Thoughts from a small cabin

Blueberry shrub in autumn coloursEver dreamt of withdrawing to an isolated cabin to get undisturbed reading time? That’s how I spent much of my vacation and fittingly one of the books I read, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, is probably the best known move-into-a-cabin-in-the-woods book there is. In it Thoreau describes his experience of living two years (1845-1847) in a simple cabin he had built himself by Walden Pond.

I happened to read this book in parallel with Sapiens (by Yuval Noah Harari). In Sapiens, Harari discusses (among many other things) the reduction in free-time which followed with the agricultural revolution and the cultural myths that make (most of) us live our lives more or less like our neighbours. It was interesting to see how Thoreau challenged these myths and found a new freedom by scaling down his possessions and reduce his needs. Although it was hardly a very remote wilderness he settled in it was still a pronounced deviation from the normal way of life at the time (or today).

As a nature-lover myself I do believe that we are happier when we are living closer to nature (or at least that I am) and thus found myself favourably inclined to Thoreau’s cabin experiment. I also liked the way that he identified and differentiated between his actual needs, such as food and shelter, and stuff he just wanted. As a well-connected young and healthy man he found that he could quite easily earn enough for his actual needs and choose increased freedom rather than trying to earn more. Even if I have no real plans of moving into the woods (for more than vacations), I believe he has a point with this distinction and that a better awareness of the difference between needs and wants could be helpful also in other instances when we need to decide how to spend our life or money.

One of the real treats in the book is his descriptions of the nature around him which are often evocative and beautiful. Otherwise his prose can be preachy and long-winded. Even when I agreed with his point I frequently found him obnoxious and sometimes condescending. His descriptions of other nationalities and ethnicities, especially Native Americans, are also badly outdated, but as Thoreau was an abolitionist and seems to have been genuinely interested in other cultures I suspect that he was still ahead of his time in this aspect.

This book was on my Classics Club reading list. I also count it as my Classic with a single-word title for the Back to the classics reading challenge.





15 thoughts on “Thoughts from a small cabin

  1. For ten years we lived in a relatively isolated upland farmhouse shorn of most of its land; here, semi-retired, we were in theory able to indulge in that reading we eulogise over while attempting to live more with nature.

    In truth it was hard work, often irksome, clearing overgrowth and undergrowth, relying on part-time teaching to keep the wolf from the door. The isolation too was hard to take when the mists descended, the snow curtailed travel, the neighbours (though not unfriendly) kept themselves to themselves and family avoided visiting because there was ostensibly nothing to do.

    I have great respect for those who, whether or not from choice, have the stamina and resources, both mental and physical, to live this kind of life. Otherwise, for soft urbanites like me, the rural idyll is more something to dream about, an Arcadian vision more than a practical option, books or no books!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I strongly suspect that I would feel the same way if I tried a permanent move which is why I restrict my periods of relative isolation to a few weeks at the time. Those few weeks are however very important to me. They let me relax, find my balance and show me the things I can do without as well as the comforts of modern life I really should appreciate more (running water, and hot!).

      The rest of the year I’m just grateful that I can see forest and mountains from my windows.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I too am grateful we still see forest and mountains from our windows, having moved from the Preselis Hills in west Wales to the Black Mountains in mid Wales (though now there are people and shops, even a bookshop, when we step out the front door). ๐Ÿ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

    2. It sounds like you’re describing my book club’s reaction to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. She gloried in getting in touch with growing her own food and not buying anything made more than 100 miles away, but the elderly ladies in my book club remembered actually farming for survival and how awful it was. Kingsolver can survive on her book money and doesn’t HAVE to live “back to nature.” She also claimed people who live in cities can grow gardens in window boxes for all their fresh food ๐Ÿ˜•

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, having an independent way of supporting yourself must relieve most of the stress involved. Sure, the hard work may be almost the same but you can assume that every year is a good year (and if it isn’t you can buy food to make up the deficit) and if you ever get fed up with it you can do something else instead.

        However, living in a consumerism society were we are supposed to work not just to pay for our needs but for loads of other stuff too, I still find the back to nature stories inspiring. They may be deeply flawed but they work against a general trend of never being satisfied with what you have (even those of us who do have more than enough). I’m hoping that there may be a healthy balance somewhere in-between those extremes.


      2. I love that back-to-nature stories remind me of the addiction we all have to phones and Wi-Fi. And I do mean addiction. There’s info and studies about how things that are accessible on the internet are changing the chemistry of our brains.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. That’s one of the reasons I love to sometimes visit the rare places with no phone or Wi-Fi connection. Apparently I’m lousy at disconnecting unless external factors force me to…


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