That loafer, Thoreau, on walking in the woods and finding gold

“If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.”

– Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862

One of the things I love about Thoreau is the way he made a righteous cause of what his contemporaries regarded as idleness. After finding the above quote on The W Perspective, I looked up the full essay, which Thoreau delivered as a lecture in 1854 and edited for publication before he died. It was published as “Life without Principle” in the Atlantic Monthly in 1863. An annotated version is here. Like so much of what Thoreau wrote, the essay is pithy, quietly passionate, a bit self-righteous, and well worth reading. A biographer described it as “in a few pages the very essence of Thoreau’s philosophy.” Here are some highlights:

“This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work. I cannot easily buy a blank-book to write thoughts in; they are commonly ruled for dollars and cents. An Irishman, seeing me making a minute in the fields, took it for granted that I was calculating my wages. If a man was tossed out of a window when an infant, and so made a cripple for life, or scared out of his wits by the Indians, it is regretted chiefly because he was thus incapacitated for — business! I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.”

Oh, but times were simpler then. People lived at a slower pace… you’ve heard that before, right? Except that most people worked longer and harder in Thoreau’s day than we do today. And then as now, people were preoccupied with getting ahead. But not our friend Henry:

“If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for. I trust that I shall never thus sell my birthright for a mess of pottage. I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living.”

Easy for him to say. He didn’t have a family to support. But how many people today calculate how much their careers are costing them?

I think my favorite part of the essay is the part about gold mining. The nineteenth century was an era of gold rushes, the quintessential get-rich-quick enterprise (at least that was the dream). After reading an account of Australian gold-diggings, Thoreau imagined

“whole valleys, for thirty miles, suddenly honeycombed by the pits of the miners, so that even hundreds are drowned in them, — standing in water, and covered with mud and clay, they work night and day, dying of exposure and disease. Having read this, and partly forgotten it, I was thinking, accidentally, of my own unsatisfactory life, doing as others do; and with that vision of the diggings still before me, I asked myself why I might not be washing some gold daily, though it were only the finest particles, — why I might not sink a shaft down to the gold within me, and work that mine.

“Men rush to California and Australia as if the true gold were to be found in that direction; but that is to go to the very opposite extreme to where it lies. They go prospecting farther and farther away from the true lead, and are most unfortunate when they think themselves most successful. Is not our native soil auriferous? Does not a stream from the golden mountains flow through our native valley? and has not this for more than geologic ages been bringing down the shining particles and forming the nuggets for us? Yet, strange to tell, if a digger steal away, prospecting for this true gold, into the unexplored solitudes around us, there is no danger that any will dog his steps, and endeavor to supplant him. He may claim and undermine the whole valley even, both the cultivated and the uncultivated portions, his whole life long in peace, for no one will ever dispute his claim. They will not mind his cradles or his toms. He is not confined to a claim twelve feet square, as at Ballarat, but may mine anywhere, and wash the whole wide world in his tom.”

One time when I was a kid I sat through an interminable visit in which some friends-of-relatives tried to talk my parents into joining one of those pyramid scheme sales programs. We’ll call them Mr. & Mrs. Greedy. They talked only about money and the stuff it could buy. Nothing else concerned them. Bored, I sat reading a National Geographic article about Alaska.

“Alaska!” said Mrs. Greedy, noticing the magazine cover. “There’s a lot of money up there!”

I don’t remember anything else Mrs. Greedy said, but that remark stuck with me. Even though I’d never been to Alaska, it struck me as obscene that that would be a person’s first and only thought about such a place.

Our culture tends to monetize everything. Our society is economically robust (with resources for things like the Internet and blogs about curiosity), but it also encourages us to look at the world like Mr. & Mrs. Greedy did, viewing everything through the lens of commerce. Everything is a means to an end, and the end is money. Thoreau, ready to sink a shaft down into his own brain and “wash the whole wide world in his tom,” did a better job of recognizing intrinsic value.


6 thoughts on “That loafer, Thoreau, on walking in the woods and finding gold

  1. amonikabyanyuvva

    I agree with alot of Thoreau, Walden is a favourite. I have blogged about how the West has lost something in dealing with value only in terms of commerce. I really believe that some parts of society are questioning this. Saying that, human beings have always divided into subgroups, ending up with power houses of a few individuals. Do we have a herd mentaliity?

    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      I think we do have a herd mentality to some extent. Or at least, acting as a herd, or as peasants bowing to a manor lord, is what tends to happen by default. Achieving a more equitable society takes years and years of work. Generations. And it’s always prone to sliding backward if people become frightened or angry about something. And if a person is in debt or afraid of losing their job or not being able to provide for their kids, that tends to keep them focused on ‘commerce’ to the exclusion of other things. What Thoreau is talking about is really difficult to do under the best of circumstances, and I think if we want to see more of it, we’re going to have to do more to address people’s economic insecurity.

      1. amonikabyanyuvva

        I agree wholeheartedly with those comments. I am heartened that there is interest in bringing the subject of distribution of wealth to the front. In Britain we have seen the entrance of an organisation called 38Degrees which is apolitical in that it avoids party politics, but challenges govt by bringing people together over single issues.
        The last decade or two has seen crazy acquistion by individuals and corporations via the financial sector lack of regulation. The challenge is how to redress the imbalance without resorting to the guillotine. I agree, Thoreau has the advantage of seclusion and is somewhat divorced from the realities of making a living. Nevertheless, there are individual choices we make that do contribute to the sum of societal greed and envy. WE need less, and we need to want less. Most of us in the West. We need to eat less meat, and avoid using all the resources to feed animals for a start. I a m not vegetarian, but we don’t need meat at every meal. Small steps on big scales to change mindset and habits. I don’t want a war to bring back the requisite rationing! I think ssome do.

      2. thecuriouspeople Post author

        Thanks. Yes, I agree that individual choices, multiplied by many people, can make a big difference. Funny you mention not needing meat at every meal. My wife and I have discovered this over the past several years and have really cut back. I haven’t missed it. (Though as I’m typing this, I can smell the aroma of roasting chicken wafting in from the kitchen. Mmm.) Back to Thoreau, I think we need people like him, who sort of stand apart from mainstream society and observe it as outsiders. During his Walden Pond experiment he became sort of a secular monk. The rest of us may not go as far but we can learn something valuable from his experience.

        I just visited the 38 Degrees website and read about their petition against a Conservative proposal regarding the British health care system. This sounds familiar. Here in the US, many people are trying to undermine Obamacare, which isn’t even universal coverage but only a tentative and much-compromised step in that direction. I’m pretty much avoiding politics on this blog, but watching people fight against universal healthcare seems like one of the more barbaric things that we do to ourselves.

      3. amonikabyanyuvva

        I am aghast at what the government here are doing to our heathcare system. Changes are necessary but they are taking a machete to it. The govt seem oblivious to listening to the professionals who are faced with delivering it. Like education, it is a political football. Here the Establishment is very good at protecting its own interest. Same story throughout history, across the world. Power interests the human being. Power attracts those least able to have empathy. AS Orwell put it, Power corrupts. absolute power corrupts absolutely.

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