I once heard a young man describe the experience of walking across America, from sea to sea. What was most marvelous to him was the number of things he found it possible to discard. Having begun with what he considered a light load, reduced to the bare necessities, he discovered that one article after another was not necessary at all, but a luxury to be dispensed with. In the act he found himself the possessor of a new liberty, walking with a self-confidence he had thought never to master.
How many of us could profit from that young man's example! We burden ourselves with what seems essential - with mountains of books, with publications beyond number, with apparel that could clothe an army. We undertake the charge of keeping lands and houses, planting gardens and orchards - and all this under the impression that it is somehow necessary to our well-being. A useful experiment is to get rid of one thing at a time. To our amazement we find that we are still in as good health, and indeed in better spirits, than before. The experiment being repeated, we become like the young cross-country traveler, as happy and carefree as if we had never played the role of beast of burden.
In Maine, where I have been spending a first weekend of early summer, I picked up in my library a book on ''craftsmen's homes,'' originally published in 1909. Here is an essay by a certain Mr. Edward Carpenter, warning us eloquently against the habit of acquiring things in the first place. (It is obviously unnecessary to go through the act of discarding and simplifying if one has all along kept oneself from growing complicated.) Supposing, says Mr. Carpenter, one decides to abandon ''a wholesome tile or stone floor for a Turkey carpet.'' The consequences may be disastrous. The Turkey carpet makes the old furniture look uncomfortable and calls for stuffed couches and armchairs. ''The couches and armchairs demand a walnut-wood table; the walnut-wood table requires polishing, and the polish bottles require shelves.'' Our essayist carries on to hair-raising lengths his list of growing complexities, until he concludes with the apocalyptic vision of cleaning day, with ''its terrible domestic convulsion and bouleversement of the household.''
On this northern island we do not go in heavily for walnut tables. But a visitor may observe the many strange encumbrances by which the summer inhabitants make their lives difficult, including large yachts and dwellings of considerable elegance. Still, their hearts are in the right place; their intentions are of the best. Their mansions, if paneled with wood within, they call ''camps,'' and if walled in plaster, they designate as ''cottages.'' Thus by nomenclature, if not by acts of divestment, they reach out for themselves to a simplification of life.
There is another side to this question of simplification. To reduce life to bare essentials may be all right if one has inner resources on a certain scale - if the man on his plain tile floor writes symphonies or composes epics; if the woman freed of household convulsions paints or sings. The liberated young may flourish by simply being young, but for most of the rest of us something is needed to take the place of the excesses we have given up. Nothing can be sadder than those who have surrendered old associations and possessions, ensconcing themselves in a labor-free condominium and then finding that they have nothing to live for. Better the garden with chores that would have frustrated an Emerson or a Dante than these existences stripped of all comforting and heartwarming burdens! A small house is for this reason almost always better than an apartment; and a dog, though he may bring confusion to the den of a philosopher, is not to be spurned by ordinary mortals.
Maine coastal people, summer folk and natives alike, have in the sea a constant reminder of what is a good balance between true simplicity and that too-great harshness that robs life of its texture and color. It lies before them day in and day out, now with a calm so perfect as to put the spirit at ease; now as turbulent and vexed as the emotions of a schoolgirl. In both moods it speaks to man's needs, and all in all suggests a life at once calm and full of meaning.