or, A Life in the Woods
by Henry D. Thoreau
The original, squashed down to read in about 30 minutes
Henry David Thoreau, of Concord, Massachusetts, became entranced with the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson's ideas of self-reliance. Ideas that led, on a parcel of Emerson's land, to the Walden project, to prison for refusing to pay his poll tax, to helping runaway slaves to freedom, and to voluminous writings. Though now seen as a centrepiece of American Transcendentalism, what Martin Luther King called Thoreau's "legacy of creative protest" against governments led to his writings being officially removed from US libraries in the 1950's.
The Simple Life
When I wrote the following pages, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house I had built for myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.
Men labor under a mistake. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt. It is a fool's life, as they will find when they get to the end of it if not before.
But it is never too late to give up our prejudices. What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. I have lived some thirty years and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable advice from my seniors.
To many creatures, there is but one necessity of life - food. None of the brute creation require more than food and shelter. The necessaries of life for man in this climate may be distributed under the several heads of food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. I find by my own experience a few implements, a knife, an ax, a spade, a wheelbarrow, etc., and for the studious, lamplight, stationery, and access to a few books, rank next to necessaries, and can all be obtained at a trifling cost. Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of voluntary poverty.
If I should attempt to tell how I have desired to spend my life in years past it would probably astonish those who know nothing about it.
I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travelers I have spoken, concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.
How many mornings, summer and winter, before any neighbor was stirring about his business, have I been about mine! So many autumn, aye, and winter days, spent outside the town trying to hear what was in the wind, to hear and carry it. At other times waiting at evening on the hill-tops for the sky to fall that I might catch something, though I never caught much, and that, manna-wise, would dissolve again in the sun.
For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms, and did my duty faithfully; surveyor, if not of highways, then of forest paths. I looked after the wild stock of the town. I have watered the red huckleberry, the sand cherry and the nettle tree, the red pine and the black ash, the white grape and the yellow violet, which might have withered else in dry seasons.
My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles.
When I consider my neighbors, the farmers of Concord, I find that for the most part they have been toiling twenty, thirty, or forty years, that they may become the real owners of their farms; and we may regard one-third of that toil as the cost of their houses. And when the farmer has got his house he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him. The very simplicity and nakedness of men's life in the primitive ages imply that they left him still a sojourner in nature. When he was refreshed with food and sleep he contemplated his journey again. He dwelt as it were in the tent of this world. We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten Heaven.
Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy, white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It was a pleasant hillside where I worked, covered with pine woods, through which I looked out on the pond, and a small open field in the woods where pines and hickories were springing up. Before I had done I was more the friend than the foe of the pine tree, having become better acquainted with it.
By the middle of April my house was framed and ready for raising. At length, in the beginning of May, with the help of some of my acquaintances, rather to improve so good an occasion for neighborliness than from any necessity, I set up the frame of my house. I began to occupy it on the 4th of July, as soon as it was boarded and roofed, for the boards were carefully feather-edged and lapped, so that it was perfectly impervious to rain, but before boarding I laid the foundation of a chimney. I built the chimney after my hoeing in the fall, before a fire became necessary for warmth, doing my cooking in the meantime out of doors on the ground, early in the morning. When it stormed before my bread was baked I fixed a few boards over the fire, and sat under them to watch my loaf, and passed some pleasant hours in that way.
The exact cost of my house, not counting the work, all of which was done by myself, was just over twenty-eight dollars. I thus found that the student who wishes for a shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually.
Before I finished my house, wishing to earn ten or twelve dollars by some honest and agreeable method, in order to meet my unusual expenses, I planted about two acres and a half of light and sandy soil near it, chiefly with beans, but also a small part with potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips. I was obliged to hire a team and a man for the plowing, though I held the plow myself. My farm outgoes for the first season were, for employment, seed, work, etc., 14 dollars 72½ cents. I got twelve bushels of beans and eighteen bushels of potatoes, besides some peas and sweet corn. My whole income from the farm was 23 dollars 43 cents, a profit of 8 dollars 71½ cents, besides produce consumed.
The next year I did better still, for I spaded up all the land that I required, about a third of an acre, and I learned from the experience of both years, not being in the least awed by many celebrated works on husbandry, that if one would live simply and eat only the crop which he raised, he would need to cultivate only a few rods of ground, and that it would be cheaper to spade up that than to use oxen to plow it, and he could do all his necessary farm work, as it were, with his left hand at odd hours in the summer.
My food for nearly two years was rye and Indian meal without yeast, potatoes, rice, a very little salt pork, molasses and salt, and my drink water. I learned from my two years' experience that it would cost incredibly little trouble to obtain one's necessary food even in this latitude, and that a man may use as simple a diet as the animals and yet retain health and strength.
Bread I at first made of pure Indian meal and salt, genuine hoe-cakes, which I baked before my fire out of doors, but at last I found a mixture of rye and Indian meal most convenient and agreeable. I made a study of the ancient and indispensable art of bread-making, going back to the primitive days. Leaven, which some deem to be the soul of bread, I discovered was not indispensable.
Thus I found I could avoid all trade and barter, so far as my food was concerned, and having a shelter already, it would only remain to get clothing and fuel. My furniture, part of which I made myself, consisted of a bed, a table, a desk, three chairs, a looking-glass, three inches in diameter, a pair of tongs and andirons, a kettle, a skillet, and a frying pan, a dipper, a wash bowl, two knives and forks, three plates, one cup, one spoon, a jug for oil, a jug for molasses, and a japanned lamp. When I have met an immigrant tottering under a bundle which contained his all, I have pitied him, not because it was his all, but because he had all that to carry.
Earning a Living
For more than five years I maintained myself solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that by working for about six weeks in the year I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study. I have thoroughly tried school-keeping, and found that my expenses were out of proportion to my income, for I was obliged to dress and train, not to say think and believe accordingly; and I lost my time into the bargain. I have tried trade; but I have learned that trade curses everything it handles; and though you trade in messages from Heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business. I found that the occupation of day-laborer was the most independent of any, especially as it required only thirty or forty days in the year to support me. The laborer's day ends with the going down of the sun, and he is then free to devote himself to his chosen pursuit, independent of his labor; but his employer, who speculates from month to month, has no respite from one end of the year to the other.
But all this is very selfish, I have heard some of my townsmen say. I confess that I have hitherto indulged very little in philanthropic enterprises. However, when I thought to indulge myself in this respect by maintaining certain poor persons as comfortably as I maintain myself, and even ventured so far as to make them the offer, they one and all unhesitatingly preferred to remain poor. The Life with Nature
When I took up my abode in the woods I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds, not by having imprisoned one, but having caged myself near them. I was not only nearer to some of those which commonly frequent the garden and orchard, but to those wilder and more thrilling songsters of the forest which never, or rarely, serenade a villager.
Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say, innocence, with Nature herself. I have been as sincere a worshiper of Aurora as the Greeks. Morning brings back the heroic ages. Then, for an hour at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night.
Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? As for work, we haven't any of any consequence. We have the Saint Vitus' dance, and cannot possibly keep our heads still. Hardly a man takes a half hour's nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks: "What's the news?" as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels. "Pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe." And he reads over his coffee and rolls that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito River, never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark, unfathomed mammoth cave of this world, and has but the rudiment of an eye himself.
Let us spend our day as deliberately as Nature. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation. Let us not be upset and overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and whirlpool called a dinner situated in the meridian shadows.
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it, but while I drink I see the sandy bottom, and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current glides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper, fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.
My residence was more favorable, not only to thought but to serious reading, than a university; and though I was beyond the range of the morning circulating library I had more than ever come within the influence of those books which circulate round the world. I kept Homer's 'Iliad' on my table through the summer, though I looked at his pages only now and then. To read well - that is to read true books in a true spirit - is a noble exercise and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written. No wonder that Alexander carried the 'Iliad' with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics.
That age will be rich indeed when those relics which we call Classics, and the even less known Scriptures of the nations, shall have still further accumulated, when the Vaticans shall be filled with Vedas and Zendavestas and Bibles, with Homers and Dantes and Shakespeares, and all the centuries to come shall have successively deposited their trophies in the forum of the world. By such a pile we may hope to scale heaven at last.
In the Sun
I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better than this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes on a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler's wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. Instead of singing like the birds I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune. This was sheer idleness to my fellow townsmen, no doubt, but if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard I should not have been found wanting.
Regularly at half past seven, in one part of the summer, the whip-poor-wills chanted their vespers for half an hour, sitting on a stump by my door, or upon the ridge pole of the house. When other birds were still the screech owls took up the strain, like mourning women their ancient u-lu-lu. Wise midnight hags! I love to hear their wailing, their doleful responses, trilled along the woodside. They give me a new sense of the variety and capacity of that nature which is our common dwelling. Oh-o-o-o-o that I had never been bor-r-r-r-n! sighs one on this side of the pond, and circles, with the restlessness of despair to some new perch on the gray oaks. Then: That I had never been bor-r-r-r-n! echoes another on the further side with tremulous sincerity, and bor-r-r-r-n! comes faintly from far in the Lincoln woods. I require that there are owls. They represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all have.
I am not sure that ever I heard the sound of cock crowing from my clearing, and I thought that it might be worth the while to keep a cockerel for his music merely, as a singing bird. The note of this once wild Indian pheasant is certainly the most remarkable of any bird's, and if they could be naturalized without being domesticated it would soon become the most famous sound in our woods.
I kept neither dog, cat, cow, pig, nor hens, so that you would have said there was a deficiency of domestic sounds, neither the churn nor the spinning wheel, nor even the singing of the kettle, nor the hissing of the urn, nor children crying, to comfort me; only squirrels on the roof, a whip-poor-will on the ridge pole, a bluejay screaming beneath the window, a woodchuck under the house, a laughing loon on the pond, and a fox to bark in the night.
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. Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath; yet, like the lake, my serenity is rippled, but not ruffled. Though it is now dark the wind still blows and roars in the woods, the waves still dash, and some creatures lull the rest with their notes. The repose is never complete. The wildest animals do not repose but seek their prey now. They are Nature's watchmen - links which connect the days of animated life.
I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. I never found the companion that was never so companionable as solitude. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud. God is alone, but the devil, he is far from being alone; he sees a great deal of company; he is legion. I am no more lonely than a single dandelion in a pasture, or a humble bee, or the North Star, or the first spider in a new house.
In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. With favoring winds it is wafted past the site of the fabulous islands of Atlantis and the Hesperides, makes the periplus of Hanno, and, floating by Ternate and Tidore and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, melts in the tropic gales of the Indian seas, and is landed in ports of which Alexander only heard the names.
In my house I have three chairs: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. My best room, however - my withdrawing room - always ready for company, was the pine wood behind my house. Thither in Summer days, when distinguished guests came, I took them, and a priceless domestic swept the floor and kept the things in order.
I could not but notice some of the peculiarities of my visitors. Girls and boys, and young women generally, seemed glad to be in the woods. They looked in the pond and at the flowers, and improved their time. Men of business, even farmers, thought only of solitude and employment, and of the great distance at which I dwelt from something or other; and though they said that they loved a ramble in the woods occasionally, it was obvious that they did not. Restless, committed men, whose time was all taken up in getting a living, or keeping it, ministers, who spoke of God as if they enjoyed a monopoly of the subject, and who could not bear all kinds of opinions, doctors, lawyers, and uneasy housekeepers, who pried into my cupboard and bed when I was out, young men who had ceased to be young, and had concluded that it was safest to follow the beaten track of the professions - all these generally said that it was not possible to do as much good in my position.
After hoeing, or perhaps reading and writing in the forenoon, I usually bathed again in the pond, washed the dust of labor from my person, and for the afternoon was absolutely free. Every day or two I strolled to the village. As I walked in the woods to see the birds and the squirrels, so I walked in the village to see the men and the boys. Instead of the wind among the pines I heard the carts rattle.
One afternoon near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler's, I was seized and put into jail, because I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State. I had gone down to the woods for other purposes. But wherever a man goes men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate Odd Fellows society. However, I was released the next day, obtained my mended shoe, and returned to the woods in season to get my dinner of huckleberries on Fair Haven Hill. I was never molested by any person but those who represented the State. I had no lock nor bolt but for the desk which held my papers, not even a nail to put over my latch or window. I never fastened my door night or day, and though I was absent several days my house was more respected than if it had been surrounded by a file of soldiers.
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. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond side, and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. So with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty then must be the highways of the world - how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity. 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. In proportion as he simplifies his life the laws of the Universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.
Love your life, poor as it is. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man's abode. It is life near the bone where it is sweetest.
Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board. The hospitality was as cold as the ices.
This generation inclines a little to congratulate itself, and in Boston and London and Paris and Rome, it speaks of its progress in art and science and literature with satisfaction. Yet there is not one of my readers who has lived a whole human life.
There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.
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