I heard about Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Life in the Woods’ or ‘Walden’ for the first time while watching Peter Weir’s ‘Dead Poets Society’. I was attracted to the scene where some kids go into a cave to read poetry. They start each session by reading an abridged version of the following lines.

“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, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. 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, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

I was instantly hooked. As I learnt more about Thoreau, I realized that I should not miss out on reading his classic. Walden is an account of the two years that he spent in the woods in Concord, New Hampshire. The objective was to live a life of minimalism. It is a classic because of his ability to explain the most mundane of things in beautiful detail. I started to read this book for the beautiful quotes and the little bits of wisdom that he sprinkled here and there. As I progressed towards the end, I found it more and more tedious to wade through because of the same reason that this book is a classic, the description of daily activities that I really do not care for. It ranged from the geography of Concord to the thickness of the ice on Walden pond in the winter to the procedure of building a budget log cabin to ornithology. That’s when I realized that he is an environmentalist and he showed it off more often than I would have liked. Most of the flora and fauna that he mentioned are alien to me and I could not relate to the descriptions that he made of these creatures.

What I admired about Thoreau’s adventure is his unwillingness to conform himself to the rules of the so-called civilized world. One can clearly see where Gandhiji got his idea of ‘simple living, high thinking’ from. He was not a man who believed in industry and trade curing poverty. He believed in being self-sufficient and self-reliant. I remember myself dismissing his beliefs a few years ago on account of the obvious prosperity that we have achieved since the industrial revolution. But I failed to see what he was pointing at, which was brought to light when I read Thoreau. Thoreau believed that technology would not provide the necessary elevation of one’s spirit which is what most people should aim for. He bemoaned people’s affinity towards material prosperity and also the vicious cycle of work more to earn more to spend more to work more again. One can argue that technology has provided us with development. What exactly is development? Why do we need this development? Where are we heading towards? The truth is, with this globalized world, we are no longer able to come to terms with the ridiculous pace at which everything is changing. We do not understand why we are doing everything that we do, just that we ‘should’ do it. Thoreau questions the very being of the modern workman’s life which has become much worse than when we wrote this over a hundred years ago.

“Spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it, reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.”

The idea of people spending their youthful years earning money doing work they don’t like so that they can ‘enjoy’ during their retirement days is something I’ve never understood. There are some norms that society has set for us and we refuse to live beyond that even if it means a torturous existence. We are so obsessed with ‘fitting in’ and ‘settling down’ that we compromise on everything. We don’t explore, we don’t experience, we prefer to taken the beaten path and survive.

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