by Henry David Thoreau
(1817 – 1862)
Type of Work:
Natural history essay
Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts; 1845
(The summer of 1845 found Henry David
Thoreau living in a rude shack on the banks of Walden Pond. The actual
property was owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American philosopher.
Emerson had earlier published the treatise entitled “Nature,” and the young
Thoreau was profoundly affected by its call for individuality and self-reliance.
Thoreau planted a small garden, took pen and paper, and began to scribe
the record of life at Walden.)
Thoreau’s experiment in deliberate living
began in March of 1845. By planting a two-and-a-half acre parcel borrowed
from a neighbor who thought it useless, he harvested and sold enough peas,
potatoes, corn, beans and turnips to build and to buy food. He purchased
an old shanty from an Irish railroad worker and tore it down. He also cut
timber from the woods surrounding Walden Pond. From the razed material,
he was able to construct his cabin. He used the boards for siding and even
salvaged the nails from the original shack.
By mid-summer, the house was ready to inhabit.
Thoreau built a fireplace and chimney for heat and cooking. He plastered
the inside walls and made sure he could comfortably survive the freezing
New England winters, Doing all the work himself and using only native material,
the house cost only about twenty-eight dollars to build, less than Thoreau
had to pay for a year’s lodging at Harvard.
But the main purpose for his experience
was to allow time for writing, thinking, observing nature, and learning
the “art of living.”
I went to the woods because I wished to
live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if
I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover
that I had not lived … I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow
of life …
Thoreau also went to Walden with the firm
belief that man was too encumbered with material things – too much possessed
by his belongings. He believed that a man is rich only “in proportion to
the number of things he can afford to let alone.” One passage from Walden
tells of an auction, held to dispose of a deacon neighbor’s possessions.
Thoreau scorned the affair, referring to the accumulations as “trumpetery”
that had lain for “half a century in his garret and other dust holes”:
And now … instead of a bonfire, or
purifying destruction of them, there was an auction, of increasing of them.
The neighbors eagerly collected to view them, bought them all, and carefully
transported them to their garrets and dust holes, to lie there till their
estates are settled, when they will start again. When a man dies he kicks
All aspects of life for Thoreau focused
on simplicity. He ate simple meals, his diet consisting mostly of rye,
Indian meal, potatoes, rice, a little pork, salt and molasses. He drank
water. On such foods he was able to live for as little as a dollar a month.
“The cost of a thing,” he reasoned, “is the amount of what I will call
life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long
run.” The naturalist seldom ate meat and never hunted. He was far too interested
in preserving the animals around the pond:
… Every man who has ever been earnest
to preserve his higher poetic faculties in the best condition, has been
particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, or from much food of
He did eat fish, but considered his time
too valuable to spend merely fishing for food. And by following this Spartan
ideology, Thoreau was left free to pursue which to him were the important
aspects of life; namely, observing, pondering, reading, and writing.
In warm evenings I frequently sat in the
boat playing the flute, and saw perch, which I seem to haze charged, lowering
around me, and the moon traveling over the ribbed bottom, which was strewn
with the wrecks of the forest.
While at Walden, Thoreau lived quite independently
of time. He used neither clock nor calendar – free to study the local plants,
birds and animals: “Time is but the stream I go-a fishing in. I drink at
it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it
The only thing that reminded Thoreau of
the hectic lives of others was the whistle of the Finchburg Railway train