“Walden,” Henry David Thoreau’s unconventional account of his two-year experiment at Walden Pond, is a celebration of seasons, nature, life, self-discovery, and being open to new things.
“Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it,” he writes in “Spring,” a chapter near the end of the book. “We need the tonic of wildness, — to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground…. We can never have enough of Nature.”
“Walden” begins and ends in spring, tracing the seasons from the cutting of white pines to build his house in March through to another spring, as his return to living in town approaches. He describes the melting of the ice on Walden Pond, changes in wildlife behavior, and the return of birds and foliage.
“Early in May, the oaks, hickories, maples, and other trees, just putting out amidst the pine woods around the pond, imparted a brightness like sunshine to the landscape,” he writes.
“As every season seems best to us in its turn, so the coming in of spring is like the creation of Cosmos out of Chaos,” he writes. “The sun shines bright and warm this first spring morning, recreating the world.”
As he takes us through the seasons to a spring climax, Thoreau draws parallels between change and renewal in the natural world and in our lives. He pushes us to wake up, to examine how we live, and to consider whether we are really happy or in need of change. His natural analogies and metaphors explore both society and individual life.
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions,” he writes in “Conclusion,” “perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer?”
The first and longest chapter is “Economy,” which is striking, since Thoreau was staunchly anti-materialistic. He answers questions people asked about his way of life; however, more importantly, he presents his views on economics: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
He wants us to be our best possible genuine selves, and he enlists spring seasons and nature to get us there: “The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats.”
In some respects, “Walden” is an offbeat, 19th century version of a self-help or inspirational book. It was published in 1854, which is why, despite being a progressive thinker, he kept writing about “man” and “mankind.” Some modern readers are put off by the older writing style or his detail about everything from housing to clothing to his bean field. If you want to read it and that’s a problem, there’s an easy solution: Just read the “good parts” and skip the rest; you may get hooked and want to go back to read more. Or, you can start with the 10-page “Conclusion” to get an idea of whether this unusual book is for you.
More than anything, Thoreau wants us to live in the present, to dream, to question, and to think for ourselves: “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 … . If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
It is traditional to take stock of ourselves and our lives when we put up a new calendar, as though dreams and promises we make to ourselves in the cold dark of January are likely to happen.
Thoreau knows better: Spring, when days are getting warmer and longer, when the world around us is flourishing, and when we are joyfully emerging from the depths of winter, is the time to initiate change. It is never too late to take new paths, to renew our pursuit of those dreams in the air, to discover our own “higher latitudes,” and to see if this is that eventful year when the life in us, like the water in the river, rises higher than we have ever known it.
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