Why leave behind a house, a good job, most possessions, comforts, and security to live a life less ordinary? Why throw away the standard script of life and write your own unique story? How does one find inspiration and courage? Sometimes, it just takes a good book.
We are defined by our experiences, not our possessions. Unlike the things we spend so much of our lives collecting, only to have them break or be ignored, our memories are always with us. I truly believe we all know this, yet so many desperately cling to a life of comfortable boredom, numbly going to the same job day after day. Amassing material items that have no meaning. Punctuated by an occasional vacation to a beach in Florida surrounded by equally miserable souls in an asylum disguised as a resort. It’s no way to live. It’s not living at all. It’s existing at best. Wasting life while racing toward an ignoble death at worst. Where does one find the instructions to break out of this despondent cycle? Sometimes, it can be found in a good book.
I was introduced to the writings of Henry David Thoreau in high school, when I was far too immature and distracted to comprehend the lessons and wisdom they contained. Fifteen years later, on an otherwise unremarkable day, I picked up Walden; or, Life in the Woods at my local library during my lunch break. Aware of its importance as a seminal piece of American literature, I thought it might be an interesting read.
Later that evening, curled up on my couch, wrapped in a blanket while ignoring the Midwest winter that angrily whispered just outside, I began reading what would become one of the greatest influences on my life. A book written over 150 years ago that was still, if not even more so, relevant today. A prescient treatise on living a meaningful life in an age of alienation known as modern civilization. Its pages were loaded with insights, lessons, and affirmations, eloquently written in Thoreau’s unmistakable poetic style. A new way of approaching human existence was beautifully laid out on the slightly browned and brittle pages of this old copy of an even older text. The seeds were sown for a new and rather unusual existence. My own metaphorical life in the woods.
In the ensuing years, Tara, and I have tried to walk across the United States, sold our house and nearly everything we owned, worked on a handful of small farms, lived in a yurt, in a tent, in the woods, and now in a van. We’ve practiced an ever increasing degree of minimalism, traveled, discovered, and most importantly learned; learned about ourselves, about others, about our country, about nature, and about life. But the first lesson came from Henry David Thoreau, passed on from the lessons he learned during the two years and two months he spent in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. From his beloved Walden Woods and Walden Pond. It seemed obvious that we should try to pay homage to these hallowed grounds as we made our way through New England. At the very least, a visit was in order. But we hoped to do something more.
A few weeks before we expected to be in eastern Massachusetts, Tara sent an email to The Walden Woods Project, an organization committed to preserving the land, literature and legacy of Henry David Thoreau in order to foster an ethic of environmental stewardship and social responsibility. She briefly let them know that we were traveling across the country, volunteering in every state, and asked if there was something we could help with for a day. We were told they could use our help on the small organic farm that is part of the properties they protect. With small farming being something we’ve been deeply involved with over the last few years, and an opportunity to give back in some small way to the legacy of Thoreau, it seemed a slightly choreographed bit of serendipity was there for us to grasp.
So there we were, on a crisp fall day, harvesting seed corn, pulling weeds, and storing irrigation lines in anticipation of the coming winter. Working off the jolt of energy that was a result of having toured The Thoreau Institute Library and the treasures it houses. Surrounded by others who, also impacted by Thoreau, spend each day working on the lands and near the famous pond that he once traversed and called home; working to protect it and honor it.
As night fell, we found ourselves tucked in our van, our home, surrounded by the same woods that inspired Thoreau a century and a half ago, and continue to inspire others to this day. Years of living a more deliberate and purposeful life, of practicing minimalism and taking it to the extreme of living in 72 square feet, of learning about the land and the environment that surrounds us, of seeing the stars from every corner of our country, culminated in a peaceful evening. One in which the words in Walden took on not a new meaning, but an enhanced one.
It was a moment when I felt in my entire being that I was exactly where I was supposed to be; in time, in space, in mind, and in body.
Reflecting on his time spent in the woods, Thoreau wrote in the opening paragraph of Walden that, “at present I am sojourner in civilized life again.” Poignantly, he felt he was now a temporary resident in what is considered the normal life.
Henry David Thoreau famously confessed:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and 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 did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
He knew his life in the woods was not likely to be a permanent existence, but rather an ephemeral experience that would hopefully inform the rest of his life. One wonders if he had any idea how many other lives his account of this experiment would inform.
The next morning, I traveled up the road to Sleepy Hollow cemetery, and found the final resting place of Henry David Thoreau. In death, as in life, simplicity was paramount. His gravestone, surrounded by pens, pencils, and notes from admirers, is only marked with the name “Henry.” A emotional final reminder of the purity of existence he tried to pass on.
At present, I’m nearing the end of this adventure; the travels, the experiences, the volunteering, and the learning are all approaching their conclusion far too quickly. This particular experiment in living will soon be complete, but, at the risk of spoiling things with such platitudes, the lessons, friendships, and memories will be my companions as I move on to whatever awaits.
Meanwhile, I find myself preparing, however hesitantly, to be a sojourner in civilized life.