By Erin Shea, ’20
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) grew up in the small town of Concord Massachusetts, going on to Harvard after completing high school. After opening up his own school for two years, it shut down, and Thoreau landed back at the family pencil company. Needing an escape from this civilized town life, Thoreau built a home on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property on the shore of Walden Pond in 1845 and he would stay in his humble abode for two years.The mid 1850’s was home to a philosophical movement, known as transcendentalism. Transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau criticized contemporary society for its unthinking conformity. Thoreau for instance, banished the hum drum beat of mind numbing work and societal expectations.
Thoreau wanted “to see if it were possible to live by working one day and devoting the other six to more Transcendental concerns, thus reversing the Yankee habit” (Thoreau Society). According to a recent report published by Business Insider, this attempt to work less and focus on personal matters becomes prevalent today, in a society where “the average American spends 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime.”
Hordes of Americans spend 90,000 hours a year staring at four walls of a cubicle, rather than admiring the sprawling valleys of a mountain, gazing at the changing hues of the ocean, or inspecting the lush moss creeping up a massive oak. How we labor has changed since the agrarian 19th century, but the effects are the same. Thoreau’s pronouncement still rings true. The taxing and time consuming engagement in work, he remarks, leaves such a feeling of oppression, that “it makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail” for the persecution is the same (Walden 69). Although he looks at labor in a farm situation, his argument about meaningless work transcends his time. Perhaps Americans need to take a note from Thoreau’s reversal of work life norms. Working as much as citizens did in Thoreau’s lifetime, and in today’s era, wears down their health dramatically. The industrious citizens of America have created an environment in which “more than 13 million workdays are lost every year to stress related illness” (Business Insider).
This begs the question why are Americans working so much that they drive themselves into sickness? (Also, note that these days of sickness are seen as “lost workdays”. Should the focus of being sick really be on the fact that work is not being done)? Thoreau would not contemplate the work he missed while he suffered through the flu, as many Americans do today. Modern work involves copious amounts of work to make money, which buys material items that give a short-lived sense of happiness and the cycle repeats in the endless search for joy.Thoreau wanted to end this cycle of work and material and go back to the roots of humanity, focusing on nature and philosophy, not money.
One of the things Americans spend their hard earned money on is disposable water bottles. The reason behind the mass consumption of disposable water bottles is convenience. In a fast pace world, often without a break in the day between work and travel, having a reliable source of water is important. People thus turn to disposable water bottles because there is no time to find a source of water and fill up a cup or reusable bottle in the midst of the work day, or on the road. The convenience necessary in the rapid society of today is the reason that the average American spends about $1400 on water bottles each year (Ban the Bottle). Americans are actually working to pay for the destruction of the Earth. Paying for the destruction of coral reefs, entire species, and the ecosystem as a whole.
Thoreau felt that the society around him spent too much time working and not enough time with nature, but what would he think of the average modern day American who spends “93% of their life indoors, according to the EPA” (National Human Activity)?
Besides the simple fact that Americans have lost their connection with nature, leading to the destruction of landscapes everywhere, human health is declining alongside the health of the planet. A Stanford study conducted in 2015 asked two groups to walk for 90 minutes, the first group in nature, and the second in an urban setting. Prior to their walk, participants were screened for physiological responses, as well as brain scans. After their walk, physiological results were the same between both groups, but the brain scans differed. Those who walked in the natural area showed a decrease in the subgenual prefrontal cortex; the part of the brain that lights up due to recurring negative thoughts and emotions (Stanford).
Thoreau remarks in Walden “There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still” (105). Yet, the choice of living in “Nature” is soon vanishing as the human race eliminates any chance of a healthy planet. It looks as though man has indeed lost his senses. This does not seem to be the way Thoreau envisioned citizens to be living as he wrote (Walden).Further ruining the environment, the production of water bottles in the United States uses 17 million barrels of oil every year (Ban the Bottle). After using all of these resources and money, 38 billion water bottles end up in land fills each year (Ban the Bottle). Thoreau did not live in a time where 38 bill
ion water bottles clung to the land or a time where sea turtles and dolphins died of entanglement from plastic swimming through the ocean, pretending to be one of God’s creatures, creeping along as the most dangerous predator of all. That is precisely why his message is even more crucial today. Instead of exploring the nooks and crannies of the natural world, as Thoreau encouraged, humans are letting toxins explore those nooks and crannies, melting health away with each touch. One of the main ideological principles of transcendentalism is the cohesion and spirituality between nature and man. Not only was there a respect for nature, not present today, but an interaction with nature that does not present itself in today’s patrons.
The findings of the 2015 Stanford study suggest that Thoreau was right:“There are none happy in the world but beings who enjoy freely a vast horizon” (72). It seems that happiness is more accessible when the horizons are not crowded with skyscrapers and smog. This environment that excludes natural landscape causes a “20% increased risk of anxiety disorders, and a 40% increased risk of mood disorders” (Stanford). In fact, someone born and raised in an urban setting is twice as likely to develop schizophrenia. Clearly, humans were never supposed to live this way.
In an age when too many people feel the need to escape from their life and their work, perhaps a balance needs to be struck instead. Rather than living a life of immeasurable work in a concrete world, this country needs to take a note from Thoreau and include more nature and less time-card punching. Walden was written in 1846, yet its message has become even more imperative over time. In a world where “Men have become the tools of
their tools”, taking a step back to evaluate the path each person has taken and the happiness it has provided may lead to key insight into the psyche and needs of man (Walden 33). He urged man to let his “affairs be two or three and not a hundred or a thousand” and this would lead to fulfillment, rather than the tyranny of extravagant work and hordes of material items (Walden 75). Thoreau made his grand escape from society because he conceived the answer to happiness is “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” (Walden 75). Perhaps in an era where life has gotten too complicated, it is time to step back and see the answers in their simplest form.
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Thoreau, Henry. Walden. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854. Print.