Leaving the Woods

2004-02-28

My recent post on Tom Elpel may have made it sound as if Thoreau advocated a return to nomadic living. Far from it. After all, Thoreau was satisfied most of the time to ramble around Concord, Massachusetts, not the wilderness. Sure he did explore a bit in New England (he even climbed Mount Katahdin back when that part of Maine was pretty remote), but he was no hunter-gatherer. For one, he was much too individualistic to argue for a return to a nomadic existence, which does and did not put a great value on solitude or the individual (the whole point of small-band living is to ensure the survival of the band). Thoreau's celebrated sojourn at the cabin on Walden Pond was an experiment in living, not a statement that it was the one right way to live (and let's not forget that even while living by the pond he often dined at the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson -- he wasn't exactly roughing it in the wilderness). Consider what he wrote in Walden about ending that experiment:

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there for a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!

Just as Marx was not a Marxist and Rand was not a Randian, Thoreau was not a Thoreauvian.


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