Henry David Thoreau was a fascinating character: intense, passionate, obnoxious, arrogant, and possessed of a lyrical mind. I cannot help but like the man, even as he exasperates. He was given to making jabs at society, the government, technology, law, his neighbors, and anyone who wanted to give him advice:
“I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.”
Yet he had his own heroes, and looked up to Emerson (as just one example) enough to follow the latter’s advice on variety of subjects.
Walden itself starts humbly enough:
“I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life…”
but quickly moves on to convey a sort of impatience with us as readers, lazy desperate folk that we are; if only we would wake up and realize the brilliance of his own plan, that we could live mortgage-free and debt-free by simply walking into the woods, building our own simple houses, and giving up meat.
Thoreau is most pleasurable to read when he is least snarky (he does love a good pun), as when advocating an open and curious approach to life:
“We should come home from far, from adventures, and perils, and discoveries each day, with new experience and character.”
or when he is exalting in the beauty of his beloved Pond and its surroundings:
“Sky water. It needs no fence. [...] a mirror in which all impurity presented to it sinks, swept and dusted by the sun’s hazy brush,—this is the light dust-cloth,—which retains no breath that is breathed on it, but sends its own to float as clouds high above its surface, and be reflected in its bosom still.”
And I know what he means when he says he cannot spare his moonlight (and I know he does not mean that he dislikes people).
And he offers some other valuable ideas, aside from the musings on solitude and self-sufficiency that pepper Walden:
“… the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
“I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust.”
And most everyone’s heard the bit about why he went to the woods in the first place. But this quote perhaps is the one that will stick with me most, for now:
“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.”
We have so very many lives to live! As many as we choose. Kudos to Thoreau for being willing to try out his Walden experiment and, when he’d learned what he wanted, to move on. Everything changes.