Chapter 1: Following in Thoreau’s Footsteps

Part 1: Going Back to Walden

“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people…re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss what insults your very soul, and your very flesh shall become a poem.”
~ Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman: stand up for the stupid and crazy

Our pampered lives in America prove that we’re looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places. By the time we’ve reached a certain age and experience, we’ve already put the pedal to the metal and roared down all the roads to happiness as mapped out by convention, peer pressure, religion, ego trips, fantasies, ambition, carnal desire, or family expectations.

We’ve groped through our first backseat sex as teens. We’ve overindulged in romance and committed serial matrimony. We’ve trampled down a career path or three. Taken a couple of wild shots at fame and fortune. Thrown back a few drinks for the road. Experimented with drugs. Mortgaged our future. Traveled hither and yon. Escaped into movies, TV, and cyber bliss. Entertained ourselves in every way credit cards can charge or laptops boot up.

“Yes,” as Zorba the Greek summed up what Western society expects us to do with our lives. “The whole catastrophe!”

And what do we have to show for it? Fleeting gratification. Acute anxiety. Passing fancies. Lingering disappointments and frustrations. Moments of pure ecstasy. Long periods of total numbness. Most of all, we have gnawing questions about the nature of the universe, the meaning of life, or the GPS coordinates of the soul after death. Adulthood means navigating an endless maze of digital forms online. Old age adds up to an unsolicited AARP subscription and a vague sense of discontent, confusion, or emptiness.

If you asked me 15 years ago what I wanted carved into my tombstone, my answer would have come straight from the heart: “So What?”

Now I’m here to tell you that Henry David Thoreau answered this fundamental existential question more than 165 years ago.

“So What?”

So Walden.

In March of 1845, Thoreau borrowed an axe and sauntered down to the woods by Walden Pond, near where he intended to build his 10-foot-by-15-foot cabin. There he “began to cut down some tall arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber.” His axe blows, as they hewed and rippled into the tranquil air around Walden Pond, stirred up sound waves that still echo to this day.

Replica of interior in Thoreau's cabin

Replica of interior in Thoreau's cabin

On July Fourth of that summer, Thoreau, already suffering from the TB that would eventually kill him, moved into his tight, shingled, and plastered house with a garret, a closet, a large window on either side, two trap doors, an entrance at one end, and a brick fireplace opposite. The cabin cost him a grand total of 28 dollars,12-and-a-half cents.

By any measure, it was the biggest bargain in real estate history. From such economical beginnings, Thoreau’s Walden experiment spread in all directions as the mystical taproot of American Transcendentalism. It warned of the mushrooming materialism, overindulgence, decadence, and emptiness throughout Western society in wake of the Industrial Revolution. And it conferred on the world a spiritual model that even now – especially now! – can dissolve the “quiet desperation” that still muddles the mass of American lives.

If anything, Thoreau’s Walden experiment in self-reliance, natural living, courage, integrity, non-materialism, and simplification is more illuminating now than it was then.

“I went to the woods,” Thoreau explained in Walden, “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 lasting bequest is a simple way of life that has transformed me and is capable of transforming you. You can revolutionize your life by simply going Back to Walden. Read the next section to find out how.