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The Original ‘Into the Wild’ Libertarian: Henry David Thoreau

By: Laurie Blair - @printsoflblair - Mar 4, 2015, 8:36 am
Thoreau spent two years in a cabin near Walden Pond, Massachusetts, from 1845. (Wikimedia)
Thoreau spent two years in a cabin near Walden Pond, Massachusetts, from 1845. (Wikimedia)

EspañolAnyone who’s spent time in the great outdoors will have heard it before. “I loved that Into the Wild film, you know? It really inspired me,” goes the refrain, as inevitable as the speaker’s beanie hat, oversized pack, and hiking sandals.

The 2007 film, based on the book of the same name, charts the adventures of Californian drifter Christopher McCandless, who ventured into Alaska in April 1992, and was found starved to death five months later. But richer material — which inspired the young adventurer himself — can be found some 150 years previously.

From 1845, writer and poet Henry David Thoreau launched his own experiment in wilderness living, braving freezing winters in a self-built cabin a stone’s throw from Walden Pond, Massachusetts. For a little over two years, he grew his own crops, gathered his own fuel, and refused to pay taxes: the original libertarian survivalist.

“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 … I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.”

So writes Harvard-schooled Thoreau in his 1854 account, Walden, or, Life in the Woods, today one of the “classic American” reads. But such a position comes with risks. Modern US writer John Updike noted that its treasured status among the “back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience” school means the book “risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.”

The Wealth of Nature

But Thoreau’s part-memoir, part-meditation on the natural world has lot to offer. Walden is at turns a satirical account of New England society, a damning critique of mediocre politics, and a vibrant historical document. It’s also a book for our times, showing how individuals can forge change only in and of themselves.

Thoreau didn’t go too far to experience his epiphany — he was only a few miles from Concord, MA, on land owned by his benefactor and fellow-poet Walt Whitman, and wandered into town when he pleased.

But from his wood-and-plaster hut, Thoreau was able to observe in detail the changing of the seasons. Migrating geese and ducks come and go, wild hares nest beneath his house, squirrels almost eat the grain out of his hand.

His description of fishing in the dead of night, the stars mirrored in the placid lake below, is striking. And when the pond freezes over into thick, marbled ice, laborers arrive to carve it up into thick slabs for export: “The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well … The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”

A replica of Thoreau's cabin near to its original site. (Wikimedia)
A replica of Thoreau’s cabin near to its original site. (Wikimedia)

For Thoreau’s strong moral sense of nature — he believes man’s “destiny” is to stop eating meat, just as cannibalism has died out — doesn’t draw a distinction with mankind. His landscape is populated with ancient hunting trails, struggling Irish tenants, and mysterious ruins.

And despite a strong anti-government, pro-enterprise streak, he slams the wanton destruction of the woods by those who fail to appreciate their long-term worth, thinking only of their “money value.”

Escaping “Odd-Fellow Society”

Thoreau’s spiritualism may not sit well with contemporary liberals. But spending a night in the Concord cells for non-payment of taxes seems to have cemented a concrete distaste for society’s relentless attempt to “pursue and paw [the individual] with their dirty institutions” and “desperate odd-fellow society.”

It’s even tempting to see him as an early advocate for anarchism, later suggesting in his influential essay Civil Disobedience that “government is best which governs not at all, and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”

Yet his position is more gradualist than the “no-government men,” instead asking “for not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.”

For Thoreau’s experience at Walden Pond endowed him with a strong conception of individual politics, and the “encouraging fact” of man’s “unquestionable ability … to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.”

Humanist Self-Reliance

Thoreau, who would later become a prominent abolitionist, in 1861. (Wikimedia).
Thoreau, who would later become a prominent abolitionist, in 1861. (Wikimedia).

He finds that “Doing-good … is one of the professions which are full,” and criticizes those who bestow huge amounts of money and time on charity while living “upon another man’s shoulders.”

In his call to tackle the root of evil rather than the branches, Thoreau would find much in common with critics of international aid, and proponents of lowering barriers to, and unfair advantages in, global trade.

Ultimately, Walden is a bold defense of individual ethics, which nevertheless must be practiced without damaging one’s fellow inhabitants of the planet. It’s a strong argument that relentless labor without leisure, and modern luxuries without the riches of the natural world, will prove hollow in the long run.

“We need the tonic of wildness … we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us,” Thoreau concludes.

We need “the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks.” Of course, that’s assuming you can find a patch of wilderness without a gaggle of fellow sandal-wearers.

Edited by Guillermo Jimenez.

Laurie Blair Laurie Blair

Laurie is a British journalist currently based in Asunción, Paraguay. The English junior editor of the PanAm Post, he writes on domestic and international politics, economics, history, and human rights. He blogs at Man, the State, and More, and tweets @printsoflblair.