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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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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’t tell us what work he actually did but only observes, rather complacently, ‘I have as many trades as I have fingers.’ But we are not to imagine that he despised either work or workmanship. ‘Drive a nail home’, he wrote, ‘and clinch it so faithfully that you can wake up in the night and think of your work with satisfaction . . . Every nail driven should be as another rivet in the machine of the universe . . .’ That is the craftsman’s code. And it follows, besides, that once we restrict our work to our real needs, then we are, by definition, doing work that is worth doing, and, therefore, worth doing well. Thoreau the artisan and Thoreau the thinker were two halves of a well-integrated whole. He valued experience not for its own sake but as a raw material acted upon by the consciousness to give, as an end-product, an understanding of the true nature of the world. He compared himself to a burrowing insect which uses its head, rather than its hands or feet, to penetrate the substance of things in search of their essence. And he had no faith in scientific or technical progress as a means either to a better life or to a better understanding of life. Railways, newspapers, international trade, scientific exploration, the penny post, and the electric telegraph all come in for rough handling. ‘Our inventions’, he wrote, ‘. . . are but improved means to unimproved ends.’ Nor, by the same token, did he have much time for philanthropy and do-gooding. (‘If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life...’) As he saw it, getting one’s own life on a sensible footing was a full-time job. Therefore ‘tinkering’, as he called it, with other people’s problems was not merely an impertinence, it implied that the tinkerer’s own affairs must be in disorder. And all such tinkering was a violation of Thoreau’s most basic precept: ‘Let every one mind his own business, and endeavour to be what he was made.’ Thoreau has been the guiding light of generations of back-to-the-landers, but not all of them have drawn the right lessons from the Walden experiment. The communards of the Sixties, travelling towards the promised land of self-sufficiency, found that this was an ideal difficult of attainment and, once achieved, not necessarily all it was cracked up to be. They shared Thoreau’s original impulse – the desire to simplify their lives, to strip them down to essentials. And one way of doing this is to substitute simple for complicated ways of satisfying your basic needs, rejecting (to the extent that this is possible) the frivolous complexities of a modern consumer society. The more capable and determined of the New Peasantry discovered that it is indeed possible to live, and live well, on your own resources – building your own house, growing your own food, making your own beer, soap and candles. But having got this far, they discovered what Thoreau knew before he even started – that all of this is immensely time-consuming, that the sheer volume of labour involved in producing (as opposed to buying) the necessities of life left nothing over for the greatest necessity of all – life itself. Furthermore there was a sense in which the simplifications they introduced into their lives often turned out to be not really simplifications at all: technologically, an Aladdin paraffin lamp is a much simpler system than a nuclear power-station, but from the user’s point of view it demands a great deal more attention than a light switch. Though there is much in Thoreau to admire and perhaps to emulate, I’m not sure that he is a man I would want as a friend. He appears to have had little sense of himself as a social animal and apparently regarded his neighbours with something approaching contempt. He was independent-minded to an extent that can seem at times almost obnoxious, marching always to a different drummer. But men who think things out for themselves are rare birds. And such men should be listened to carefully. They give us, if nothing else, something against which to measure our own more commonplace opinions. However, even the rarest of rare birds belongs to a genus, and Thoreau belonged to the genus of free-thinking autodidacts of which Borrow and Cobbett are two examples from the English species-list.* There is a cast of mind and personality which defines the type: their views of the world blend profound insight with equally profound wrong-headedness verging, sometimes, on the simply silly; they are egocentric, perhaps to the point of ruthlessness; they have bees in their bonnets; they preach; they tend, as Stevenson pointed out in a penetrating essay on Thoreau, to be prigs; and their insistence on managing their own affairs impels them to political attitudes which are either extremely reactionary or frankly anarchistic. In our own day, when the media make it their business to hold up to our envy or contempt wealthy individuals whose only claim to notability is their failure to understand the meaning of the word ‘enough’, Thoreau’s philosophy has enduring importance. He reminds us that ‘need’, that notoriously elastic term, has to be kept continuously under review, and that we owe it to ourselves as a duty to draw a line between ‘need’ and ‘want’. If we ask how this is to be done, Thoreau has the answer in two words: ‘Simplify. Simplify.’ This mantra I have chosen, on the analogy of Occam’s Razor, to call ‘Thoreau’s Axe’. And the choice of weapon is Thoreau’s own, since Walden begins with a sentence which I find one of the most surprising in the whole of English literature:

Near the end of March 1845, I borrowed an axe, and went down to the woods by Walden pond . . .

Perhaps Thoreau realized that there was something just a touch paradoxical about beginning an experiment in self-sufficiency by borrowing the tool that made it possible, because he adds, ‘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.’ I often think about that axe, and about the person who lent it to him. *Oddly, another thing these three had in common was an abhorrence of tea-drinking. Thoreau, predictably, thought it an unnecessarily complicated way of slaking your thirst when water was freely available. Borrow, a Real Ale Campaigner, looked on it as old-maidish and emasculating. He told the landlady of a Temperance House, ‘I want good ale to give me heart, not wishy washy tea to take away the little strength I have’ (Wild Wales, Ch. 46). Cobbett hated the idea of spending money on an imported luxury which contained no nourishment when a person might – and should – be brewing his own beer from his own barley; it struck at the root of his programme for a productive and contented rural population. Never a man to denounce a thing by halves, he called the offending beverage ‘a destroyer of health and enfeebler of the frame, an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth and a maker of misery for old age’ (Cottage Economy, No. 29).

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 27 © Roger Jones 2010


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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