Monthly Archives: May 2014

“Incredibly little trouble” to get your food (Walden 35)

“I learned from my two years’ experience that it would cost incredibly little trouble to obtain one’s necessary food, even in this latitude; that a man may use as simple a diet as the animals, and yet retain health and strength.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

I don’t want to say I don’t believe Thoreau here, but I suspect that we differ on our definition of “incredibly little trouble.” He has already written of spending seven hours a day hoeing beans. I guess in his era that was a pretty easy day for a farmer, instead of the usual sunrise to sunset. (By way of comparison, my wife and I have a tomato plant and some herbs.)

Most of us today have very little idea what it would be like to raise our own food, or to raise more than a token amount of food. Most of our food is packaged and processed. In the US we’re besieged by food advertising. Portion sizes have grown steadily over the past generation, and rates of obesity have grown with them. Our understanding of food is about as far removed from Henry’s as is our understanding of transportation or electronic communication. We simply live in a different world.

One thing is a safe bet. We don’t need all that we think we need.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


A tomb for some ambitious booby (Walden 34)

Have you noticed how Thoreau keeps coming to these paradoxical conclusions? The swiftest traveler goes afoot. The richest person is the guy in the shack who owes no one and whose time is his own.

And the greatest monument to human civilization? Well, here’s what it’s not: Continue reading

The swiftest traveler goes afoot (Walden 33)

“I have learned that the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot.”

In part, Thoreau means this literally. He worked it out in response to someone who suggested that he save up money for train fare to visit Fitchburg. Traveling the thirty miles by train would cost ninety cents, or most of a day’s wages. But Henry, an avid pedestrian, figures he can start walking now and get there before night. Continue reading

Thoreau on the nineteenth century Internet (Walden 32)

“We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden Continue reading

Improved means to an unimproved end (Walden 31)

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end…”

This is one of those times when Thoreau sounds anti-technology. I don’t think he was against technology so much as he was against its thoughtless adoption. Earlier in the book he speaks of the opportunity to use modern materials “to become richer than the richest now are, and make our civilisation a blessing.” (For example, you can learn how to make better pencils.) Continue reading

Building your own school (Walden 30)

Continuing the thought from #29 about the value of doing things yourself, Thoreau suggests, after describing the construction of his little house, that students participate in building their schools and colleges.

“I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them in this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end.”

Booker T. Washington. Wikipedia

Booker T. Washington. Wikipedia

I know of one school that did this by necessity. When Booker T. Washington, a former slave, founded the Tuskegee Institute, the students actually helped build the original buildings. The students were black in the American South in the late nineteenth century — going to public school was out of the question, and so the only way for them to have a school was to build it themselves.

It was a terrible situation — even with an education the students faced a lifetime of bigotry — but Washington tried to make the best of it. He felt that by building their school, the students also built character. Had Thoreau still been living, the two men would have had a lot to talk about. Continue reading

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. Continue reading