“When formerly I was looking about to see what I could do for a living… I thought often and seriously of picking huckleberries; that surely I could do, and its small profits might suffice — for my greatest skill has been to want but little — so little capital it required, so little distraction from my wonted moods, I foolishly thought. …I also dreamed that I might gather the wild herbs, or carry evergreens to such villagers as loved to be reminded of the woods, even to the city, by hay-cart loads. But I have since learned that trade curses everything it handles; and though you trade in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden
Some people tell you to find a way to do what you love for a living. That’s what Henry was trying to do. He loved writing, but hadn’t made any money at it. But he also loved nature. He loved wandering around in the woods — why not find a way to make some money doing that?
Let’s say you love writing or art or music. You could try making a living doing those things.
This, I think, is where the curse of trade comes in. Let’s say that you actually defy great odds and make a living doing any of the above. Now the thing you love to do is also the thing that puts food on the table. So if your berry-gathering or your writing or your art becomes less profitable, you’ve got to change how you do the thing that you love in order to pay the bills. As long as you’re relying on that thing for money, you’re no longer entirely free in the way you do it. It has become chained to commerce.
I think that’s what Henry was afraid of. He was afraid of turning his love of the woods into an obligation. He was afraid that the way he looked at nature might be corrupted by pecuniary interest, the way a logger doesn’t look at a tree the same way that hiker or a bird watcher does.
So his solution was to find ways to need less money so that he could keep his love of the woods innocent and pure. If you really love something, Henry would tell us, be careful about doing it for money.
What do you think? Was Henry right, or was he too wrapped up in an idealistic pursuit of intellectual and aesthetic purity?
(About “A Year in Walden”)