virtues of hunting and fishing, but mostly as something to be outgrown both by individuals and societies, and then praises vegetarianism, “a more innocent and wholesome diet” than one including meat. “I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.” (p. 171).

Walden ends with a substantial “Conclusion.” Thoreau challenges the reader to explore “the continents and seas in the moral world” as well as, or instead of, the unexplored regions of the Earth. He explains his decision to leave Walden Pond: “I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open.” (p. 262) The novelty of Walden had become another routine, a public convention, or rut. He could no longer see “the moonlight amid the mountains” from that path. However, while making that path,

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. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. (p. 262)

He preaches again against the mindless competition to acquire the most goods or highest status, writing, “if a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” (p. 263) He commends a life of poverty (“sell your clothes and keep your thoughts”) and humility (“humility like darkness reveals the heavenly lights”). “It is life near the bone where it is sweetest.” (p. 265) And “rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” (p. 267)

Walden’s conclusion, like the chapter titled “Higher Laws,” struck me as being out of sync with the rest of the book. In that previous chapter, his description of blood lust, his comment that “I love the wild no less than the good,” and his almost hectoring the reader about the virtues of a vegetarian diet seem out of character. As Edward O. Wilson wrote in the foreword to this edition, “Thoreau was not a man who dissolved himself into nature” and “he was not biocentric, to use the modern term, but anthropocentric. His passion was humanity, and he sought what he could find in nature in order to bring it to humanity.”

Similarly, in the conclusion, the usually bright and clever observations now seem to be clichés strung together, the stuff of high school graduation speeches rather than the final thoughts of a great naturalist. Poverty, humility, and truth are all fine and good virtues, of course, and the stories and thought experiments presented earlier by the author do seem to point toward making these virtues life-goals. So perhaps the conclusion is simply connecting the dots. But much of Walden is devoted to explaining how our world is not as simple as it seems and how every individual, civilization, and epoch has its own complex ecology, just as Walden Pond has its water, plants, and seasons. Perhaps Thoreau felt a sermon was needed at the end of his brilliant and inspired book, since his readers were so lacking in all three virtues.