Back to Nature with Thoreau

How to live a simple life in modern times.

source: Provincial Archives of Alberta via flickr (No known copyright restrictions)

We’re children of modern times. We grew up in a culture of the masses and technological advancement. A reaction to this outsourced living is the so-called ‘back to the land’ movement. Individuals escaping the pressure of society by retreating back to nature. One could argue that this is a quest for a simple life and a search for the small.

These feelings aren’t new. In 1845 Henry David Thoreau started building a little one-room cabin in a forest near a lake called Walden Pond. He then went to live in this cabin for two years.

Actually, this cabin wasn’t more than two kilometers away from his hometown Concord, so it wasn’t real isolation. It was more of a symbolic retreat; a ‘move away from public opinion, from government, from religion, from education, from society’.

Walden was also closer to nature and nature seemed to be threatened by the rise of the big city and industrialization. Remarkably, this was already an item 176 years ago.

Thoreau, who tended to write daily, rejected the idea of becoming famous through his profession. He rejected ‘career’. He opted to live a simple life instead. Or as stated in the introduction of Walden and other Writings:

“It was an experiment intended to answer for himself a question, namely, how simple can a life be and still be a good one? Most people seemed to think that the more things they had the better of they would be, and they enslaved themselves to acquire what turned out to be only a burden.”

In his meanwhile classic work ‘Walden’ we can read how Thoreau dealt with his goals for a simple life, self-sufficiency, nature, and a search for understanding.

Thoreau, in his early years, envisioned life to be lived without any involvement: no paid work, no obligations. He said that he ‘signed off’ from church and would gladly sign off from other institutions if he just would know where to find a complete list of them.

Yet in his later years, he got caught in direct confrontations with government and repressive policies. His active belief in individual freedom made him a fierce opponent of slavery. There was no other choice for him than to act.

His most famous publication is the essay Civil Disobedience, where he preaches non-violent, but total resistance against any authority not regarded as such. He also precisely defined the paradox of opposing a government one cannot escape:

“I quietly declare war with the state, after my fashion, though I will still make what use and get what advantage from her as I can, as is usual in such cases.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Civil Disobedience was a direct influence for Tolstoy and Gandhi.

Pioneers like Thoreau can be an inspiration for our own actions. We do not have to copy their lifestyles. One could say that they have done the hard work for us. We can pick some of the ideas they coined and implement them into our own lives.

We can learn, for example, how to adjust and even increase the value of our lives by leading a simpler life, connecting with nature and our direct community. We can learn how to take control of our own lives, instead of handing it over to others. In this same spirit, we don’t have to reject the new world. We only need to reject the bad stuff.

Simple, sustainable lifestyle design, self-sufficiency and local, perennial culture.