"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."
Before the internet, before mobile phones, before anything information technology, you needed to occupy yourself in time and place.
When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time at a tiny little local library.
It's hard to explain the immense importance of this little library and the books within it.
When I was in my final year at university, I took a class on American history. In that class we studied different eras of American history through classic literature. We studied Tocqueville, the Federalist papers, the American transcendental movement, Faulkner on the Antebellum South, the Great Gatsby for the Jazz Age and so on.
Looking back, it was this class that justified wasting so many years of my life at university.
This American history class was in my final semester of a history degree.
Every Wednesday afternoon, I would be in a seminar for a couple of hours discussing the themes, issues and context of the books within American history.
It was a very small class. Surprisingly, very few, if any, of the students in that class actually read the books. Perhaps is was to be expected - lots of students simply attended to get their degree, rather than to actually learn anything. Maybe I was just lucky to have a family that valued reading.
For me, I loved this class.
It was in this class that I read Thoreau's Walden.
Before the internet, you'd pick up your class notes or pack from the university. In it, there would be directions and instructions from the lecturer such as: "Please spend your summer reading the books we are going to discuss in class". Imagine that.
I spent the summer reading all the books on the reading list. So I was not only basically prepared before the class, but was eager as a new puppy. So many great books! Mark Twain's The Confidence Man, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis. I actually feel sorry for young people nowadays. They miss the pleasures of reading really great books, as well as the pleasure of the accumulation of these experiences.
In preparing for my American history class, I dropped into my little local library at Parkdale.
Now it may seem strange now, but at the time every book was physically catalogued. Books were catalogued by card, and you would flick through the entries in a long timber box and locate the book's Dewey number. The card had basic details, like the author's name, book name, and dewey number. It was made of thick paper. Looking back, what a chore it would have been to make a catalogue like that.
Anyway, I digress. I stood at the filing cabinet to find the prescribed reading. I found title by author and the reference number. Then went off snooping, like on a murder mystery like adventure, to see if the book was actually there. (In actual fact, you could probably just walk to the shelf and find it. However, I liked the process!)
On the shelf, I located it! I picked up Thoreau's 'Walden'.
Flicking through the pages, and feeling the weight in my hand, I thought 'great, this will be a quick read'. Opening the cover, I was surprised to see how small the print was, and felt jibbed. "maybe not a quick read". Anyway, I headed back to the uncomfortable reading section to make a start.
The "open area" of the library was really the centre of all the library's traffic. The borrowing desk was just next to it. A couple of computers. And a stack of magazines. It was also the place where some depressing dude would pretend to learn computers so he could get the dole, and groups of elderly women would stack up on Agatha Christies to pass the time.
Of the three 'reading chairs' I was fortunate to squeeze into the one free chair in the middle. An uncomfortable chair, red fabric backed, with huge wooden arm rests. It was not secluded or in any way romantic. Just practical and crappy.
Nevertheless, you know, some days you are just in a reading mood. It was one of these days.
I read the first page and thought, 'hmm this is weird'. Second page, 'hmm this is kind of not like a story'. Third page, 'hmmm he headed to the woods and lived in a cabin. Sounds like me'. Fourth page, totally hooked.
I must have arrived early afternoon, and was reading into the early evening, when they turned off the lights and kicked me out.
So if you've never read the book Walden, it is an acquired taste. It was written by American writer and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau. It basically documents him moving to 'the woods' and living as a recluse for two years. He describes how he built his own cabin by a lake, 'Walden Pond' (hence the name of the book), grew his own vegetables, and spent his days musing about nature, life, and the world.
It can be a bit of a dry read.
Thoreau sectioned it into themes: the seasons of the year. However, it hardly matters, as it is just hundreds of pages of one-liners, essentially. He basically riffs on the topics of nature, government, individualism, how to live, and other big picture themes, all the while referencing literature, both from the East and the West. From it, he helped shape the American transcendental philosophy: basically, an optimist spiritualism found in mysticism and nature.
For me, reading Walden was indeed a transcendent experience. The ideas are timeless.
Some themes that sprung out for me then, and still, are:
looking for companionship and not finding it in people but in nature
an appreciation for universal knowledge - whether it's East or West - good ideas are good ideas
approaching life in an optimistic way and hope for good in a generally nasty world
living independently and in the spirit of self-reliance
enjoying literature and a good turn of phrase.
the appeal of the transcendental, mystical world.
The main message of Walden to me was clear. Through imagination, I could transport myself to another time and place. I could live in my imagination. But also through experience, I could have a positive sensory experience that helps create more imagination. This is the beautiful thing about Walden.
Thoreau emphasizes both the importance of experience and the importance of imagination. Or perhaps, the importance of having experiences and then using your imagination to reach a higher state of personal development. The good and bad experiences can be 'risen above', and the individual can use their imagination to endure almost anything, and, even better, endure in the best possible spirits.
I know most people don't know me personally, but those who do, would know I am a person of extremes. If I'm into something, I'm into it in a huge way. I wouldn't say moderation is my middle name, more like Dr Brendan Psycho Nutbar Moloney.
It was not enough for me to read Walden. When I was 21 years old, I made a pilgrimage, of sorts, to visit Walden pond.
Let me say a few things about this. So getting to Walden is a nice experience. You catch a train from Boston, I think, and take it out to Concord. Then you set out on foot, if you do it right, to go to the Pond. It's a long trek. It's kind of strange to say now, a 21 year old kid from suburban Melbourne, just walking around without mobile phone or map or directions or any connection to Australia. It was a better way to travel when you were disconnected.
Walden Pond is more like a lake than a Pond. It is big. It is also really beautiful.
I recall it was Winter on the day I was there, but I had amazing weather. Around the Pond, there is a walking trail. Walking along the trail was really beautiful, crisp, and just how I imagined it to be.
At one point on the trail, you arrive at Thoreau's cabin. The cabin has been reconstructed, and it's a shame the real log cabin wasn't there. Nevertheless, it was sparse. A small room basically, and a little vegetable garden outside.
The cabin took prime position though. The water and trees surrounding it. His own private little forest, away from the madness of crowds.
It was also interesting to see that, while remote, the cabin was really not too far away from the town folk.
Emerson's house is just down the road from the Pond. In contrast to Thoreau's simple cabin, Emerson's house is pretty bling. even by today's standards.
I can just imagine Thoreau sneaking down on a particularly cold night, sitting by the fire and warming his toes with clean socks, having a roast with gravy, and downing some port while listening to Emerson moan on about something boring.
There is a gift shop at Walden Pond.
I bought up a whole bunch of books, posters, and things.
From these books, I learnt a bunch of interesting facts about Thoreau himself. Like he was born David Henry Thoreau, but changed to Henry David Thoreau when he was older. His books and writing hardly had an audience at all during his lifetime. Indeed, he purchased the majority of copies (I think 19 of 20 print) of Walden when it was first released. After his death the book took off, and was read and appreciated by Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
One poster in particular almost got me in trouble in New York City. I was staying in a youth hostel, with several other guys. There was a man with a face disfigured by a gun injury - he looked like the Elephant Man - who was sleeping there. He woke me up because of my snoring and was yelling at me. It was a horrible sight to behold, particularly as I was having a lovely sleep. The next morning, I took off quickly and left my Thoreau poster behind. Bummer.
Despite having such a profound effect on me, I rarely spoke about my reading interests. Who really cares?
Indeed, it was years later when I was living in Tokyo, Japan, that I actually shared my love of Thoreau with others.
I was reading a free weekly entertainment guide for 'foreigners' when I saw an advertisement for a book club. The monthly topic of the book club was Thoreau's Walden.
So, uncharacteristically, I actually joined something. Jumped on the train. Went to the incredibly crowded Shibuya station and found my way to a cafe way up in a building.
There was a lovely group, around 9 people are I recall.
The organizer was a lovely, middle age, and largely unattractive, Jewish man. He was the facilitator, and we hit it off. (Later, I stood him up for a coffee catch up, sorry about that. I just didn't feel up to socialising that day - it's definitely me, not you).
There was also a really cute Japanese chick with knee high socks. If I wasn't in a relationship, I would have pursued her like Thoreau pursuing prose. I had moves then, like "hey, um an uh um an ah. Okay?".
Then there was an older English woman who had been living in Australia, and had bought multiple investment properties. She annoyed me, largely because she was gloating about buying her investment properties in her 50s, as well as her uncomfortable advances.
Finally, there was a tall American guy who just wouldn't stop dominating the conversation. He talked, and he talked. I imagined if he was married, his wife would be chained to some piece of furniture, or else on Dr Phil talking about "20 years of living in hell".
When it came time to discuss Walden, he started dominating the conversation. After an uncomfortable spell of non-turn taking, I stepped in and told him to stop talking. From there, I nipped that dude in the bud (not literally) every time he would open his mouth.
We ended up having a fascinating chat about Thoreau. And what Walden means and meant to us.
I do recall a lovely Australian woman, he-hawing that she saw Thoreau as a narcissist and couldn't read until the end. I hadn't heard that before. I wonder if it was just her way of saving face, or she generally believed a guy living solitary in the woods was going to be self-reflective.
She took off early ... and we talked into our Japanese tea all afternoon.
A constant for me, is that I have re-read Thoreau in different periods of my life. Particularly in challenging times - like these days.
With each new reading I get something out of it. A new perspective shaped by my experiences, and new insights into things I might have missed before.
This is a bit of a long post, so I'll wrap things up with some quotes from Thoreau.
"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation."
"I heartily accept the motto, -- 'That government is best which governs least'; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically."
"If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."
I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour".
"Things do not change; we change."
"I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time.
"For my greatest skill has been to want but little."
"As if you could kill time without injuring eternity."
I'm not sure if there is a book, or some work of art that resonates for you, but for me, Walden has been my helpful companion throughout his crazy journey called life.
It's amazing how powerful some little words on a page can be.
In Peace and Parallel