The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Thoreau's staycation

Jar full of cicadasA few weeks ago, Everett asked us what we do during our weekends of non-work.  I always look a little shame-faced when people inquire about our leisure hours because the cultural norm is to fill that time with activities outside the home --- hiking, going to a movie, or whatever.

In contrast, a blissful day off in Anna-land starts with gathering a big jar of cicadas for the tweens, then morphs into a quiet morning reading on the porch while listening to a catbird singing from the walnut or watching the three week old chicks learning to forage in the lawn.  I'll probably spend a little extra time making something fancy for lunch, then will gravitate from non-fiction to novel-reading in the afternoon.  If I'm feeling crazy, I might have my mother over for tea.  I'm simply a boring person.

Which is all a long way of saying that chapter 4 of Walden really spoke to me.  Thoreau wrote:

"I did not read books the first summer, I hoed beans....  There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands....  I had this advantage, at least, in my mode of life, over those who were obliged to look abroad for amusement, to society and the theatre, that my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel."

Chicks in the grassI think that one of the major benefits of living in paradise is that you don't feel the need to spend much money on expensive leisure pursuits.  As Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin wrote in Your Money or Your Life, the goal of voluntary simplicity is to turn your life into a vacation so you don't need to take a vacation way from home.  It has taken several years for Mark to bring me around to this way of life, but I'm now eternally grateful that he invented weekends.

That said, Walden's chapter 3 went right over my head, and also made me wonder if my rants against TV sounded like Walden's rants against easy reading.  In this day and age, most people think they're feeding their minds if they crack open a bit of chick lit or flick on the History Channel, let alone "read Homer or Aeschylus in the Greek".

Weekend HomesteaderSo, what did you think of this week's installment of Walden?  Unless I hear some "no!"s, I'll plan on us all reading chapters 5 and 6 (Solitude and Visitors) for next Monday.  If you're new to the book club, you might want to check out the thought-provoking comments on chapter 1 and chapter 2 as well.  I appreciate you all giving me the impetus to spend some time thinking about this classic!

Want more reading material?  You can peruse my revised rant against television in The Weekend Homesteader.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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When I'm on vacation I seldom feel the need to go far away, although I might visit friends and family. I'm perfectly happy when I can put my feet up on the balcony and read a book. Driving can be interesting on smaller roads, but highways not so much. And as for spending long hours in a pressurized flying beercan, that's not really my cup of tea either. Home is where the heart is.

I'd rather read a book. Although in these internet times, it can also be a blog. :-) I've read translations of the Iliad and the Odyssee. They are fine stories.

A book (novels, poems &c) requires imagination to read, unlike say a movie (although those can be nice as well). Even the best film adaptations of a good book necessarily leaves out much of the back story and the thoughts of the characters. So I like reading and physical books. Reading a novel on a computer screen doesn't feel right, and I find tablets relatively small and heavy.

But to read the classics in the original Homeric greek verse is a bit much to expect of people, I think. The original material was meant to be told and/or sung, not read. And if you look at the many possible translations you can appreciate how hard it is to translate. It could be though that in Thoreau's day, Greek and Latin were more taught in schools than they are now. In the Netherlands we have several levels of what we call "middle school" (for 12 - 16/18 year olds). Only the highest level is still taught Greek and Latin.

But with regard to learning we certainly live in a golden age. If you have internet access vast reams of knowlegde and entertainment are instantly available. If someone had told me thirty years ago that I would be able to find and read basically the whole contents of our local library from home, I'd have told him he was mad!

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon May 14 13:11:51 2012
I saw your jar of cicada on your blog. I too have collected them in a jar with some water added to the bottom. I shake the jar and coat the cicada with the water then release them into the chicken yard. The wet wings prevent the cicada from flying off. And the chickens get a chance to eat them all.My hens love these insects. You can also use honey to slow them down more, just is messy. All the cicada are eaten and my chickens beg for more.
Comment by Ruthlynn Mon May 14 14:45:55 2012

Roland --- I like your analysis of reading vs. other forms of entertainment. I sometimes wonder if reading novels is really any better than watching TV or movies, but it does feel a bit more wholesome. (And I enjoy it a lot more....)

We didn't even have Greek offered at my high school (ages 14 - 18). Latin was an option, but only if you didn't want to take Spanish, French, or German. (I chose Spanish.) I think that's pretty typical of public school eduction in the U.S., although private schools are probably different, as are magnet schools in big cities.

I totally agree with you about the golden age of information!!

Ruthlynn --- When they're newly metamorphasized, cicadas don't really seem to be interested in flying away, in my experience. I poured that jar of insects directly onto the ground with no additives and none escaped my hungry chickens. If you were concerned, you could also pop them in the freezer to kill them first, but I think some wiggling keeps our chickens on their toes. :-)

Comment by anna Mon May 14 17:54:24 2012

I understand his keeping a perfect book, as if for a desert island, by him, where he did sit down to eat, for I kept Anna Karenina and then War and Peace in the same way, my first year "on my own" that is, my first year of teaching, when I finally was living in my own place and not at college or with my parents. This is sort of the kind of anchor book that the reader keeps to finally read, or to read again. The book to finally read is often not read unless it is the ONLY book available!! The other, the familiar book, is read once more as a comfort. In Thoreau's case, he took a book that did mean something to him, so kind of a talisman. But to dip into it, instead of to write, as he was sitting, meant he had to tune out the Sounds, and his life there, and "code" (I think he could speak Greek, as I think students of that day had to memorize lines): so a lot of it was rhythmic, even if he didn't quite have a perfect transliteration-English meaning. It could well be that he did have some special parts that he could turn to, the way nowadays I might have some in Kabloona, for ex. But he had to admit that he really didn't study, or reread, after all! He goes on to "doodle" about what reading should be--and to accept that the Lyceum (lecture series) in Concord was really a better way to share learning, in the "noble villages of men" than through most published books. So, he seems not to have read that much, and feels that very few do really "read". I wish he had really talked about why he chose the Iliad! Since Anna, Joey and Maggie remember why I love Kabloona, they will remember that I do because the writer has a revelation. It is the revelation that keeps a book alive to the reader! Maybe, in the end, the Iliad was not his anchor-book, after all.

As for all the Sounds: he lets me picture him, and I can place him, too: in the railroad age. If a rod is 5 1/2 yards, then 100 rods is 550 yards, or 1,650 ft--from where to where, Anna, on your place? I remember that my father used to "pace off" in order to measure, so the yard was a long pace. Therefore, a rod would be 5 1/2 long paces. So, as a surveyor, Thoreau would have to have pace off 550 yards, from his place to where the train touched the pond. But how close was "touch" to the pond itself?? Thoreau does not get into that...He was close enough, back at his place, for the engineers to nod to him. Because he only lived there, or "squatted" there 2 yrs, he doesn't realize what that touch of the railroad really means, over against the freedom he went to the woods for.

Comment by adrianne Tue May 15 12:52:11 2012

Mom --- I'm glad you're here to stick up for Thoreau's literary side. :-)

1,650 feet is just a bit further than from our barn to the bridge on the road (as the crow flies, of course). As the crow flies, our nearest neighbor who actually lives there is 1,400 feet away, and the trailer where no one lives is a bit over 1,200 feet from our trailer. We can see the light in our nearest neighbor's house if we stand just right in the yard in the winter.

Comment by anna Tue May 15 16:19:28 2012
Mom --- I should add, for those of us more familiar with miles than rods, 1,650 feet is a bit less than a third of a mile.
Comment by anna Tue May 15 16:24:03 2012
Distances are one thing, but the self-sufficiency/simplicity kingpin is still threatened by the actual real world: if the homesteader is not aware of current events! I hope some of you can read The New Jim Crow, and comment. The beginning of this timely book reveals that in the Drug Wars not only is the Fourth Amendment no longer a protection, but "virtually all constitutionally protected civil liberties have been undermined by the drug war. We accept mandatory drug testing of employees and students, we uphold random searches and sweeps of public schools and students, we permit police to obtain search warrants based on anonymous informant's tips, the expansion of the government's wiretapping authority, legitimatizing the use of paid, unidentified informants by police and prosecutors, approving the use of helicopter surveillance of homes without a warrant,and allowing the forfeiture of cash, homes and other property based on unproven allegations of illegal drug activity"...Passengers on Greyhound buses are now subjected to routine drug sweeps...Over 80% of first time drug offenders are in jail for possession of marijuana, for 5 yrs. "One strike and you are out," began with Clinton. So, I now think I would grab this book for my one book! My point is that most of us don't have to worry about such things, but we are still responsible for unjust treatment of others. Silence is complicity. Our America is now a police state.
Comment by adrianne Wed May 16 06:58:16 2012
Mom --- Sounds like you need to comment on Thoreau's (and my) take on current events from chapter 2....
Comment by anna Wed May 16 08:05:53 2012
My drug war comment was meant as a repartee to your (and maybe on Thoreau's) thoughts on keeping up with the news. You keep up so well on the seed and solar front! I just want you to be as aware of some crucial issues in our country of today. I think that Thoreau was open to reading about issues, if written in an article or even in a book. I think he opted to not jump every time he was prodded by horrifying news of his day, as he may have hoped to study the pros and cons (say, of John Brown) and to make a decision on his own. But I think he knew he had to have a basis for what he wanted to advocate. I was shocked to learn that I knew so little about people who are jailed for drugs. I should have said that ignorance, not silence, is complicity...btw, thanks for posting my comments!
Comment by adrianne Wed May 16 09:26:49 2012
I loved the comment about living in paradise and not needing to spend money on entertainment. I am currently looking for a piece of land so that I can build my very own paradise. I look forward not ever really wanting to leave to entertain myself. I am new to your blog, but I have enjoyed it very much so far. It is really great to see that there are people out there living my dream and I can't wait until I can be too. Thanks for the inspiration!
Comment by houligan19 Thu May 17 13:06:16 2012
houligan19 --- Glad to hear you're enjoying our blog! It's taken us several years to turn this place into paradise (or, rather, to change our habits to make them paradise-worthy), but the last few years have been blissful. Good luck with your endeavor!
Comment by anna Thu May 17 17:14:17 2012


I really enjoyed chapter 3. Being the sort who used to skip classes in highschool to go hide in the library to read, I sort of feel like I get a lot of what Thoreau is talking about here.

I disagree with his obsession with the 'classics'. Most of my attempts at reading them have met with irritation. Save maybe for some of Plato -- he's sort of fun to argue with. It's worth noting that Latin and Greek dominated literature for many centuries, effectively being the only widely available written language, not to mention that they effectively transcended regional language differences -- if you wanted to read, you learned latin and greek because the local language probably didn't get written in or translated into. Because of this, all those old Greek and Latin works developed a reputation as having come from a golden age of learning (even though I'd bet even back then comparatively few could read and write). Roland is more right, today is certainly a new, and better, golden age for learning! Much of our fiction, even the simpler stuff, is laced with philosophical and psychological ideas, so that we really can't help but be asked to think about things even when we read for entertainment.
As a side note, I once heard someone say that if you put a bunch of science fiction geeks and philosophers in the same room, everyone will get along swimmingly, because they all pretty much deal with the same themes and ideas.

On being told/sung: I think I remember reading somewhere that silent reading is actually a pretty new thing, hardly heard of back in, say, medieval times. Most who could read apparently at the very least mouthed the words as they read. I wish I could remember where I picked that up. Might be interesting to look into that again.

Even the benefit of learning another tongue might not be as pronounced today, with how much access we have to different people phrasing the same things in different ways, natively, in our own language. Or even in the hands of particularly skilled authors, we can see side by side how different characters see the same world differently, and by extension, perhaps gain some insight to our own and others' thinking.

On the other hand.. I am re-reading a part now, and maybe I should adjust this thinking a bit. Thoreau writes, of reading in Greek: "...we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have".

Sounds like a great way to learn something of creativity within certain bounds, and this fits very well with solitude! When we're alone, we're free to form our own impressions drawn from our musings and experiences. On the other hand, in more crowded places, we are more apt to want to conform to what others think, or to not rock the boat too greatly. I think he speaks rightly when he says that his place in the woods affords a better place for serious study than universities.

And also somewhat in favor of the classics, many writers, until relatively recently, are much more accessible if one is at least passingly familiar with the things they themselves read (which would have been the various 'classics'). Poetry in particular builds on this -- and I like to think this is why he says "The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them". Much of poetry (and literature in general) plays on the expectations set by the previous generations of writers, and one won't find it as easy to get the full sense of it without understanding what it was written in response to.

I also think he's on to something when he says "Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted (emphasis mine) by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading." Here's where I think might be particularly well illustrated the importance Thoreau places on reading the original Greek of things. When we read or hear something in our own language, we're more apt to seize upon the meaning we think it has (or the meaning someone else has injected into it), but when we have to do the translation ourselves, we're all the more aware of the other possibilities. I like online discussions like this, because a good portion of the thinking can be done alone, and then shared in a drawn-out form, while I have a feeling that in a more in-person setting, we might not get much beyond agreeing with eachother about how boring Thoreau is to read!


I had to re-read this chapter a few times. At one point, I wished I had a physical copy with me so that I could throw it at the wall! But that wouldn't have been a smart thing to do with my kindle. I also wish I had a physical copy for more easily flipping through the pages!! After all this re-reading, it still seems to be going over my head. He seems to be rambling for the sake of it, with no particular point. The best I can come up with, as a counterpoint to the previous chapter, is that he uses this to illustrate that one shouldn't just read and try to absorb what has been written, but to look at things going on around oneself, and write about them -- maybe they'll be useful to someone, somewhere, someday. But I'm not sure I'm happy with that interpretation. Overall, I hated chapter 4.

PS. Apologies if this double-posts. I got a server not found error on my first attempt.

Comment by Sam Tue May 22 15:21:03 2012

Sam --- Interesting that you hated the chapter I liked and liked the chapter I hated. :-) I think that Sounds spoke to me because it's something I've experienced --- being so remote that every sound is noticed, and at the same time working at a "boring" job like weeding so that you have the brainpower to ponder each new sound as you hear it.

I'm glad you said what you did in your last paragraph about Reading --- that made me like the chapter a lot more. I had thought Thoreau very pretentious to want to focus on classics in the original Greek, but your analysis is much kinder and I like it better. It also matches up with the themes I saw in Sounds --- only there he's analyzing the world around him rather than the words in a book.

(By the way, you might also want to see Mom's response to your comment, which she accidentally posted here.)

And, as a final note, your very well thought out comment might push me over the edge into carrying on the book club. I really get a lot out of reading your careful analyses!

Comment by anna Tue May 22 19:27:57 2012

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