In the spring of 1845, Henry David Thoreau borrowed an ax from his neighbor Bronson Alcott. He walked two miles from his family's house in Concord, Mass., to a woodlot on the shores of Walden Pond, owned by another neighbor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. There he began to build himself a cabin.
Young Thoreau, then in his late 20s, had tried to live as others lived - as "a schoolmaster, a private tutor, a surveyor, a gardener, a farmer, a house painter, a carpenter, a mason, a day-laborer, a pencil-maker, a glass-paper maker, a writer, and sometimes a poetaster," by his own reckoning - but had found those careers wanting. "The mass of men," he wrote, "lead lives of quiet desperation." He was determined not to be one of them.
"Our life is frittered away by detail," he declared, "Simplify, simplify." So he set off for the woods to build a house that would allow him the same easy converse with his surroundings that the American Indian, whom he admired, once enjoyed. He intended to reflect on nature, society, and the human spirit, to read widely, and to write.
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately," he wrote after spending two years at Walden Pond, "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." That singular act of bravery produced one of the most influential books of 19th-century American literature, "Walden, or Life in the Woods," a volume full of prickly prejudices and invaluable insights. As another great American writer, E.B. White, observed, the book "is like an invitation to life's dance." It was first published 145 years ago this month.
Not only was Thoreau blessed with an acute eye that catalogued the infinite varieties of nature, not only was he capable of enjoying and reflecting on the meaning of stillness and isolation in an increasingly industrialized society, but he was able to distill life into witty, astute aphorisms that have long since become part of our language: "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes"; "As if you could kill time without injuring eternity"; "Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in"; "Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth."
Nine years after he built his cabin on Walden Pond, Thoreau published his reflections on that experience and forever changed the way we think about nature and our place in it. Though all but ignored during his brief lifetime (Thoreau died in 1862 ), "Walden" eventually became one of the most-read books of American literature, influencing people as diverse as Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, and Robert Frost.
Though long-ago dismantled, Thoreau's cabin lingers in the American consciousness as an image of perfection. In our restless search for meaning we return repeatedly to that vision of a man with nothing but an ax walking into the woods and fashioning all that he needs to live honestly and fully, a simple cabin beside a still pond.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society