Our life is frittered away by detail …… simplify, simplify!
Somewhere in the woods along the shores of Walden Pond an owl screeched, and far off another answered. The moon was bright, the water still as glass. Henry Thoreau sat in the moon filled doorway of his shack, looking out across the stillness and brightness of the lake. “this is the spot I love above all other on earth” he thought.
Here, in the quiet and peace of Walden Woods, a man could live simply and deliberately – shearing off all the unessentials and getting down to the basic truths of life. Here, in the solitude, living close to nature, a man could examine his ideas, think things through, and perhaps come to some reasonable conclusion about the meaning and purpose of life.
He turned back to the open notebook on his knees and read the last few words he had written : “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation …. “
A squirrel came stealthily from the woods and sat watching him, wide-eyed and friendly. All above him were the soft, gentle sounds of nature, stirring, whispering, ushering in the night.
“I am convinced from experience that to maintain oneself on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely . . . Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. . . "
A cloud obscured the moon and it was suddenly dark in the woods. He put the notebook aside and took a flute from his pocket and laughed as the squirrel scurried in alarm up the nearest tree.
“Don’t be afraid, my friend!” he called into the branches. “this isn’t a gun. Come and listen to my music.”
Henry David Thoreau loved nature. Every sight and sound in woods and fields had meaning for him. He knew the birds by their calls, the animals by their tracks on the ground. He could find a path through the woods at night as easily as any Indian. He was at home in Walden Woods, at home and completely happy.
In concord young, Thoreau had been stifled and wretched. A Harvard graduate, he had tried teaching for a time, and a number of other uncongenial occupations. But what he wanted most to do was study, think, and write; and for these important occupations he had no quiet in the cluttered lodging house where he lived, no seclusion, no opportunity at all.
Did people ever do what they really wished, he wondered – what they were by nature intended to do, and what they were best suited for? Everywhere about him he saw people squandering the precious substance of their lives in pursuit of material gains. Everywhere about him he saw people squandering the precious substance of their lives in pursuit of material gains. Everywhere about him he saw people feverishly piling up property and possession, enslaving themselves at the cost of things that really counted.
Surely there must be something more to life than the mere “laying up of treasure on earth.” Being a man of original mind and great personal integrity, Thoreau abhorred the idea of being poured into a fixed mold, of being forced to do what others thought right and proper instead of what he himself wished. He did not intend to let his life slip by without ever having lived. He decided to do something about it.
The world’s wisest men, the reflected, the great tinkers and philosophers of the past, had lived lives of Spartan simplicity. He would take his cue form them. The would live alone in Walden Woods away from problems, involvements and artifices of civilization; and in the peace and solitude of the woods, living close to nature, he would improve his soul’s estate, learn to think and write clearly – and perhaps come closer of an understanding of life and to the basic but elusive truths that give it meaning.
So in March, 1845, Thoreau borrowed an ax and started building little cabin for himself on the edge of Walden Pond, on a tract of land belonging to Ralph Waldo Emerson. On July 4th this house completed, a vegetable garden planted – with little more than his flute, some notebooks and pens, and a copy of Homer – he went to the woods to launch his experiment in simple living.
“ he chose to be rich by making his wants few,” said his friend Emersion.
Thoreau was twenty eight years old when he began his experiment. He was not a hermit by nature; he had many good friends in Concord. He merely wished to escape for a time form the complex pattern of civilization and live a free, independent life, serene and uncluttered. In Walden woods his ideas slowly came to fruition, and he shaped the inspiring truths that now illumine his name. he remained for a little more than a two years; then, having exhausted the advantages of solitude – and completed satisfied with the experiment – he returned to concord and conventional life. From notes carefully written down day after day in the woods, he produced Walden, the book that made him famous, and from which these passage are selected :
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, to discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not a life, living is so dear, nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish the meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion . . .
Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, Simplify . . . .
Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life ? . . . when we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the realities.
A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without. Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.
Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicate his fate.
Only that day dawns to which we are awake.
Every man is the builder of a temple called his body . . . . we are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them.
Be not simply good; be good for something.
In the long run, men hit only what they aim at. Therefore . . . they had better aim at something high.
I know of no more encouraging fact that the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.
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 had imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
The record of an experiment in serene living, Walden is as timely now as it was when Thoreau wrote it a hundred years ago. It has, in fact, steadily increased in popularity, and is today more widely read than ever- perhaps because the patterns of life have become more complex and confusing.
Simplify your life, Thoreau urged his readers. Don’t waste the years struggling for things that are unimportant. Don’t burden yourself with professions. Keep your needs and wants simple, and enjoy what you have. Simplify ! Don’t fritter away your life on non-essentials. Don’t enslave yourself for luxuries you can do without. Don’t destroy your peace of mind by looking back, worrying about the past. Live in the present, enjoy the present, Simplify!
“Henry Thoreau’s place in the common heart of humanity grows firmer and more secure as the seasons pass,” wrote Elbert Hubbard, fifty years after Walden was written.
“Thoreau learned how to live a life, which is a thing rarely heard of,” says Brooks Atkinson in his introduction to a recent edition of Walden.
In the peace and quiet of Walden Woods, Henry David Thoreau found what was for him, and has been for countless people since, a wise and tranquil approach to life. Out of his experiment in serene living has come a book of enduring beauty and inspiration, one of America’s most beloved classics - Walden, named for the woods and the pond Thoreau so loved.