A few years ago, I had a co-worker who was forever being reprimanded for reading on the job. As his customers clamored for their Vegetable Alfredo’s and Pork Cutlet’s, he hid in the waiter’s lounge squinting at a tiny copy of Henry David Thoreau’s book, Walden. Although Eric was continually warned, the manager never took the book away from him adding, “I’ve read it twice.” “Twice,” Eric echoed in awe. Always one for a challenge, I bought a copy of Walden and joined Eric in his rogue reading sessions, helping fulfill Thoreau’s prophecy that readers would “come to this page to spend borrowed or stolen time, robbing your creditors of an hour.” Two years later and all of Thoreau’s major works crossed off my list, I was still as fascinated by him as ever, so I decided to take it a step further.
On September 23rd, 1997, I began my own “Walden” life. Living by a schedule of five days in and two days out: five days a week at a tiny cabin in the woods, three miles from the nearest neighbor and two days amongst society, earning just enough money get by on. Thoreau had gone to the woods to “drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms” and I, one-hundred and fifty years later, was going to the woods to reduce his philosophies and musings to their lowest terms; to live them and see what they could teach me.
“Simplicity, Simplicity, Simplicity.” -Thoreau. So many times I’ve read this quote and promised myself that I would live by it. I’d reduce my television watching, truck loads of stuff would be taken to the pawn shop and then I’d wait for the grand revelation of life that was surely to follow, only to slowly accumulate more stuff and be right back where I started. In order to share in the joy for life that Thoreau radiates in his writing, one must rid him/herself of everything except the barest essentials.
When I went to the cabin, I took enough food to last the week, two gallons of drinking water, a few changes of clothes and some books. Surely after purging the material things from my life, I would finally be partaking in the “Thoreau life,” as Eric and I took to calling it. Or so I thought. The little cabin was the picture of simplicity itself, a brown box with a stovepipe sticking out of one wall and a window in each of the others. It sat along a dog sledding trail on top of a bump of wispy little birch trees and weeds; nothing majestic by any means. Inside, there was a dirty bed that looked to be serving as a playground for a colony of mice, a rusty, pear-shaped wood stove and a propane range. Some strategically stacked milk crates and boards supported a thick blanket of dust with nary an ounce of clutter to be found in the place, just a bit of cleaning and some pest control.
I flung the door open to let in the sunshine and swept and scrubbed until the dust forced me outside for want of fresh air. As I waited for the dust to settle, I began turning a pile of weather-beaten boards into a desk, complete with a candleholder and an attached bookshelf. It was a flagrant bit of furniture, for sure, but Thoreau would have forgiven me once he saw the wormholes and cracks in it. Before I ate my lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches and water around noon, the cabin was livable. Soon after, I whistled for my dog, Dylan, and struck out through the woods, gloating in my new found simplicity and priming myself for the grand revelations of life that would surely be revealed to me.
We meandered down the trail the half-mile to the deserted logging road and followed it west. Dylan merrily scaring the sparrows and squirrels all the while. I plucked a stem of grass trying to convince myself that I was fascinated by it, the left half of my brain saying, look at the lush greens of this specimen, as Thoreau would do, and the right side whispering about how nice a hot shower would be after cleaning that dusty cabin. Chipping Sparrows bobbed and weaved above Dylan’s head, teasing him before escaping into the trees. The left half saying, Alas! Behold the sparrow flittering hither and yon about the trees, and the right half saying, what’s on TV right now. I grunted in disgust and plodded along further.
Where was the grand revelation, the nugget of wisdom that would fill five pages in my journal? Maybe if I hike up to the top of a hill the view will trigger something, I thought, and then the right half said, And in the great expanse of woods you’ll see, you’ll remember that you’re the only soul for miles and how’s that for making a guy feel lonely? I stomped back to the cabin, mad at myself for feeling homesick for the shallow pursuits of society, and disgusted with the “Thoreau life.” I was not even a full day into it.
“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least-and it is commonly more than that-sauntering through the woods absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” -Thoreau. The first week passed agonizingly slow, but I refused to leave. I had wanted to do this for two years and one week of doubts wasn’t about to end it. I took more walks, only half-conscious of the beautiful autumn woods around me. Try as I might, I couldn’t shake the loneliness, forget about my “worldly engagements” and concentrate on the woods. My eyes were continually glued to the ground as the pro-Thoreau right side of my brain fought with the anti-Thoreau left side. On occasion, the right would prevail for a half-hour or so and I would climb a little rise to enjoy the red and yellow tree tops below until I felt lonely and shuffled back to the cabin. Then I would write. Hunched over my worm-eaten desk like some eccentric fool, I’d belch out page after page of scathing commentary on everything from a paragraph lamenting my burned lunch, “The woodstove torched my biscuits and I’m hungry and there’s no good food in this dump,” to over ten pages devoted to my ex-girlfriend. When darkness forced me to lay the pen down, I’d light the oil lamps, lie on the bed and watch the glow run along the ceiling, feeling exhausted and content.
When I returned to society Saturday morning, I did so with relish, smiling and carrying on at work until my coworkers wondered aloud if I had been hit on the head by a falling tree back in the woods. I’ve always been an introvert and the week alone pushed me from my shell and into a renewed outlook on the people around me. “How was your week Kathy,” I asked my supervisor. “How are your kids and how’s the husband and isn’t it a beautiful day?” I wanted to talk to everyone, not out of politeness but out of a desire to connect with them on a deeper level. I went to Eric’s house and we laughed at our plans for adventure in Alaska and discussed Thoreau and Eric’s family and my family until the early hours of Sunday morning. I reached out to those around me and asked them for a little piece of their lives to take back to the woods with me, something to help combat the loneliness.
Sunday evening, bouncing over the rocks and through the mud puddles to the dog sledding trail, I did so smiling at the story my supervisor, Kathy, told me about how the tooth fairy scared her as a little girl. Toting my backpack full of drinking water, food and books that I picked up from the library, I thought of how great a friend Eric was and how it had taken me so long to notice. As fall slowly gave way to winter, the left sided anti-Thoreau sentiments gave in to the “Thoreau-life” right half of my brain. Walking over a frozen swamp one bright day, my foot plunged through the ice and into the water. I quickly yanked it free and sloshed through the snow for home, laughing at the spectacle of my ice encrusted left foot. I didn’t gripe about a lack of thick ice in the world in my journal that evening, but instead, I just sat by the glowing woodstove, reading by the soft light of the oil lamps and listening to the water drip from my thawing boot.
I was content and happy, slowly realizing that when Thoreau called for simplicity in life, not only did it mean ridding myself of material junk, but also the junk in my mind, pouring it into my journals and then lying on the bed, exhausted and happy. It meant allowing the loneliness that came from my simplistic means to rid the pre-conceived notions of society from my mind and turn to, not only the woods as Thoreau had done, but all my surroundings for comfort. The people I had never thought twice about before, the books I read by the woodstove, the cabin that I was starting to view as a sanctuary instead of a dump, all of it was there for the taking and, for once in my life, I took it.
There seems to be a picture of Thoreau, painted by scholars and readers of his writing that presents him as a hermit, a misanthrope, hater of his fellow man in general and, like them, I always saw him in the same light. It was common knowledge that, to live the Thoreau life, one had to distance him/herself from society and retreat to a solitude of the deepest kind.
“I am naturally no hermit, but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the barroom if my business called me thither.” -Thoreau. After getting accustomed to the simple life of the cabin and, equally as important, the loneliness that the woods left me with, I finally began enjoying my surroundings. Ten-mile walks along the logging roads were almost a daily occurrence. Dylan and I waded through the snow following a set of coyote tracks, snowshoeing up the frozen creeks and along the shores of Lost Lake to the west, whatever tickled our fancy. When the weather was poor, I sat by the woodstove and read: Dostoevsky, Robert Frost, Dickens, the Bible, everything I could get my hands on. It was another example of the simple life reaching out to me. But the driving force behind my contentment was the people I spent time with on the weekends, and the letters I wrote to friends at my worm-eaten desk. It was the conversations we shared and the connections that grew deeper.
In the end, that was the irony of my seven months in the woods. Going into the cabin on September 23rd, I had envisioned myself easily sauntering through the trees, living comfortably by the philosophies of Thoreau. On May 4th, when I left the cabin, Thoreau’s philosophies had been applied to my life but the outcome I envisioned was vastly different. Instead of simplicity turning me into a student of nature, as with Thoreau, I turned myself over to the people around me. The society that I sought to escape from turned into my saving grace. Maybe that’s the mark of a good philosopher, one whose philosophies, when applied to life, can lead people down so many different roads that all end up at the same place: happiness and contentment. Not only did my time in the woods leave me with a new appreciation for the people around me, it also left me with a deeper respect for Henry David Thoreau.