WHERE I LIVED AND WHAT I LIVED FOR
HENRY DAVID THOREAU
GREAT IDEAS PENGUIN BOOKS 1854/2005
If I should attempt to tell how I have desired to spend my life in years past, it would probably surprise those of my readers who are somewhat acquainted with its actual history; it would certainly astonish those who know nothing about it. I will only hint at some of the enterprises which I have cherished.
in any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.
- For a long time I was a reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never yet seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains. However, in this case my pains were their own reward.
- For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms, and did my duty faithfully. I looked after the wild stock of the town, which give a faithful herdsman a good deal of trouble by leaping fences.
- I went on thus for a long time, faithfully minding my business, till it became more and more evident that my townsmen would not after all admit me into the list of town officers, nor make my place a sinecure with a moderate allowance.
Finding that my fellow-citizens were not likely to offer me any room in the court house, or any curacy or living any where else, but I must shift for myself, I turned my face more exclusively than ever to the woods, where I was better known. I determined to go into business at once, and not wait to acquire the usual capital, using such slender means as I had already got. My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles; to be hindered from accomplishing which for want of a little common sense, a little enterprise and business talent, appeared not so sad as foolish.
I have always endeavored to acquire strict business habits; they are indispensable to every man. If your trade is with the Celestial Empire, then some small counting house on the coast, in some Salem harbor, will be fixture enough. You will export such articles as the country affords, purely native products, much ice and pine timber and a little granite, always in native bottoms. These will be good ventures. To oversee all the details yourself in person; to be at once pilot and captain, and owner and underwriter; to buy and sell and keep the accounts; to read every letter received, and write or read every letter sent; to superintend the discharge of imports night and day; to be upon many parts of the coast almost at the same time; – often the richest freight will be discharged upon a Jersey shore; – to be your own telegraph, unweariedly sweeping the horizon, speaking all passing vessels bound coastwise; to keep up a steady dispatch of commodities, for the supply of such a distant and exorbitant market; to keep yourself informed of the state of the markets, prospects of war and peace every where, and anticipate the tendencies of the results of all exploring expeditions, using new passages and all improvements in navigation; – charts to be studied, the position of reefs and new lights and buoys to be ascertained, and ever, and ever, the logarithmic tables to be corrected, for by error of some calculator the vessel often splits upon a rock that should have reached a friendly pier – there is the untold fate of La Perouse; – universal science to be kept pace with, studying the lives of all great discoverers and navigators, great adventurers and merchants, from Hanno and the Phœnicians down to our day; in fine, account of stock to be taken from time to time, to know how you stand. It is a labor to task the faculties of a man – such problems of profit and loss, of interest, of tare and tret, and gauging of all kinds in it, as demand a universal knowledge.
I have thought that Walden Pond would be a good place for business, not solely on account of the railroad and the ice trade; it offers advantages which it may not be good policy to divulge; it is a good post and a good foundation. No Neva marshes to be filled; though you must everywhere build on piles of your own driving. It is said that a flood-tide, with a westerly wind, and ice in the Neva, would sweep St Petersburg from the face of the earth.
As this business was to be entered into without the usual capital, it may not be easy to conjecture where those means, that will still be indispensable to every such undertaking, were to be obtained.
- No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.
- But even if the rent is not mended, perhaps the worst vice betrayed is improvidence.
- A man who has at length found something to do will not need to get a new suit to do it in; for him the old will do.
- It is desirable that a man be clad so simply that he can lay his hands on himself in the dark, and that he live in all respects so compactly and preparedly, that, if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.
- The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.
- When a soldier is hit by a cannon ball rags are as becoming as purple.
I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing. The condition of the operatives is becoming every day more like that of the English; and it cannot be wondered at, since, as far as I have heard or observed, the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched. In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though some may fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.
As for shelter, I will not deny that this is now a necessary of life, though there are instances of men having done without it for long periods in colder countries than this.
- Man wanted a home, a place of warmth, or comfort, first of physical warmth, then the warmth of the affections.
- It would be well perhaps if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies.
However, if one designs to construct a dwelling house, it behooves him to exercise a little Yankee shrewdness, lest after all he find himself in a workhouse, a labyrinth without a clew, a museum, an almshouse, a prison, or a splendid mausoleum instead.
- Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary. I have seen Penobscot Indians, in this town, living in tents of thin cotton cloth, while the snow was nearly a foot deep around them, and I thought that they would be glad to have it deeper to keep out the wind.
- I used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night, and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at night, and hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free.
- Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this.
- A comfortable house for a rude and hardy race, that lived mostly out of doors, was once made here almost entirely of such materials as nature furnished ready to their hands.
I think that I speak within bounds when I say that, though the birds of the air have their nests, and the foxes their holes, and the savages their wigwams, in modern civilized society not more than one half the families own a shelter. In the large towns and cities, where civilization especially prevails, the number of those who own a shelter is a very small fraction of the whole. The rest pay an annual tax for this outside garment of all, become indispensable summer and winter, which would buy a village of Indian wigwams, but now help to keep them poor as long as they live.
- If it is asserted that civilization is a real advance in the condition of man – and I think that it is, though only the wise improve their advantages – it must be shown that it has produced better dwellings without making them more costly; and the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.
- There is an important distinction between the civilized man and the savage. I wish to show at what a sacrifice this advantage is at present obtained, and to suggest that we may possibly so live as to secure all the advantage without suffering any of the disadvantage.
- When I consider my neighbors, the farmers of Concord, who are at least as well off as the other classes, I find that for the most part they have been toiling twenty, thirty, or forty years, that they may become the real owners of their farms.
- The encumbrances sometimes outweigh the value of the farm, so that the farm itself become one great encumbrance.
- On applying to the assessors, I am surprised to learn that they cannot at once name a dozen in the town who own their farms free and clear.
- What has been said of the merchants, that a very large majority, even ninety-seven in a hundred, are sure to fail, is equally true of the farmers.
- Bankruptcy and repudiation are the spring-boards from which much of our civilization vaults and turns its somersets, but the savage stands on the unelastic plank of famine.
- And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him.
- Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them.
Granted that the majority are able to last either to own or hire the modern house with all its improvements. While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings. And if the civilized man’s pursuits are no worthier than the savage’s, if he is employed the greater part of his life in obtaining gross necessaries and comforts merely, why should he have a better dwelling than the former?
But how do the poor minority fare? Perhaps it will be found, that just in proportion as some have been placed in outward circumstances above the savage, others have been degraded below him. The luxury of one class is counterbalanced by the indigence of another. On the one side is the palace, on the other are the almshouse and ‘silent poor’. The myriads who built the pyramids to be the tombs of the Pharaohs were fed on garlic, and it may be were not decently buried themselves. The mason who finishes the cornice of the palace returns at night perchance to a hut not so good as a wigwam. It is a mistake to suppose that, in a country where the usual evidences of civilization exist, the condition of a very large body of the inhabitants may not be as degraded as that of savages. I refer to the degraded poor, not now to the degraded rich.
- Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.
- Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less?
- Shall the respectable citizen thus gravely teach, by precept and example, the necessity of the young man’s providing a certain number of superfluous glowshoes, and umbrellas, and empty guest chambers for empty guests, before he dies?
- Why should not our furniture be as simple as the Arab’s or the Indian’s?
- When I think of the benefactors of the race, whom we have apotheosized as messengers from heaven, bearers of divine gifts to man, I do not see in my mind any retinue at their heels, any car-load of fashionable furniture.
- It is the luxurious and dissipated who set the fashions which the herd so diligently follow.
- I would rather ride on earth in an ox cart with a free circulation, than go to heaven in the fancy car of an excursion train and breathe a malaria all the way.
- Men have become the tool of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper.
- We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven.
- We have adopted Christianity merely as an improved method of agiculture.
- We have built for this world a family mansion, and for the next a family tomb.
- The best works of art are the expression of man’s struggle to free himself from this condition, but the effect of our art is merely to make this low state comfortable and that higher state to be forgotten.
- When I consider how our houses are built and paid for, or not paid for, and their internal economy managed and sustained, I wonder that the floor does not give way under the visitor while he is admiring the gewgaws upon the mantelpiece, and let him through into the cellar, to some solid and honest though earthy foundation.
- The first question which I am tempted to put to the proprietor of such great impropriety is, Who bolsters you? Are you one of the ninety-seven who fail, or the three who succeed?
Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall arrowy white pines, sill in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it.
- By the middle of April, for I made no haste in my work, but rather made the most of it, my house was framed and ready for raising.
- I dug my cellar in the side of a hill sloping to the south.
- At length, in the beginning of May, with the help of some of my acquaintances, rather to improve so good an occasion for neighborliness than from any necessity, I set up the frame of my house.
- I began to occupy my house on the 4th of July, as soon as it was boarded and roofed.
- There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest.
- The exact cost of my house, paying the usual price for such materials as I used, but not counting the work, all of which was done by myself, was as follows: …in all, $28 12½
- Thus I found that the student who wishes for a shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually.