Sunday, 27 November 2016

On living like Thoreau (or creating your modern version of Walden)


Since I first read Walden, Henry David Thoreau's account of his decision to live deliberately, I've dreamt a little of staging my own retreat into the woods. Like many an introverted, nature-loving bookworm has, I'm sure.

More than once I've googled modern-day walden to see what comes up (not too much, it seems, although "The Terror and Tedium of Living Like Thoreau" is worth a read). So, after Google disappointed slightly, I decided to put my brain to use.

What does my own modern-day Walden look like? Am I already living it? Are there any small choices I can make to bring it closer?

During my pondering, it quickly became clear that a lot of my choices in the last few years have brought me closer to my personal Walden. I had already incorporated my favourite parts of the book into my life.

I wonder, how might my life today be different if I had read different books? How has the life I've created today been inspired by those I have read? Or have they just helped me to define what I should prioritise? Whatever the reason, I'm glad of it.

Here's an exploration of my personal Walden and the building blocks of choices and priorities that it consists of.




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I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. – Walden


1. Being in nature

Friluftsliv is a Norwegian word that often makes its way onto those beautiful words that can't be translated lists. It means, or so I'm told, living in tune with nature.

I don't quite live in the woods, and I think that would probably be one step too far, but I do live in a very small Swiss town with plenty of trees around. And lots of hiking routes (albeit ones I should make more consistent use of). Being able to look outside and see the colours of the season change, snow gather on the mountains, and cow bells jingle nearby is a real pleasure.

I want to read more books about people who escape from the hustle and bustle to actually live in the woods – successfully. Alexander Armstrong in his autobiographical Land of the Midnight Sun: My Arctic Adventures describes his brief stay with one couple doing the whole works (building the cabin, hunting for food, making jam) in Canada, but I haven't come across many similar stories in non-fiction.

We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. ― Walden




2. Having everything I need

I arrived in Switzerland in August 2015 with my everyday backpack and a hand luggage suitcase. I'm trying to keep my belongings to a minimum, but mostly to keep clutter out. It's easier said than done, but I like everything I own to have some sort of meaning to me.

When I head out on an adventure, be it to the mountains or to the Arctic Circle, it's usually just the same bag on my back. It's funny how the same things tend to suffice for a day or so or two weeks.

All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be. – Walden

3. Keeping a small library

Rather surprisingly, this is where my own modern Walden falls slightly short. I hardly have any real books here with me in Switzerland – I usually read them on my Kindle instead.

No matter how much I love proper books, I don't want to end up with hundreds of books over here: it's just too heavy and not at all portable. Maybe Thoreau would agree with me on this. But I would like to bring some of my real favourite books over here. I do miss those.

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. ― Walden

Books I have here in Switzerland:

Penguin Little Black Classics –

Others on my kitchen bookshelf –




4. Oh, peace and quiet

Complete silence is something I long for during my day at work. My office is open plan, packed with people, and full of noise and distractions. Coming home, the only noise I hear is what I create. That and a few cowbells and occasional alphorn practice somewhere in the town.

It's blissful. And it means that when I sit down to write in the mornings and some evenings, there are hardly any distractions to deal with. Any barrier I come up against is usually in my head. And there's a good cup of coffee to help with that.

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. ― Walden

5. Being able to sit back and look at the sky

I love how my windows show such a wide expanse of sky. It's beautiful to watch how it changes across a day, a month, and a season.

"People who are exposed to natural scenes aren't just happier or more comfortable; the very building blocks of their physiological well-being also respond positively." – Adam Alter, The Atlantic: "How Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies"



6. And a healthy dose of the sublime

It's not just the sky that I find myself monitoring day by day, it's the mountains too. I look at them first thing in the morning and see what the visibility is like, what colour the sky is around them, what clouds are surrounding them. How much snow is there? How bright is the light shining on them?

I wonder if living in a mountain town might guarantee a slowly developing friendship with the local mountains; one with constant check-ins and curious and kind looks out of the window.

The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace. – Walden

What's your Walden?





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