Thoreau–Simply Secular


One hundred and seventy years ago today. . .July 4, 1845, the wild and secular naturalist Henry Thoreau hired a moving truck to haul a massive pile of stuff into his mansion by Walden Pond in Concord, Mass.


A one-room cabin with a bed, a few chairs and a desk.

From there, the Concord saunterer planted and explored and penciled an inspiring part of the American story.

And, as this article says, he was a good model for De-Cluttering our lives.

When I de-cluttered a pile of quotes into my little “meditations” book.  I wrote:

“Thoreau’s intimacy with the world at his feet touched his hands, his head, his whole being and sunk in.  This is best illustrated by his delight in digging into the earth, literally and figuratively, turning over rich soil for reflection and introspection. . . .  because he knew he was made of that earth. . . .”


Henry still presents us with one good model of a Secular Chaplain. . .all the earth was a “sacred” place–heaven enough–for the simple life of the bearded bard by the pond.

Other than our annual reading of Frederick Douglass’ speech, “What To the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” (I highly recommend hearing James Earl Jones read it) my wife and I will be thinking of Henry today, as we honored him at his grave in Concord a few years ago.


9 thoughts on “Thoreau–Simply Secular

  1. I had a bad start with Thoreau. Grewing up mostly in the woods – which can be quiet painful for an adolescent – I had no need to romanticize this kind if living in the first place. I discovered Thoreau very late (and long after Zhuangzi and Hanshan) and was in a transitional phase in my life, at the age he had died I had survived: I was trying to find my peace and having realized that my time was running short, Thoreaus words seemed vain to me – an utter waste of time: Why read this? I got the message, I just wanted to get to work.

    Reading your posting I realized that Thoreau would have been an excellent read to some people I met in rehab, who were deeply troubled and in dire need for a secular approach to inner peace.

    I’ll give Walden a second try in the holidays – thanks for reminding me.

  2. I fully understand. Thoreau and his fellow Transcendentalists present an idealized view of Nature. . .yet, also offer some very down to earth practical wisdom for philosophical, scientific and social justice work. Thoreau’s invitation to the simple life alone is valuable for our contemporary complexities, wouldn’t you say?
    When I read Walden again while living in a small cabin in the woods on an island, I found his insights helpful and inspiring. His “secular approach to inner peace” seems valuable for today. Though one does have to keep in mind that, as you well point out, once we “get the message”. . .we must “get to work”!

    I translated and read over your blog comments. I see where you are coming from when you conclude:
    “Conclusion: Due to their escape from an increasingly complex world, we have lost important people – people who have the complexity and the richness of this world can and should help to shape, to make it (co-) human and liveable.”

    You may want to keep in mind that Thoreau didn’t “escape” for long. He, like Emerson, spoke out strongly for “civil disobedience” and was anti-slavery. An example of why he was only at the cabin for 2 years, and has left a legacy of social engagement. To help “shape” the world to “make it more human and liveable.”


  3. > Thoreau’s invitation to the simple life alone is valuable for our contemporary complexities, wouldn’t you say?

    As a step in a process? Yes, of course! To heal – not to escape. To find inner peace in a burning house, as Kōdō Sawaki demands.

    It is escapism that erodes our civil society in Europe. It’s the “new freedom”, the egotistic, materialistic, urban one: to be free from obligation and ties – a freedom bought with money, a lonelyness lived amidst the others. Unlike “going Walden”, there is nothing new to be learned and experienced this way, no need to reflect, no need to adapt, change and grow and no possibility to miss the fellow human being.

    Add to this a growing indifference, everpresent stimulus satiation and disenchantment with politics… It has become a huge problem in the wealthier parts of Europe.

  4. The “simple life out in the woods” in our days is a luxury and an anachronism. We are simply too many.

    But woods are not the important part of this, it’s the simple(r) life: Finding out what we really und truly need and realizing that this is real freedom.

    Whatever makes one contemplating (their own) simple life: I’m fine with that – I think it could be the solution to some of our more serious, long running problems.

  5. I know many people who live in the woods, a very simple life, but not for luxury but necessity. Some call them “homeless” yet they find “home” can be a tent and hopefully a simple apartment.
    When I lived in a one-room cabin in the woods for three years it wasn’t out of luxury. I had very little money and, for a time, no job. It was difficult. . .and wonderful, both. It was, to some extent, what you say, “finding out what we really and truly need.” This is the lesson we all need to learn if we really desire freedom.
    Yes, I agree, the contemplation and wisdom that can come from that simplicity can certainly lead to solutions to the serious issues our world faces.
    Thank you for commenting.
    (if I may ask, what part of Deutschland do you live in?)

    1. Luxury it is only if one’s not forced to “go walden” (of course) and in wealthy european country, like Germany – which is small and quite overregulated: you can’t get a cabin in the woods, that’s now allowed – that is if you’re not the registered hunter for that area. Which my grandfather and father were, so I’m quite accustomed to living and working in the woods and moors of lower saxony.

      I have no especially fond memories of the time, so I would rule out nostalgia, but I think it has tought me some important things – which I __now__ realize as I try to declutter my life and make it simpler. Not recommended for kids and teenagers though.

      I’m currently living in the Weser Uplands.

  6. De-cluttering life. . .a long process! The simplicity is worth it. Less to carry through life. That looks like very beautiful country by the Weser river. Beyond all the politics (and religion) the world has its beauty everywhere.

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