Why Thoreau left the woods (Walden 200)

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

I never noticed until now that he says “Perhaps it seemed to me” instead of just “It seemed to me.” Is he being coy? Does he not want to get into the whole thing about the Emersons? Or is he admitting that’s it’s often hard to know the full reasons why we do what we do?

Several years after moving back to town (but before publishing Walden) he wrote in his journal (January 22, 1852):

“But why I changed? why I left the woods? I do not think that I can tell. I have often wished myself back. I do not know any better how I ever came to go there. Perhaps it is none of my business, even if it is yours. Perhaps I wanted a change. There was a little stagnation, it may be. About 2 o’clock in the afternoon the world’s axle creaked as if it needed greasing, as if the oxen labored with the wain and could hardly get their load over the ridge of the day. Perhaps if I lived there much longer, I might live there forever. One would think twice before he accepted heaven on such terms.”

One thing about contemplation. You think it’s going to help you know yourself, but sometimes what it shows you — if you’re honest — is how hard that is to do. We tell ourselves stories about what we do, and the stories weave a narrative that explains why we do what we do. Are the stories true?… or better, to what degree are these stories true?

Back to Walden:

“It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct.”

Maybe he was afraid he was getting into a rut. Maybe the experiment in the woods had run its course and would provide only diminishing returns. In hindsight we can say it’s clear that he got what he needed from it: the experience that was the basis for his great book. Now he needed several years living a different life in a different place in order to be able to write the final drafts. To create Walden, maybe leaving the woods was as important as going there in the first place.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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