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

Thoreau on buying land

Thoreau cartoonI thoroughly enjoyed everyone's thoughts on chapter 1 of Walden, even though I didn't comment much, so I hope you all had time to read chapter 2 --- "Where I lived, and what I lived for".  I'm going to write about two themes that caught my eye in this chapter, but, as usual, feel free to comment on whatever you found the most interesting instead.

Buying land
What struck me first is how similar the beginnings of my and Thoreau's journeys were...and how different the endings.  "At a certain season of our life, we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house," Thoreau wrote, and went on to tell about all of the properties he toured, one of which he came within a hair's breadth of buying.

I also went through a land-yearning stage in which I drew maps of how I'd turn real and hypothetical properties into vibrant homesteads, and I ended up happily married to our plot of land.  On the other hand, Thoreau decided that the wiser course is to love and leave the land.  "As long as possible live free and uncommitted," he advises us.  "It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or to the county jail."  Similarly, in the first chapter, he wrote about "young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of."

This reminds me of Mike's comment on my previous Walden post in which he reminds us that no one can be free of the economy, even if you buy a plot of land outright, grow your own food, and need nothing else.  Thoreau was thinking more of the upkeep of a farm than he was about property taxes and a mortgage, but both points have merit.  So, my first discussion question is --- do you think voluntary simplicity can be achieved if you own land?

The news
Current events cartoonThe second thing that struck me in this chapter was more of a side note than a theme.  Mark and I have come to belief this over the last few years, but have had a hard time articulating the premise, so I'll let Thoreau do it for me:

"And I am sure that I have never read any memorable news in a newspaper.  If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter, --- we never need read of another.  One is enough.  If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?  To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea."

I've had several people tell me that that it's somehow ethically imperative to stay up to date on the world's news, but I've come to consider it all a distraction.  Yes, I do my homework and figure out the issues when the time comes to vote, but I don't see any point in being emotionally involved in the day to day running of the world if I can't do anything about it.  Which brings me to my second discussion question --- do you consider all news gossip, or do you think we're morally obligated to stay up to date on current events?

Chapters 3 and 4
Unless I hear that it's a hardship for anyone, let's plan to talk about "Reading" and "Sounds" next Monday.  Now I'm looking forward to hearing what you have to say about chapter 2!
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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Thoreau has a point. With posessions come responsibilities. They tend to tie you down. Having a lot of thing could end up with giving you a lot to worry about.

But having a place to live is pretty much a necessity. And you'll have responsibilites wether you rent it or buy that. Still, I think it is worth it having your own place. But if you take a mortgage for a house or a piece of land you should plan to pay it off. Being in debt is not a good thing.

Having said that, a mortgage and education are the sole exceptions to my rule not to loan money. Don't buy what you cannot pay for, and don't pay for what you cannot buy.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon May 7 18:24:53 2012

I think that, yes, you can achieve voluntary simplicity if you have land. Now, I -also- think it can be achieved without land, though it would not be my choice. I think one could use Thoreau's experience as a temporary venture, to learn more clearly what is necessary in life, and then if later returning to the wider world, living there with fewer things to burden you (and fewer burdens to place on those who ultimately help support you), and more time to spend doing the things that are important.

Voluntary simplicity is a somewhat vague term. We would not all agree to simplify things in the same way. Which is fine -- we all have some slightly different needs in life, For example (if it's okay to use Mark and Anna as examples here): Anna has an inclination to be a writer and share ideas, and Mark tends to be very handy and inventive. Would the two of you still be living as you are, if Mark were forced to be the blog and book writer, and Anna were to be the handyperson?

To clarify, I'm counting individual inclinations as part of the Needs category to achieve voluntary simplicity. I agree with Thoreau's statement of remaining "free and uncommitted" for as long as possible; It takes some time and experimenting to understand what will work for you, or to figure out how to make what is available work for you. In terms of the simplicity being -voluntary-, I think you have to be doing something you are inclined to do.

This is where I feel like Thoreau's misfortunate people come into play -- they are inheriting someone else's place and way of doing things, for which they may or may not be suited.

Inheriting the family farm might sounds like a great thing to a lot of us -- but what about at a time when we couldn't so easily look up new ways of doing things, or other sorts of useful information? We'd be more likely to be stuck doing things the way the person before did them. And this might interfere strongly with our own inclinations. Which might drive us to feeling like something's missing, so we use the fruits of our labors to acquire things that we really don't need, but which fill the hole for the moment. Because this Means we have is all we have, we can't easily experiment and put our needs at risk trying to find another way. So we're stuck, just as if we were in jail.

There aren't so many family farms in today's world to inherit. But we do inherit the previous generation's ideas and systems. Think of the way we often see education as a means to a job, rather than as something that has it's own merits. Or the way many of us just accept the working world as it is, even though we may be very poorly suited to it. They're often the only means we have exposure to for meeting our needs.

I think we can tie this in to the previous discussion about learning by living. If those growing up had the means to experiment with providing for their needs, they would (hopefully) be in that much better of a position for voluntary simplicity.

What do you all think?


The News

I do not think there is a moral imperative to be abreast of the news, at least not the sort that Thoreau mentioned -- better to focus on your own life, and the lives of those who actually mean something to you. Just as inheriting a farm brings might bring with it worries and chains of bondage, the news restrains us with the worries and preoccupations of others to whom we usually have no meaningful connection. I think it is interesting that the content of news does not seem to have changed much since Thoreau's time.

I feel as though I'm stretching or forcing the connection a little here, but I think this is something that could apply to the above mention of filling a hole when one is otherwise not living in a way that suits. If we're able to follow our inclinations, we tend to feel connected -- the things we do are sort of an extension of ourselves. On the other hand, if we're living in a way that is so unlike who we are, we seek our connections elsewhere. No one likes to feel like they don't belong. Gossip is one way to feel connected, living vicariously through the lives of others. One might wonder about those old women gossiping over their tea -- being both old (our culture tends to be one that tosses old things aside for the new -- though I'm not sure how prevalent that was in Thoreau's time), and female in a time when women had much less say in their lives. Is it any wonder they would gossip so?

Now, a possible exception to news as gossip; What about keeping up to date on public affairs, or what sorts of influences some of the movers and shakers in society are making, particularly when they're making bad ones? Should we only rely on grass-roots lobby groups such as MoveOn to tell us about these things? I think we'd be better off if we made some effort to keep an eye on this sort of news, at least.

Comment by Sam Mon May 7 19:20:57 2012
To quote the Christopherson song, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."
Comment by Errol Hess Mon May 7 21:14:36 2012

I must admit that as I was reading Chapter 2, Thoreau's views on news (and other people's need for it) resonated strongly with me. I kept on thinking about how thoroughly disgusted Thoreau would be by the prevalence of news in today's world; one must become a true homebody and never venture out, if one does not wish to be constantly bombarded with snippets of news. Wherever one turns, there are TVs with news or sports stories playing: at restaurants, at train stations, in malls. If there somehow doesn't happen to be a TV nearby, then surely there is a person connected to the news with his phone or his iPad or computer or some other device. And for what purpose, truly, does all of this news serve? How much of it actually edifies? How much of it involves things that I or any other one person can do anything about? How much of it serves, whether intentionally or not, to only make the populace feel more afraid and more depressed? And if that is the only purpose it serves, then what is the point of paying any attention to it? I do my research before voting; I read the township newsletter; and I expect that anything else that I REALLY need to know about I'll find out from someone else, as so many of them insist upon paying constant attention to it. So no, I don't think that we are "morally obligated to stay up to date on current events;" I can't see that it does one much good, moral or otherwise, and I can see that all it really accomplishes is to keep one from paying attention to what is going on near at hand.

In regards to your other discussion question, I agree with Sam that "voluntary simplicity" is a vague term, for what one person considers a luxury, another may view as a necessity. For instance, while I was pondering the question, I was reminded of the movie The Piano - I think that most of us would agree that a piano is a luxury item: many cannot afford one, and many would not want one anyway. But for the main character in the movie, her piano was her instrument for communication; consequently, it was of primary importance to her - she considered it a necessity.

But I think I'm getting a little off-topic. I'm just going to presume that by "voluntary simplicity" we mean choosing to live a life without luxury. In which case, yes, I think that such a life can be managed very well even if one does own land (especially if one owns the land without having to pay a mortgage). While Roland makes a good point that owning something "tends to tie you down," it also gives one security. And while security is perhaps not a necessity, I still would hardly call it a luxury; people who feel secure are stereotypically healthier, happier and more productive, which I would think to be a good thing. One who does not own property, may not feel so tied down, but still, how heartbreaking it would be to put in lots of work making a place suit one's self and then to be thrown out of it. One could always start again, but how many times before one reached the limits of one's own abilities (due to illness or old age, perhaps). And what to do then, when one found that one had not put by something to keep one afloat at the end. Of course, perhaps I have a mild prejudice, coming from a family who has kept the family farm going for 180 or so years now, thinking that if nothing else, one should at least own the land.

Finally, I noticed that this chapter contained what is probably the most famous quote from Walden: "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." My question, if anyone cares to answer it, is do you think that Thoreau succeeded? And if you were trying to live deliberately, would you follow in his footsteps, or does that phrase mean something else to you? For myself, I'm not sure of the answer to either question yet (maybe I'll know better once we've finished the book, heh). But the words stirred something in me (as presumably they do in other people - otherwise the quote would probably not be so well-known), so I thought perhaps they had echoed through others' minds as well.

Comment by Ikwig Mon May 7 23:36:45 2012

Roland's comment reminded me of the year I spent backpacking around the world with no possessions except what I could carry on my back. I'm very glad I had that experience, not just because it allowed me to learn so much about the world, but also because it helped me see how little stuff I really need.

As much as I love my farm and wouldn't trade it for anything, I'm very tied down now. I don't even want to leave the farm for a day, let alone a year. So I can see Thoreau's point about not settling down. (By the way, Roland, the option other than buying and renting is what Thoreau called "squatting" and what he did. There often do end up being opportunities to live rent-free if you don't set down roots and do help people out in some way.)

Sam --- I think the key point you brought out is that each of us is bound to come to our own level of simplicity if it's voluntary. My mom was just telling me about a friend who cuts back on her electric use by not ironing her clothes, and Mom was dismayed. "I love to iron!" she said. But she cuts back on electric use by not having an air-conditioner, drier, dishwasher, etc. We each choose the simplicity that suits us, and I think it's not hypocritical at all to choose a few select luxuries we really enjoy. As usual, I think you're spot on explaining Thoreau's statement.

Daddy --- So do you think "nothing left to lose" is a good thing or a bad thing?

Ikwig --- I'm glad I'm not the only one who was struck by the news section!

I would add to your reasons to own land --- caring for the land. I wasn't all that impressed by Thoreau's method of agriculture (as mentioned briefly in chapter 1 --- basically slash and burn without the burn). I can't help thinking that if he nurtured his own plot of land, he would have been kinder to it.

Thanks for bringing up another thought-provoking quote! I'll let others throw in their two cents worth first. :-)

Comment by anna Tue May 8 07:40:57 2012

Would it be accurate to paraphrase that as having goals in your life? As with a lot of things, this is a double-edged sword, in my opinion. Goals are OK as long as they don't end up being life-controlling obsessions.

For me a goal should be something that is preferably limited in scope and attainable in a limited time, up to a couple of months or at most a couple of years. Like doing a project, or learning a new skill.

It seams to me that people who chase a Big Goal seem to forget to live. In life, the journey is more interesting than the destination.

Comment by Roland_Smith Tue May 8 10:54:00 2012
Freedom's just another word... The point of the song was--if you have something you don't want to lose, you can't be free. "Things are in the saddle and they ride mankind."
Comment by Errol Tue May 8 11:51:22 2012
I am thoroughly inspired by and entrenched in your discussions, and now bringing up the rear, downloaded the free book yesterday so I could catch up with the group! Thanks for starting this Anna - It drives me to delving into my consciousness as I read the comments from Errol, Ikwig, Roland and others!
Comment by Jayne Wed May 9 08:03:47 2012
I agree with Ikwig that this quote is the most memorable of Chapter 2 and probably of the whole book (it could have been the sub-title). For me living deliberately means being aware of how each and every one of your actions impacts the environment. In this regard I think Thoreau was pretty advanced considering the societal norms of his time (although as Anna pointed out, his agricultural practices left something to be desired). I think all of us who are drawn towards modern homesteading in all of its different flavors are working towards living more deliberately. I think Thoreau can show us how to think that way more than provide a play book of how to achieve it.
Comment by Chris L Sun May 13 21:07:54 2012

do you think voluntary simplicity can be achieved if you own land?

It is more of an attitude than whether or not you own land, I think. By the way, I'm not trying to be judgemental here, just trying to illustrate points and create dicsussion.

When you live in a relatively remote area like you do, every trip ends up being a car trip, and probably a long one at that. As a contrast, my commuting and shopping trips are usually done on a bicycle. My bike took significantly less resources to make than any car. It also consumes much less resources over its lifetime than a car. Which is more "simple"?

You grow most of your own food. But how many truckloads of biomass do you have to truck in every year?

Next to the truck you use computers and power tools. The amount of infrastructure needed to manufacture those is staggering. Can one still claim to be living simple while using those?

What seems simple might not necessarily be so. It will depend to a large extent on how you define simplicity.

That this will always be a compromise goes without saying.

Comment by Roland_Smith Sat May 19 17:57:52 2012

Roland --- I didn't take your comment as judgmental at all --- I think you're on a very good track. I think that's where a lot of urban homesteaders are coming from, too. (Well, I think a lot of them just enjoy living in the city too....)

My father used to make a very good argument for the fact that city life is kinder to the earth than rural life. I can't cope with the city, so I just ignored his arguments and tried to do the best I could in the setting that worked for me. :-) But there are always pluses and minuses to both urban and rural life.

That said, I don't think that "simple living" necessarily equates to "environmentally friendly", especially not as Thoreau was using the term. (Well, he didn't use the term --- I believe he wrote "voluntary poverty".) While helping the environment is one of the purposes of simple living, I think that a lot of people are going for something more psychological --- to become more content with what they have and to have more time doing what they want to do. Here's what Wikipedia says:

"Adherents may choose simple living for a variety of personal reasons, such as spirituality, health, increase in "quality time" for family and friends, work–life balance, personal taste, frugality, or reducing personal ecological footprint and stress. Simple living can also be a reaction to materialism and conspicuous consumption. Some cite socio-political goals aligned with the anti-consumerist movement, including conservation, degrowth, social justice, ethnic diversity and sustainable development."

Just some further food for thought....

Comment by anna Sat May 19 19:26:35 2012

I enjoyed this chapter. Much of it resonated with the modern minimalist movement for me - for example The Minimalists.

I have very similar thoughts on The News as Thoreau expressed. My only New Year's Resolution this year was not to read the newspapers or watch the news on TV for a whole year. As a result, I'm less stressed and more positive about society and our future - my outlook is now based on what I actually experience, rather than what some sensationalistic journalist thinks will titillate the most people.

On the topic of being trapped by inheriting a farm - a guy I used to play hockey with committed suicide because he felt trapped by the expectation that he'd take over the family farm. It can indeed be worse than any jail. Others I know have left the family farm to pursue a career, only to enthusiastically return and take it over. Probably the worst part of that kind of inheritance is the way it robs the beneficiary of choice.

Coincidentally, I came across this Thoreau t-shirt today: Disobey. Great for those who've read his Civil Disobedience!

Comment by Darren (Green Change) Sun May 20 19:02:06 2012

Darren --- Glad to see you joining the club!

I've been much happier since I stopped tuning in to day to day news as well...

Comment by anna Sun May 20 19:18:00 2012

Buying things reminds me of a line in a song my son's girlfriend's mom and her band used to sing in Corvallis, Oregon:
"Do you own the things you own--Or do the things you own own you??"

Comment by Wesmiller Sat Nov 17 13:11:12 2012

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