Fed up with the hurly-burly of the life building up around Boston, 27 year-old Henry David Thoreau started building a small, rustic cabin on the shores of Walden Pond in 1845. He loved everything about it.
Thoreau built it from the trees he chopped down himself. He changed his diet to eat largely what he could grow or catch himself, which was mostly fruits, vegetables, some beans, and fish. He spent hours every day just watching nature, walking around the pond, swimming, and thinking.
His dramatic changes weren’t entirely rustic. He lamented the shuffling of trains and telegraph wires, but built his cabin not far from a train depot. A small chair by his front door was an indication to passersby they could have a seat and chat for a spell—most of whom arrived by train.
Thoreau began documenting his life in a series of essays, journal entries, poems, and letters. In one entry he wrote about the mere act of walking:
I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that–sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say, A penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.
Thoreau only spent two years at his cabin before moving in with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s family while Emerson was away in Europe. But while he was at Walden he did some of the best work of his life.
Surely just being there had a great deal to do with it. Being in contact with all the things he was writing about gave it some heft, and it struck a chord with Americans who, even in 1845, were already weary of modern life.
Being at Walden gave Thoreau clarity, simplicity, and the ability to do less, but better.
I was reminded of that as I spent some time this week working around town. Being at home post-pandemic has made Irvington increasingly like Walden Pond to me. I walk around often on quiet, wooded and shady streets, but still knowingly connected to the larger city.
Yet, I never seemed to want to be at home or around home as much pre-pandemic, despite having always wanted to live in Irvington even when I bought my first house a few miles away.
I liked going to the office every day and moving around the city for years. But after selling my business, then the pandemic, these radical changes reconfigured my work days. Now when I go into the city I find it ugly, boring, jolting, and generally unpleasant. I strive for serenity and calm whenever I work, even going so far as avoiding the sound of fans and air conditioners when I can.
I often think of Thoreau’s experience at being able to do better work when he first did less work. I did some radical changes a couple years ago to get away from that, and I get the sense I have more to do to realign my focus. Perhaps Thoreau’s better diet and increased physical activity in his day improved his outlook, something I’ve been keen to replicate.
After leaving Walden, Thoreau was never at his peak. He got a desk job and still tried to make sojourns to New England forests, but it was never the same. His writing was good, but never as great as when he was living the sort of transcendental life that elevated his star in the first place.
Do less, but better and live somewhere that is your Walden Pond, to the best you can manage. Make radical change to get there. There’s a lesson in that.