“Near the end of March, 1845,” says Henry David Thoreau in Walden, “I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing….” Ever afterwards, the question of whose axe Thoreau borrowed has been an open one. Was it Emerson’s? Bronson Alcott’s? Ellery Channing’s? What we can know is that, this morning, as we contemplate our own experiment in living more simply and wisely, we borrow Thoreau’s angle of vision. We borrow the bent of his genius which, as Thoreau himself wryly admits, is “a very crooked one.” We do what he did: “see our native village as if we were a traveler passing through,” “to think new thoughts and have new imaginings, for the deepest and most original thinker is the farthest traveled.” We borrow all this from Thoreau as we begin deliberate travel through our own native village, seeing everything with new questioning eyes as we pass through. And as for where each of us ends up? Once, Thoreau tells us, “a young man of my acquaintance … told me that he thought he should live as I did, if he had the means. [But] I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living on any account. […] I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.” Robert Sullivan, in his excellent biography of Thoreau entitled The Thoreau You Don’t Know, puts it like this: “Thoreau doesn’t offer answers. His is the analysis that leads to the questions. For application purposes, you can apply Thoreau to any question, not to find the answer, but to imagine how he might pose it anew. When you ask what car to drive, imagine Thoreau asking where you are going, or if the car is driving you…”
We borrow all this, as we begin pursuing our own way. Not an axe, but an angle of vision, the bent of a genius, a way of making the familiar strange, a manner of questioning. The first chapter of Walden is entitled “Economy,” but characteristically, Thoreau invites us to use this word not in its conventional sense of wealth creation or fiscal frugality. He wants us to go straight to the ancient Greek origin of the word—oikonomia—which means caring for the household, a holistic way of living in which your use of life resources is in alignment with vital values of freedom and sustainability and beauty. “I am convinced,” he says, “both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.” “Economy,” he says, “is synonymous with philosophy.” This is how he uses the term in the first chapter of what has become, in the 155 years since it was published, sacred scripture for Unitarian Universalists today.
Economy is about how you maintain yourself on this earth. Could be a joyful pastime, but what Thoreau discovers as he travels through his own native village of Concord is people experiencing something very different. Just listen to some of his observations:
“Most men … through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. […] The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat each ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.”
Or this: “The childish and savage taste of men and women for new [clothing] patterns keeps how many shaking and squinting through kaleidoscopes that they may discover the particular figure which this generation requires to-day. The manufacturers have learned that this taste is merely whimsical. Of two patterns which differ only by a few threads more or less of a particular color, the one will be sold readily, the other lie on the shelf, though it frequently happens that after the lapse of a season the latter becomes the most fashionable.”
Or this: “As with our colleges, so with a hundred ‘modern improvements;’ there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. […] Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end…. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
Or this: “One farmer says to me, ‘You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make bone with;’ and so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying his system with the raw material of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plough along in spite of every obstacle.”
Or this: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”
All are observations Thoreau makes as he travels through his native village of Concord. One after another indicates not joyful pastime, but hardship of some kind or other, and perhaps they echo observations you yourself have made, as you’ve traveled through your own village of Atlanta or elsewhere. The rush and gush of our days; time crunch in an era of so-called time-saving devices; “no time to be anything but a machine.” Or how our culture aims at creating more wants in us (rather than focusing on genuine needs)—churns out expert consumers who are fine-tuned to fashion trends but are blind to more important trends of intellect and heart and soul. How communication technologies today are far more powerful than any of the dreams of yesterday and yet still we can question the value of what is being communicated: obnoxious opinions of know-nothing demagogues; undigested data without pattern or context or meaning—“as if the main object were to talk fast and not talk sensibly.” Or people around us, not paying attention to the evidence of their experience, unconsciously in the grip of beliefs that they have never personally questioned or tested: Thoreau’s farmer condemning vegetarianism even as the vital oxen who unfailingly plough his fields are themselves… vegetarian. Finally, all the do-gooders in our world, unconsciously in the grip of the belief that they themselves are not embroiled in the injustice that they try to ease, that they are strong while others are weak—and so through their do-gooding, they administer band-aids and aspirin, never realizing that far more is needed, radical change needed, the kind of change we need today, for example, in health care. Hardship, in the economy of our time as well as in Thoreau’s, and so no wonder the first chapter of Walden is full of sharp social critique and satire, pages howling with anger and pain. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he cries. “From the desperate city you go to the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.” In other words, to bolster your courage, you’ll have to rely on the example of furry little animals, because human examples are simply hard to come by. “I have traveled a good deal in Concord,” says Thoreau, “and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways.”
There has got to be a better way. A better way of maintaining ourselves upon this earth. In fact, that’s the core of the problem right there. People don’t think that alternatives exist. “They honestly think that there is no choice left. But,” says Thoreau, “alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices.” “Man’s capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried.” “What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.” All of these, golden lines of hope. Alternatives do exist, and we can find them. But we must put ourselves out there, in some liminal, in-between space, where creative solutions can find us. Let that be our self-culture practice. We have to borrow Thoreau’s genius, which is a very crooked one, and risk being misunderstood by our family and our peers, risk harm to our reputation. Shift the nature of our business, towards trying to hear what the wind is saying.
This is what led Thoreau to borrow an axe and begin his social experiment of one at Walden Pond. To see if his humanity could be recovered from the machine-like schedule of his days. To escape the tyranny of a consumeristic culture, and peel away all artificial wants to get down to essential needs. To discover what is worth communicating—to write out his heart and soul. To test his beliefs and see which ones actually reflect and extend his real experience. Not to be a reactive do-gooder, but to better understand the evils and problems of our world—distinguish roots from branches—and attack the roots, take his axe and chop at that. “It would be of some advantage,” he says, “to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life and what methods are used to obtain them. […] For the improvements of the ages have had but little influence on the essential laws of man’s existence; as our skeletons, probably, are not to be distinguished from those of our ancestors.” Thoreau goes to Walden to return to essentials, and to sanity. He is a Transcendentalist.
Now I will tell you plainly that the first time I picked up Walden, I had no idea what this guy was talking about. I was in the eighth grade, and I had heard that the book was a classic. Being a student in the gifted and talented program at my school—being a future member of my high school’s I. Q. Booster Club—how could I not want to check it out? I found it in paperback, there on a dark dusty wooden shelf, wedged in tightly among other classics. The cover was not promising—had a weird-looking guy on it with a neck beard. Did he just forget to shave his neck? What’s up with that? I flipped through the pages: tiny print, no picture. Uuugh. Then I started to read. Sentences that had way too many phrases and commas in them, each like long tangled thread. References to Greek and Roman mythology, world religions, science; allusions to stuff I could only vaguely sense. Now, I know that Thoreau is like a contemporary Unitarian Universalist preacher in that he builds the nest of his thought from many sources of insight and wisdom; now, I know that he loved puns and paradox and wordplay, enough to drive his friend and mentor Emerson crazy; now, I know he believed that “in writing, conversation should be folded many times thick.” Now, I know—but then, not at all. Walden was indigestible. I struggled with it for a time, and then gave up.
Now I am in a different place in my life. Perhaps more mature; perhaps more able to navigate his conversation folded many times thick. Definitely hungering for an alternative to the quiet desperation that is contemporary life. And voluntary simplicity as a spiritual discipline sounds very good to me. To what degree does our genuine happiness and wellbeing depend on the clothing we wear, the shelter we possess, the food we eat, the work we do. Is there a way to “get one’s living honestly, with freedom left to pursue one’s proper pursuits”? “The more you have,” says Thoreau, “the poorer you are.” We don’t own our things; our things (or our debts) own us. Simplicity preserves an ability to journey freely through life; but a richness of things weighs us down, puts the cart before the horse, distorts and distracts, “cooks us a la mode.”
At times Thoreau is tongue-in-cheek hilarious as he figures out how to live his voluntary poverty principle. “I had three pieces of limestone on my desk,” he says, “but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust. How, then, could I have a furnished house? I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground.”
Or this story: “A lady once offered me a mat, but as I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door. It is best,” Thoreau concludes,” to avoid the beginnings of evil.”
And can you imagine being his friend? “I sometimes try my acquaintances,” he says, “by such tests as this;–who could wear a patch … over the knee? Most behave as if they believed that their prospects for life would be ruined if they should do it. It would be easier for them to hobble to town with a broken leg than with a broken pantaloon.” Is he right? Is this true? Are we so completely enslaved to keeping up appearances, when in reality all that matters is the inner person, the goodness of a heart, the clarity of a mind, the depth of a spirit?
Applying the voluntary simplicity principle in a consumeristic culture like ours seems hardly possible. Yet I wonder at the effects of at least trying. Reminds me of another story that Thoreau tells, about his axe: “One day, when my axe had come off and I had cut a green hickory for a wedge, driving it with a stone, and had placed the whole to soak in a pond hole in order to swell the wood, I saw a striped snake run into the water, and he lay on the bottom, apparently without inconvenience, as long as I staid there, or more than a quarter of an hour; perhaps because he had not yet fairly come out of the torpid state. It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and more ethereal life.” That’s the story. We are the snake in its torpid state. Yet there is a spring of springs that can arouse us, and raise us up to a higher and more ethereal life.
Above all, this higher life is one of trust. “I think we may safely trust a good deal more than we do,” he says. “Nature is well adapted to our weakness as to our strength. The incessant anxiety and strain of some is a well night incurable form of disease. We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do: and yet how much is not done by us! or, what if we had been taken sick? How vigilant we are! determined not to live by faith is we can avoid it; all the day long on the alert….” Perhaps the root of all evil is none other than this—our pride—and to it, we must take the axe of voluntary simplicity. Greater than anything we can do or any thing we can own is the world’s graciousness, its simple things; we can trust that life is worth living, no matter what.
This is what the first chapter of Walden is all about. Describes nothing less than a hero journey in the economy of life, picks up huge themes like suffering, the quest for healing, discovery, renewal. Thoreau’s unique angle of vision on all this is what we borrow, as we begin. I’ll close with a poem by Norah Pollard that puts it all in perfect and precise cameo:
I knew a woman who washed her hair and bathed
her body and put on the nightgown she’d worn
as a bride and lay down with a .38 in her right hand.
Before she did the thing, she went over her life.
She started at the beginning and recalled everything—
all the shame, sorrow, regret and loss.
This took her a long time into the night
and a long time crying out in rage and grief and disbelief—
until sleep captured her and bore her down.
She dreamed of a green pasture and a green oak tree.
She dreamed of cows. She dreamed she stood
under the tree and the brown and white cows
came slowly up from the pond and stood near her.
Some butted her gently and they licked her bare arms
with their great coarse drooling tongues. Their eyes, wet as
shining water, regarded her. They came closer and began to
press their warm flanks against her, and as they pressed
an almost unendurable joy came over her and
lifted her like a warm wind and she could fly.
She flew over the tree and she flew over the field and
she flew with the cows.
When the woman woke, she rose and went to the mirror.
She looked a long time at her living self.
Then she went down to the kitchen which the sun had made all
yellow, and she made tea. She drank it at the table, slowly,
all the while touching her arms where the cows had licked.