The Walden Experiment

“I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtledove, and am still on their trail.”

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden

What have you lost that you’re looking for?

That is the question Thoreau demands of his readers in Walden, his record of the two years he spent living next to Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau’s command is a fundamental one: he asks his readers to wake up, to know what they are hoping to find in life and to live each day anticipating its arrival. Toward what are you working? Will you recognize the emergence of what you truly love when it appears? Thoreau’s project is one of perpetual wakening and reawakening, to live each day with intentionality and openness.

This prescription sounds almost laughably unattainable. How can I be “awake” in any sense when I am falling asleep at my A Level computer? Our discussions of Walden in my Literature and the Non-Human World class were unsettling, and my friends Bryan, Rene, and I were left confused as to how to reconcile Thoreau’s words with our very non-Thoreauvian lifestyles. I like my classes, but I never have any unstructured time. How can I live a life of intention when my work is hurried and often uninspired? (“How easily and sensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves” Thoreau laments).

Bryan, Rene, and I felt we had to do something to make some small salute to Thoreau’s insistence on intentionality and focus. We decided to for one week eat only meals of brown rice, beans, apples, and leaves, a diet resembling Thoreau’s subsistence on rice, rye, and Indian meal. I realized this scheme was both strange and slightly silly, but was bored and thought that an act of intention in one area of life might bring clarity elsewhere.

The experiment was much more difficult than any of us expected, and we made the collective decision to end it after only 4 days when we reached the point of being psychically unable to eat any more beans and rice. The few days eating this way, though, made me think about some new things:

1. You can survive off of anything.

People often have a hard time imagining other ways of being, causing them to react with knee-jerk disapproval when they are confronted with someone who has decided to do their #ownthang. Vegetarians and vegans frequently face this closed-mindedness, but it is a problem that confronts everybody who chooses to live in a way not sanctioned by the masses. Thoreau writes in Walden “[t]here is a certain class of unbelievers who sometimes ask me such questions as, if I think that I can live on vegetable food alone; and to strike at the root of the matter at once – for the root is faith – I am accustomed to answer such, that I can live on board nails. If they cannot understand that, they cannot understand much that I have to say.” Thoreau had faith in the resilience of the human body, and while eating only four items of any type of food as I did is not healthy, it was a challenge to live differently and remind myself that I would be just fine.

2. We exist in relationship with everything around us.

I paid a lot of attention to how I felt during the Walden Experiment; I was constantly wondering how any tiredness or unusual energy was related to what I had just eaten. It was very strange to be so aware of every change in my body, a welcome departure from being strung out on Café Blend during finals week, my ears perpetually throbbing from caffeine overdose. There is a humbling aspect to this type of attention: when we notice the psychical and mental effects of different foods, we place ourselves within the context of a larger ecological exchange of energy; our “self,” what we are, is partly what we eat.

3. Being “awake” is in the day-to-day.

I was talking with Bryan about this question of toward what we should live. If we rid ourselves of all distractions, what would our lives look like? Bryan said that he has been happiest working outdoors at a summer camp that he has attended for eleven years. My best memories also occurred in the woods, a place where I felt a very deep sense of childlike freedom. But this sense of wonder, the visceral experience that you have in the woods, must transcend the indoor/outdoor divide that humans construct. You don’t have to live in the woods to find what you should be doing, but you should be open to being moved by the things that you come in contact with every day.

“Waking up,” as Thoreau instructs, does not mean to eat only rice and beans. It is a life-long project, one to craft daily wherever you find yourself.