Thoreau’s “business” (Walden 19)

Not Walden Pond, but Holmes Creek, Nebraska, just above Conestoga Lake, early morning, July 2010.

Not Walden Pond, but Holmes Creek, Nebraska, just above Conestoga Lake, early morning, July 2010.

So far, Thoreau has had plenty to say about the high value his neighbors place on things that he doesn’t think are all that important. He’s spoken repeatedly of seeking something higher, more noble. What esoteric wisdom is he seeking, anyway? Or, as a Concord resident might have asked, what’s his line of business?

During his lifetime Thoreau worked in his family’s pencil-manufacturing business (making a number of important innovations). He worked sometimes as a surveyor or as a day-laborer, but at the time of writing Walden hadn’t made any money from his writing. He was widely perceived as unambitious, a bright fellow who never amounted to anything.

Tongue in cheek, he describes himself in Walden as an enterprising businessman, up early to work his trade:

“To anticipate, not the sunrise and the dawn merely, but, if possible, Nature herself!  How many mornings, summer and winter, before yet any neighbor was stirring about his business, have I been about mine! No doubt, many of my townsmen have met me returning from this enterprise, farmers starting for Boston in the twilight, or woodchoppers going to their work. It is true, I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.”

He keeps the playful analogy of business going for the next few paragraphs, along with describing some actual work he did for the community, not for profit, but simply out of altruism. You might say his business was being fully present in whatever he was doing.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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