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01/30/2004 Archived Entry: "Thoreau"

This just in [at least it's new to me] from Bushflash! An excellent and serious flash animation on Saddam Hussein's CIA involvement/sponsorship with Frank Sinatra's "Thanks for the Memories" as a musical backdrop.


Over a decade after the fact, some of our friends are still amazed that Brad and I actually moved from Los Angeles to our 40 acres down a gravel road in rural Ontario. There were many reasons. Even though, as it happens, we have been busier on the farm than in L.A. - both in terms of our professional work and tending to the details of living - one of my underlying motives for moving to the country is/was thehigh regard with which I hold certain aspects of Henry David Thoreau's philosophy.

Thoreau believed people worked too much, produced too much, and thought too little. He marveled that a man would work all day to earn a dollar, then spend $1 to ride 30 miles on that new invention, the train, when he could walk the thirty miles almost as quickly as it took to earn the fare. Thoreau believed people would be much better off if they reversed the usual practice and worked one day in every seven, using six days of the week to live. This conviction was a motive force behind his experiment in living called "Walden." He wanted to know how much (or little) work was humanly necessary to sustain an acceptable lifestyle. Accordingly, he kept accurate account of his labor, produce, and expenses for two years. He did not do so to solve an overriding social problem but merely to answer questions for himself. But, in case it might prove useful to others, he wrote down both the practical details and the "philosophy" of his experiment...and I thank him for doing so because the book has provoked thought within me for over two decades.

The story of Walden (a venue Brad and I have visited) is too well known to be recounted here. Its essence is contained in an observation from Thoreau, "For more than five years I maintained myself thus, solely by the labor of my hands, and found that by working about six weeks in a year I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study." In a modest one-room cabin, Thoreau entertained the intellectual elites of Boston, including Emerson, by feeding them hasty pudding made with meal from corn he'd grown himself. Thoreau was persuaded that people spent most of their lives working to secure not the necessities of life but luxuries. In the process, they deprived themselves of the joy and reality of living. He wanted life to feel real.

It is certainly true that Thoreau's needs and definition of an acceptable lifestyle were remarkably less ambitious than my own (at least, as I perceive them) but it doesn't follow that he was any less happy than I am because of that. Moving to our farm - which, short of marrying Brad was the best decision I've ever made - was part of trying to strip down my life to the essentials of what makes me happy. I try to weigh the cost/benefit of spending that dollar/that day's worth of labor on a train ride rather than taking the same day to walk through fields to a destination. (Here "train ride" is a metaphor for any expenditure - a car, a wardrobe, an updated computer - for which you trade off your labor, your time...a portion of your life.) I try to make sure the tradeoff is worth it.

We are hardly Thoreauvian here on the farm; we haven't rigorously followed the advice to "simplify, simplify, simplify." But most of our material clutter adds to our happiness. (Brad's hands seem to wander of their own accord over to the several computers we have running. I'm constantly browsing the same bookshelves and movie archive as tho' they were constantly changing and new to me.) And life in the country feels more real.

Best to all,

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