This month represents the 170-year anniversary of when Henry David Thoreau built his cabin at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.
In July 1845, Thoreau chopped down trees by the pond (owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson) for a one-room cabin with the understanding that “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life. And to see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
I thought of Thoreau’s experiment during a recent visit to Walden Pond. The chilly summer morning didn’t stop the locals from taking their morning swim.
The pond was silent except for chirping birds and the occasional roar of the same train that passed while Thoreau lived there.
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My sons and I skipped rocks on the pond, fed the ducks, followed a frantic chipmunk and closely examined a garter snake sunning itself on the banks. Sitting on that bank, I considered what Thoreau might still have to offer his country in its over-committed, overstimulated modern existence.
What would Thoreau think, for instance, about the fact that our noses aren’t buried in books but are instead nearly pressed against the screens of our smartphones? What would he think about how children aren’t typically exploring woods for the highest tree to climb because of the multitude of lessons that eat up their day after school?
Thoreau’s writing on his two years on the banks of that pond, “Walden; or, Life in the Woods,” describes an idealized, self-sufficient existence that we know was actually interrupted with occasional visits to town and the help of many family and friends. One of his trips into town resulted in being arrested for his refusal to pay his poll tax, an act of defiance against the federal government that continued to support slavery.
Thoreau’s other highly influential writing, “Civil Disobedience,” chronicles his reasoning that “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” Mohandas Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. both cite Thoreau’s work as inspiring them in their own nonviolent political action.
Yet the reason Thoreau’s poetic insights in Walden have also prevailed is because he demonstrates the rich and full existence of a simple life close to nature. Americans as a whole aren’t known for embracing a simplified life. We are not always the best judge of the difference between what we want and what we need.
But my sons’ full adventurous morning on the banks of Walden Pond proved to me there is likely a great deal more of an untapped, simple and unstructured appreciation for natural beauty and wonder in their generation than we typically believe. Indeed, it occurred to me, the very activities we enjoyed were ones Thoreau described taking pleasure in himself.
Sitting there staring over the calm waters, I decided Thoreau still has plenty to offer America 170 years later. He reminds us that we don’t have to accept our modern frenzied world uncritically, and invites us to look for ways to live more simply and meaningfully.
Margaret Betz teaches philosophy at Philadelphia-area colleges. She wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.