The Thoreau Reader
American Transcendentalism Web
Simply the Best
Links to Other Dispatches
Ever think about how much stuff you have? You know how many books and CD's, computers and games, toys, pictures, phones, clothes, shoes, earrings, candles and backpacks there are lying around your room? In America, we tend to get caught up buying "stuff" that we think will make us happier, smarter, prettier, or more popular with our friends. We want the latest cell phone, the coolest car, the hippest hooded sweatshirt, and we want all of these things without really considering why they're so important to us.
Once in a while though, the beep of the cell phone, the pager, the email notification and the fax might seem to be too much.
Feel like simplifying things and really getting away from it all?
Pack up your shingles, grab some old boards, buy 1,000 or so old bricks, and don't forget a box of nails... we're building a house in the woods - Thoreau style!
Even way back in the 19th Century, Henry David Thoreau believed that life was getting too complicated for people to recognize what was really important to them. It frustrated him to see that "making a living [had] come to take precedence over living itself," and he wanted to find a different way. Thoreau felt that it was possible for people to live more simply, without being dragged down by all of their material possessions, time clocks, and money. So rather than wonder what life would be like without the distractions of a hectic daily schedule, he decided to try an experiment: he would actually live it.
With only $28 and his own handiwork, Thoreau built himself a one-room house in the woods outside Concord, MA. He chose a lovely spot overlooking Walden Pond, and set himself up to "live deliberately," in solitude, so he could concern himself simply with the "essential facts of life." Now that he didn't have to worry about other people, daily business or paying bills, this isolated spot in the woods gave him plenty of time to reflect, write and observe the natural world around him.
Thoreau's idea developed out of a movement called transcendentalism. This way of thinking had been tossed around New England for a while by writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau's good friend. Transcendentalists believed that people should figure things out for themselves, relying on their own personal experiences rather than authority or tradition. "Trust thyself," became their motto, and "trust himself" is exactly what Thoreau moved to Walden Pond to do.
Easily wearing the different hats of scientist, then poet, philosopher and ecologist, Henry David Thoreau spent his days in the woods proving that life could be extremely simple, and still completely fulfilling. In the two years, two months, and two days he lived in his tiny cabin, Thoreau refused to acknowledge the days of the week, or even what month of the year it was. He let nature be his teacher, taking lessons from the change of the seasons, the habits of animals, and the calm of the pond. Although he planted his own crops, chopped his own wood, and fished when he needed to (but never resorting to hunting), Thoreau supported himself with as little labor as possible so that he could devote most of his time to writing and thinking.
It was while he was living on Walden Pond that Thoreau spent his now famous night in jail for "Civil Disobedience." Being a man of action and not just of thought, Thoreau had refused to pay his taxes to the government, since part of that money was going to finance the United States' war with Mexico. Thoreau felt that he could not support this unjust war to take territory from Mexico since it would also further slavery. (Take a look at my dispatch on dissent to the Mexican American War to find out more about Thoreau's peaceful protest). It was by sticking to his principles that Thoreau felt he was living a good and fulfilling life.
In order to share the lessons he'd learned from the woods, Thoreau wrote his experiences into a book called Walden. This essay has since become the "bible of individualists," encouraging people to do their own thing on their own terms, rather than conform to the way other people expect them to live, think or act. Celebrating diverse ideas, Thoreau wrote that, "if a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer." He hoped that people would let every individual "step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
The other night, I sat on the Manhattan subway with two laughing butterflies, the bad guy from Scream, six Brady Bunch kids, and a giant Cat in the Hat.
Hiking through Thoreau's woods on an amazingly beautiful autumn day, I sat down by Walden Pond to think about the beat I've been marching to. Those of us on the US Trek really believe in Thoreau's message, and try to live it in our daily lives and travels. We have left behind the frills and toys and other things we once felt attached to so that during these ten months, all that we need fits into the back of our cars. We usually have no idea what day it is (as we have no daily or weekly routine), and spend our time dedicated to this project that we each feel passionate about. The Odyssey provides us with a small daily budget for food, and we have found that when used creatively, and supplemented by the kindness of those around us, it is more than enough to live well on. Although we haven't removed ourselves to a far-away cabin in the woods, we have found that for us, it is important to "live simply," as Thoreau proved possible, treading lightly wherever we go, "so that others may simply live."
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Teddy - Those radical, shakin' Quakers!
Daphne - Standing up for the mentally ill
Teddy - Intellectuals plow into a farming commune
Kevin - Class struggle takes center stage
Neda - Looking for Utopia - and mint chocolate chip ice cream
MAD - Homeless shouldn't mean hopeless