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Where I lived and what I lived for

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, 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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartanlike as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

Henry David Thoreau

from Walden

When first I took up my abode in the woods, that is, began to
spend my nights as well as days there, which, by accident, was on Independence
Day, or the fourth of July, 1845, my house was not finished for winter, but was
merely a defense against the rain, without plastering or chimney, the walls
being of rough weather-stained boards, with wide chinks, which made it cool at
night.  The upright white hewn studs and freshly planed door and window casings
gave it a clean and airy look, especially in the morning, when its timbers were
saturated with dew, so that I fancied that by noon some sweet gum would exude
from them….

            I was seated by the shore of a small pond, about a mile and a half
south of the village of Concord and somewhat higher than it, in the midst of an
extensive wood between that town and Lincoln, and about two miles south of that
our only field known to fame, Concord Battle Ground; but I was so low in the woods
that the opposite shore, half a mile off, like the rest , covered with wood, was
my most distant horizon.  For the first week, whenever I looked out on the pond it
impressed me like a tarn high up on the side of a mountain, its bottom far above
the surface of other lakes, and, as the sun arose, I saw it throwing off its
nightly clothing of mist, and here and there, by degrees, its soft ripples or its
smooth reflecting surface was revealed, while the mists, like ghosts, were
stealthily withdrawing in every direction into the woods, as at the breaking up
of some nocturnal conventicle.  The very dew seemed to hang upon the trees later
into the day than usual, as on the sides of mountains….

            I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, 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.  I did not wish to live
what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless
it was quite necessary.  I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,
to live so sturdily and Spartanlike as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut
a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its
lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine
meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know
it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is
of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end
of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

            Still we live meanly, like ants, though the fable tells us that we were
long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error,
and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable
wretchedness.  Our life is frittered away by detail.  An honest man has hardly need to
count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump
the rest.  Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!  I say, let your affairs be as two or
three, and not a hundred or a thousand, instead of a million count half a dozen, and
keep your accounts on your thumbnail.  In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized
life, such are the cloud and storms and quicksands and thousand and one items to be
allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and
not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed
who succeeds.  Simplify, simplify.  Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary
eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion…

            Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?  We are determined
to be starved before we are hungry.  Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and
so they take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow.  As for work, we haven’t
any of any consequence….

            Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.  I drink at it; but while I drink
I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is.  Its thin current slides away, but
eternity remains.  I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with
stars.  I cannot count one.  I know not the first letter of the alphabet.  I have always
been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.  The intellect is a cleaver;
it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things.  I do not wish to be any more
busy with my hands than is necessary.  My head is hands and feet.  I feel all my best
faculties concentrated in it.  My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing,
as some creatures use their snout and forepaws, and with it I would mine and burrow my
way through these hills.  I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by
the divining rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.

from Solitude

            Men frequently say to me, “I should think you would feel lonesome down there,
and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially.”  I am
tempted to reply to such, This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point of space.  How
far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth
of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments?  Why should I feel lonely?  Is
not our planet in the Milky Way?  This which you put seems to me not to be the most
important question.  What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows
and makes him solitary?  I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds
much nearer to one another.

from The Pond in Winter

            Every winter the liquid and trembling surface of the pond, which was so
sensitive to every breath, and reflected every light and shadow, becomes solid to the
depth of a foot or a foot and a half, so that it will support the heaviest teams, and
perchance the snow covers it to an equal depth, and it is not to be distinguished from
any level field.  Like the marmots in the surrounding hills, it closes it eyelids and
becomes dormant for three months or more.  Standing on the snow-covered plain, as if in
a pasture amid the hills, I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of
ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down in to the
quiet parlor of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground
glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless
serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even
temperament of the inhabitants.  Heaven is under our feet as well as over heads.

from Spring

            One attraction in coming to the woods to live was that I should have leisure
and opportunity to see the Spring come in.  The ice in the pond at length begins to be
honeycombed, and I can set my heel in it as I walk.  Fogs and rains and warmer suns are
gradually melting the snow; the days have grown sensibly longer; and I see how I shall
get through the winter without adding to my woodpile, for large fires are no longer
necessary.  I am on the alert for the first signs of spring, to hear the chance not of
some arriving bird, or the striped squirrel’s chirp, for his stores must be now nearly
exhausted, or see the woodchuck venture out of his winter quarters….

            …The change from storm and winter to serene and mild weather, from dark and
sluggish hours to bright and elastic ones, is a memorable crisis which all things proclaim.
It is seemingly instantaneous at last.  Suddenly an influx of light filled my house,
though the evening was at hand, and the clouds of winter still overhung it, and the eaves
were dripping with sleety rain.  I looked out the window and lo! where yesterday was cold
gray ice there lay the transparent pond already calm and full of hope as in a summer evening,
reflecting a summer evening sky in its bosom, though none was visible overhead, as if it
had intelligence with some remote horizon.

from Conclusion

            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 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 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!  I did not wish to take a cabin
passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could
best see the moonlight amid the mountains.  I do not wish to go below now.

            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.  He will put some things behind, will
pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish
themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor
in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.  In
proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex,
and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.  If you have
built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now
put the foundations under them….

            Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate
enterprises?  If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he
hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or
far away.