Building one’s own nest (Walden 29)

“There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged?”  — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

We live in a professionalized world. Others build our houses, manufacture our possessions, produce our food. All of it involves specialized skills, whole teams of specialists working on one tiny part of the production chain. The result is that we have houses and products so advanced from Henry’s time that they’d seem almost magical to a person from the mid-nineteenth century.

But it’s also true that we’re disconnected from how things work, how things are made, even from the day to day workings of nature itself. I think that’s why you see movements to reconnect people with hands-on activity such as programs that encourage schoolchildren to tend gardens, or DIY enthusiasts. It isn’t practical to do everything for yourself — not unless you really do want to move to the woods and fend for yourself in ways that even Thoreau didn’t attempt, but maybe we can selectively acquire skills so that we can provide directly for ourselves in at least a few aspects of our lives.

I once met a musician couple who lived in an old schoolhouse and taught lessons on a variety of instruments. Just to play devil’s advocate, I asked why — when there are so many professional musicians who can do it better and who make high-quality recordings of any kind of music you want to listen to — should people of average abilities should go to all the trouble of learning to play music?

“For the humanity of it,” the woman said.

I think Henry, who played the flute, would appreciate that.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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