About twice a week I travel into New York by train, preoccupying my time with my Blackberry, the Journal, Will Shortz’s latest Times Crossword or a business brief that screams for my immediate attention. As the week carries on, fatigue and a flagging vocabulary conspires to prevent my completion of the crossword and retard focus on anything related to business. In these rare moments, reflecting in the seams between work and family, I find myself staring out a chattering train window and wondering whether my daily routine is a path to a mountain top or a rut leading into a deeply carved canyon.
As a college literature major, I studied the impassioned and idealistic views of the early nineteenth century Romantics and Transcendentalists. Over 150 years ago, another New Englander Henry David Thoreau listened to the whistle of another commuter train that passed off in the distance from his crude shack that he had built on the edges of Walden Pond. Thoreau hated the sound of the passenger train – – “a devilish Iron Horse, a bloated pest whose ear rending neigh is heard throughout the town”…carrying within it “masses of men leading quiet, desperate lives…..chained to commerce.” Hey wait a minute, Henry, you’re talking about me.
My theory is once in a while, we all poke our head above the parapet and wonder, “is this what it is all about?” It’s usually after that great vacation to Jackson Hole or that really bad day where someone throws up on your shoe in the subway. David Byrne of the Talking Heads put it another way, “And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack. And you may find yourself in another part of the world, And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile, And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, And you may ask yourself -Well…How did I get here?”
Thoreau acted on an impulse that many of us secretly covet from time to time. He chucked it all in – – leaving behind comfort and companionship to live alone in the woods. He breathed life into that hidden non conformist that struggles within every man – – the one that pulls against the shackles of pragmatism, fear and lack of self confidence. Thoreau’s “ experiment” carved a path that others might follow.
“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…”
Thoreau’s move to the woods was an ideological protest, a lightening rod rooted in a nascent philosophical movement, Transcendentalism, In Europe, famine and revolution were at the epicenter of a massive tidal wave of immigration to America. Philosophers and intellectuals longed for a Utopian society to mute the effects of social inequities brought on by unrestrained capitalism. Karl Marx wrote his Communist Manifesto. Charles Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle began to question the very origins of man. When Ralph Waldo Emerson published Nature, he urged the pursuit of simplicity – – in spirit, lifestyle and ideology. To the Romantics, there was dignity and importance in simplicity. They believed that children descended into corruption as they became adults and that adults were essentially corrupted by society. Nathaniel Hawthorne considered man a “god in ruins”. Poets looked instead to the wilderness as refuge and metaphor – – a pathway to self discovery and poultice for an infected soul.
In March 1845, Thoreau moved to Walden and disassembled an old rail worker’s shack, fashioning a functional shanty from old nails and warped boards. This simple habitation would serve as his home over the next two and one half years. He raised vegetables and a simple harvest of food sufficient to barter for what he needed to live. Thoreau was intoxicated by the natural ebb and flow of the woods. He reveled in its ever changing splendor and its utterly predictable character. He found himself and a renewed serenity through the sheer simplicity of shedding material needs and communing with nature.
“ 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 whip-poor-will is borne on the rippling wind from over the water.”
Thoreau mourned what he considered to be the “worn and dusty…highways of the world, and how deep ( were ) the ruts of conformity and tradition”. A modern day Diogenes, he seemed to be advocating that man could only realize his virtue through the simplification of his lifestyle. Thoreau was not wedded so much to poverty as he was to material simplification and the need to celebrate all that was sacred in nature and in man.
As I stare out of the Metro North and catch glimpses of hidden paths leading into a cat’s cradle of woods, I feel the siren’s call of the Romantics. I am grateful when I can disappear along the trails of Waveny, Devil’s Den or Pound Ridge State Park and wander along rocky outcrops, get scolded by a blue jay or startle to the sudden bolt of a white tailed deer. Alas, these moments like the ambitions of the Romantics and the Transcendentalists, never last. The obligations of my life return to tug at my sleeve like an impatient child. Yet, Thoreau and his time at Walden remind me to take a deep breath and to seek to simplify my life.
I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours…If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.
For Thoreau, his experiment led to a lifestyle focused on simplicity and nature. He left a path for others to follow who also sought a tonic for the pressures of their own time. Upon his deathbed, Thoreau was asked if he had made his peace with God to which he cleverly replied, “I did not know that we had quarreled. “