I first tried to read Walden in high school. I hated it. I next read it during my first year in college. Hated it again. Thoreau, as a man, seemed boring and confused. At the time, I didn’t have many specific ambitions, though desired…something and living in a dinky cabin in New England was not one of them. Yet during one of my several years-long breaks from college, during which I surfed, traveled, camped, and worked just enough to afford myself the freedom to pursue those thrills, I picked up Walden a third time, not assigned, not out of obligation, but because some kernel had stuck in my brain from those first aborted readings. Also because I was at a charming used bookstore, the copy of Walden was $2.50, it smelled musty and wonderful, and I had a slight crush on the older woman working the register who’d suggested the book.
This time, I was ready for Thoreau. I’d tasted enough of the “real” world to learn why one might question it. I’d been questioning it myself, abandoning creature comforts and the money that provided them for the comfort of the immaterial. All I needed were some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I was fine, to quote a 20th century, slacker/poet version of Thoreau.
It helped that I lived on California’s Central Coast, an unhurried place where if one wanted, they might wander empty hillsides and pick blackberries to eat growing along cool riparian corridors. Spend a day, or, hell, two, lounging in a hidden beach cove, sharing the sand with marooned elephant seals, snorting and rolling in the sun like great sausages. Dip a fishing line in a pond ringed with oaks on a hot summer afternoon, time a meaningless idea, nothing mattering but the pond, the rustling oak leaves.
Thoreau taught me that it was wise to act with intention. That it was perfectly okay to live the way you chose, provided it was a choice. Principles, Thoreau argued, both in words and in life, mattered. Briefly, I too thought of engaging in civil disobedience and dealing with arrest like Thoreau—this was during the early stages of the second Bush administration and the Iraq war—but thought better of it and chose, instead, to focus on working less and surfing and camping more. Principles.
Eventually, the used copy of Walden I bought became a glove compartment mainstay. Over the next decade, rumpled, softened from hundreds, thousands of handlings, that copy found a home in whichever beater Toyota truck I was driving at the time. Finally, it was the last item I packed in my backpack for a several month-long stint in Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park for a job. A fellow crew member had never read it. I loaned it to her and didn’t realize I hadn’t asked for it back until I was halfway home at the end of the summer, 200 miles away. No matter. I’d internalized the lessons. Live intentionally. Be comforted by nature. Be.
Today is Thoreau’s 202nd birthday. To mark the occasion, here is a favored bit of Walden, “Solitude” when he is describing the companionship he feels from nature itself. It illustrates the genius of Thoreau—he begins by explaining the pond and lands around him are ordinary and unremarkable, then devotes hundreds of words to describe their beauty. If you’ve never read Thoreau, today is as good a day as any to pick up a copy of your own.
This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note of the whippoorwill is borne on the rippling wind from over the water. Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath; yet, like the lake, my serenity is rippled but not ruffled. These small waves raised by the evening wind are as remote from storm as the smooth reflecting surface. Though it is now dark, the wind still blows and roars in the wood, the waves still dash, and some creatures lull the rest with their notes. The repose is never complete. The wildest animals do not repose, but seek their prey now; the fox, and skunk, and rabbit, now roam the fields and woods without fear. They are Nature’s watchmen,—links which connect the days of animated life.
When I return to my house I find that visitors have been there and left their cards, either a bunch of flowers, or a wreath of evergreen, or a name in pencil on a yellow walnut leaf or a chip. They who come rarely to the woods take some little piece of the forest into their hands to play with by the way, which they leave, either intentionally or accidentally. One has peeled a willow wand, woven it into a ring, and dropped it on my table. I could always tell if visitors had called in my absence, either by the bended twigs or grass, or the print of their shoes, and generally of what sex or age or quality they were by some slight trace left, as a flower dropped, or a bunch of grass plucked and thrown away, even as far off as the railroad, half a mile distant, or by the lingering odor of a cigar or pipe. Nay, I was frequently notified of the passage of a traveller along the highway sixty rods off by the scent of his pipe.
There is commonly sufficient space about us. Our horizon is never quite at our elbows. The thick wood is not just at our door, nor the pond, but somewhat is always clearing, familiar and worn by us, appropriated and fenced in some way, and reclaimed from Nature. For what reason have I this vast range and circuit, some square miles of unfrequented forest, for my privacy, abandoned to me by men? My nearest neighbor is a mile distant, and no house is visible from any place but the hill-tops within half a mile of my own. I have my horizon bounded by woods all to myself; a distant view of the railroad where it touches the pond on the one hand, and of the fence which skirts the woodland road on the other. But for the most part it is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself. At night there was never a traveller passed my house, or knocked at my door, more than if I were the first or last man; unless it were in the spring, when at long intervals some came from the village to fish for pouts,—they plainly fished much more in the Walden Pond of their own natures, and baited their hooks with darkness,—but they soon retreated, usually with light baskets, and left “the world to darkness and to me,” and the black kernel of the night was never profaned by any human neighborhood. I believe that men are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung, and Christianity and candles have been introduced.
Yet I experienced sometimes that the most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man. There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still. There was never yet such a storm but it was Æolian music to a healthy and innocent ear. Nothing can rightly compel a simple and brave man to a vulgar sadness. While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me. The gentle rain which waters my beans and keeps me in the house to-day is not drear and melancholy, but good for me too. Though it prevents my hoeing them, it is of far more worth than my hoeing. If it should continue so long as to cause the seeds to rot in the ground and destroy the potatoes in the low lands, it would still be good for the grass on the uplands, and, being good for the grass, it would be good for me. Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men, it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they, beyond any deserts that I am conscious of; as if I had a warrant and surety at their hands which my fellows have not, and were especially guided and guarded. I do not flatter myself, but if it be possible they flatter me. I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was something unpleasant. But I was at the same time conscious of a slight insanity in my mood, and seemed to foresee my recovery. In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary, and also that the nearest of blood to me and humanest was not a person nor a villager, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.—
“Mourning untimely consumes the sad;
Few are their days in the land of the living,
Beautiful daughter of Toscar.”
Some of my pleasantest hours were during the long rain storms in the spring or fall, which confined me to the house for the afternoon as well as the forenoon, soothed by their ceaseless roar and pelting; when an early twilight ushered in a long evening in which many thoughts had time to take root and unfold themselves. In those driving north-east rains which tried the village houses so, when the maids stood ready with mop and pail in front entries to keep the deluge out, I sat behind my door in my little house, which was all entry, and thoroughly enjoyed its protection. In one heavy thunder shower the lightning struck a large pitch-pine across the pond, making a very conspicuous and perfectly regular spiral groove from top to bottom, an inch or more deep, and four or five inches wide, as you would groove a walking-stick. I passed it again the other day, and was struck with awe on looking up and beholding that mark, now more distinct than ever, where a terrific and resistless bolt came down out of the harmless sky eight years ago. Men frequently say to me, “I should think you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially.” I am tempted to reply to such,—This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way? This which you put seems to me not to be the most important question. What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another. What do we want most to dwell near to? Not to many men surely, the depot, the post-office, the bar-room, the meeting-house, the school-house, the grocery, Beacon Hill, or the Five Points, where men most congregate, but to the perennial source of our life, whence in all our experience we have found that to issue, as the willow stands near the water and sends out its roots in that direction.