The Wisdom of Walden

I speak, of course, of Thoreau’s book, which may as well be the Bible to vandwellers and boondockers.  I’d like to revisit some of my favorite passages, and explain what they mean to me.

“But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.”

Men labor under a mistake. Time is money. You don’t pay for things with dollars; you pay for them with hours of your life. Every dollar earned and spent is for that much of your life you should rightly have had to yourself. But instead you decided to trade it away. And for what? Usually, for creature comforts and luxuries that only take you further away from Nature – From how we were meant to live.

Almost every cent is wasted on fleeting moments or things that will become garbage. The money you spend on air conditioning and entertainment may as well be burned. You can adjust your climate by traveling to where it’s nicer, and you can entertain yourself with a book. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of free (or no-cost-added) books just a few clicks away.

In the end, you can’t take any of it to your grave. You’ll just leave a house full of garbage to your children. It’s more a mess to clean up than it is an inheritance, and they’ll be remembering you with every trinket they sell or throw out. The pain is extended at least until the estate is closed. By living a minimalist lifestyle, you can save them that; and you can save yourself the waste of collecting the trinkets in the first place.

“Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that.”

The way society is structured inundates us with so many artificial problems to solve that when we go home, we just want to relax and forget about our day. Nature gave us a free, peaceful, beautiful way to live, and society has robbed us of that. There’s nothing wrong with Mondays; it’s your job that sucks.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

Most of us spend our days working to make someone else rich. The better-off among us might even save some away for a rainy day.  But something stirs within us that knows this is not how we were meant to live. So we vacation in the wild mountains and forests to “get away from it all”. But what is it we are escaping? Indeed it is the life that society has inflicted upon us. Unknowing victims all.

When we finally arrive at our National Park or our alpine summit, we feel relief.  Right now, at this time, all the stress and agitation of life seem to melt away. For this moment, we are free.   Then we go back to work. We were not meant to live this way.

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of Mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor.”

Comfort is a drug: It’s expensive, it’s addictive, and it’s slowly killing us. When we feel comfortable, we are less likely to get up and go do something. Indeed, we would rather just sit right there in that leather chair or plush sofa and consume another TV dinner and maybe a few episodes of our favorite show.

When we go camping, we give up most of that comfort. It is at these times when we feel the most alive. We become automatically mindful; we shut off the autopilot without even realizing it. We live in the now.  This is what Nature (or God, if you prefer) intended for us.

Yet when it’s all done, we inevitably return to our decadent homes and leather chairs. Then we wonder why we feel like we need another vacation before we’ve even returned to work.


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