Earth Matters: Centuries later, Thoreau’s wisdom still resonates

I was introduced to Henry David Thoreau when I was in high school, more than a century after his death.

Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott were the most well-known of a group of 19th century writers/ philosophers that espoused simplicity, self-reliance and a reverence for nature. The movement became known as transcendentalism. They warned against the corruption of the individual by society and its institutions.

Thoreau decided to undertake what he called an “experiment” in 1845, to see if it was possible to live comfortably within the ideals of transcendentalism. Building a small cabin on the shores of Walden Pond, Thoreau lived as simply as he could for the next two years. Though he wrote extensively, it is his memoir from the time at the pond near Concord, Massachusetts, “Walden: Life in the Woods,” that is his most famous, widely read work and still my personal favorite.

Published in 1854, parts of the book were difficult to understand. (A language can change a great deal in 120 years.) So I was delighted when my mother gave me a special annotated version of the book my freshman year in college, enabling me to decipher the archaic words and unusual metaphors Thoreau so often used.

When reminded of the 200th anniversary of his birth this past week, it made me wonder what he would think of the world as it is now. I imagined this conversation (in Thoreau’s own words).

Earth Matters: “Henry, I can’t tell you what an honor it is to finally meet and talk with you. I feel like you’re an old friend.”

Henry David Thoreau: “Friends… they cherish one another’s hopes. They are kind to one another’s dreams.”

EM: “Speaking of dreams and lessons, tell us what your time at Walden Pond taught you.”

Thoreau: “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.”

EM: “Don’t you think the American Dream sometimes becomes a crazed pursuit of wealth and the stuff it can buy. I suspect your vision of wealth is a bit different?”

Thoreau: “Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul. Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.”

EM: “Our lives are too complicated then?”

Thoreau: “Our lives are frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify. Simplicity is the law of nature for men as well as for flowers.”

EM: “I take it you don’t see a need for a smart phone.”

Thoreau: “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end. Most are positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

EM: “I find getting outside can clear my mind and help me get through the frustrations of my day. How about you?”

Thoreau: “An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day. Heaven, after all, is under our feet as well as over our heads.”

EM: Do you have any parting words of wisdom on your 200th birthday?

Thoreau: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”

John Frederick (jfrederick@ ircenevironment.org) doesn’t always talk with dead people, but does enjoy sharing insights on the environment every other week in the Mirror.

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