Thoreau – and what he means to me



If I have a God it is Henry David Thoreau; if I have a bible it is Walden.

I came to Thoreau late: I discovered him in my early twenties when I read Walden, which is ostensibly a book about life by a small lake called Walden Pond but really is a philosophy for how to live in this world. I discovered in Thoreau a view of nature that resonated with my own. He could articulate things that I felt only in my heart, thoughts that I held without words until I recognized them in his words – and he could do this even though he lived in another century, another place.

I became, instantly, a born-again Thoreauvian. Six weeks from completing an Honours degree, I determined that I should drop out and seek the simple life, living by a lake in the South Island of New Zealand. Ignoring pleas of friends and family, it was only the remonstrations of the then Professor of Physiology at Victoria University of Wellington that succeeded in stopping me.

On reflection, it was a dumb idea; certainly not one that Thoreau would have approved. As he wrote about others trying to emulate his “experiment” of living for a couple of years by Walden Pond (which is near Concord, Massachusetts, in the United States), “I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account...I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way.” It would have been difficult enough back in the 70s to have claimed a plot of ground as my own and taken up residence on some waterfront like Lake Wanaka; to attempt it nowadays, you'd need the wealth of a popstar and the fortitude to face down not just cold winters but the red-tape too.

We may not have the freedom now to imitate Thoreau, but that's not the point. It wasn't the living by the lake that was important, it was the living simply: “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

Thoreau had been born in Concord in 1817 and, interestingly, was christened David Henry Thoreau. At twenty, after graduating from Harvard College and aspiring to be a writer, he began reversing the order of his names – although that change was never legally sanctioned. In some senses, Thoreau was a hare as a writer and, in others, he was a tortoise. He wrote about two million words in a journal he kept for 24 years and thousands of pages of essays but, for all the books that carry his name now, during his lifetime he published only two books (several books were published posthumously, edited by family members or friends – not always well – on the basis of his myriad personal papers). His first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, was about a boating trip he took with his older brother, John, in 1839. He wrote it seven years after the event, while living at Walden, as a tribute to his brother who had died of tetanus in 1843.

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was finally published in 1849, with Thoreau underwriting the costs. It was a commercial flop, selling only 200 copies. When the publisher returned the unsold copies to him, Thoreau wrote, “I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes over 700 of which I wrote myself...”

The failure of his first book may well have been the saving of his second: faced with unenthusiastic publishers, Walden went through several drafts in the seven years following his departure from the lake, eventually becoming a work of beautifully crafted sentences imbued with a philosophy of respect for nature and the individual: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Thoreau's mentor and friend in Concord was Ralph Waldo Emerson and, along with other literary figures in New England at that time, they established a philosophical and literary movement known as transcendentalism. It grew out of a reaction to the Unitarian Church and its basic tenet was that God is present in each person and Nature; that there is a spiritual reality that transcends the scientific and is knowable through intuition. This led Thoreau and his literary brotherhood to emphasize individualism and self-reliance and the rejection of traditional authority: “the man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready.”

But can Thoreau's thoughts, published over 150 years ago, have relevance for our lives today?

On September 11th, 2001, two planes flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center; we’ve had shock and awe over Baghdad; we’ve been exposed to the sunken cheeks of Aids victims; seen whole nations starving to death. Our lives are dominated by such horrific images. It’s a world gone mad. A man-made world gone mad.

We have become creatures of the concrete jungle: high rise corporate offices, suburban homes, metal cars and satellite TV. We pollute the Earth and choke the atmosphere. We cut down forests and use fossil fuels like there is no tomorrow.

Yet we are still governed by Nature even if we act as if we have evolved beyond it. And this man Thoreau, who wrote a lot and published little, who travelled rarely but thought widely, who never married (may never have had sex) but loved humanity, who loved life but died at 44, he has shown us, by example, how to live lives of meaning.

We don't have to live in the woods or find a lake; it's an outlook we're after, a change of attitude we need. Live more simply. Live in harmony. To find a better life, we just need to go back to Nature.

“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.” Amen.