Thoreau’s Axe

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In 1973, my wife and I left a flat in St John’s Wood for a decrepit 5-acre smallholding in West Wales. There we continued, in cheerful penury, for the next twelve years. ‘Back in the days’, as we survivors of the Sixties like to say, self-sufficiency was the watchword, and the guru of that era’s back-to-the-landers was John Seymour (See SF No. 26, p.62). His contention, that a free and modestly prosperous peasantry is the best basis for a strong and stable society, was powerfully made by his writings and example, and remains, I believe, valid today. But equally appealing to many latter-day voluntary peasants was an earlier and very different prophet of self-sufficiency: Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau’s Walden, or Life in the Woods, published in 1854, has an assured place on any short-list of great American books, alongside Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn and Leaves of Grass. It tells the story of Thoreau’s two-year experiment in self-sufficiency, living in the woods near his home town of Concord, Massachusetts, in a cabin he had built with his own hands. His purpose was to determine how easily a man could provide for his own needs once these were reduced to their simplest elements. He asked himself three questions. First, how much of the activity with which people fill their daily lives is really necessary? Second, if a man were to confine himself to the strict minimum of necessary activity, how much time would he have left over? And finally, what is the best use he could make of the time so gained? The answers he found were: very little; a great deal; and he should spend it trying to gain a better understanding of himself and of the world he lives in.

Living alone, growing his own food, and meeting his modest financial needs by day labour led Thoreau to conclude that six weeks’ work a year (paid work, that is) was enough to prevent his becoming a charge on the community. He doesn’

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About the contributor

In emulation of Thoreau, Roger Jones has made his living with his head and his hands. He now lives in semi-retirement in a ramshackle wooden bungalow in the corner of a derelict farmyard in rural Hampshire.

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