Looking for Walden

“My greatest skill in life has been to want but little.” — Henry David Thoreau

Thanks to the digital tools of modern technology, I now have a mind-boggling array of options — the whole world — at my fingertips.

Without leaving the desk chair in my home office, I can converse online with colleagues I’ve never met in Cleveland, Melbourne, London or Los Angeles. With iPhone in hand, I can promote my own work on half a dozen social networks, from Facebook to Pinterest. I can order kitchen gadgets, books, pet supplies, designer handbags, fruit baskets, skincare products and cowboy boots from countless online catalogs.

Every day I have more choices than I can reasonably consider.  And so, like many over-connected Americans, I carry the burden of complexity — a burden so overwhelming that there are times when I imagine trading places with Henry David Thoreau.

It’s only fitting that I rediscovered Thoreau the week I purged my home office with a dust rag and a vacuum cleaner. The autumn mornings felt ripe for pitching and sorting, for creating blank space where none existed before.  Walden, Thoreau’s famous treatise on simple living, was jammed behind a pile of unread paperbacks on an overcrowded shelf.

Like other writers with good intentions, I’ve admired Thoreau but hadn’t read Walden since it appeared many years ago on a required reading list at my state university. I’d retained only a few pithy quotes, and recalled only sketchy details of Thoreau’s Spartan cabin in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts. But suddenly, here was the book, whispering to me across the centuries —Simplify, simplify!”– and begging me to take another look.

Glancing through the pages, I realized Thoreau’s words had been wasted on me when I first read them. At the time I was a college student living in a cramped dormitory, eager to graduate and buy enough furniture to fill a spacious suburban apartment.

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind,” Thoreau warned in the chapter titled “Economy.”  Only an overworked adult — one who is drowning in the debris of modern life and pressed by the weight of too many commitments — could truly appreciate Thoreau’s genius, I mused as I kept reading.

Yet it also occurred to me that things were vastly different for Thoreau. The “comforts of life” in the 1840s were not exactly cushy by today’s standards. His notion of luxury might have been taking tea in his mother’s bone china saucers. So what had he given up to commune with nature?

Even before he moved to Walden Pond, Thoreau hadn’t accumulated three television sets or a closetful of designer clothes. He didn’t own several pairs of expensive athletic shoes for all those philosophical walks he took. He didn’t wonder where he’d store his blender or Tupperware while he roughed it in the woods. His cot in the cabin couldn’t have been lumpier than the straw-filled mattresses in most mid-19th-century homes. And Thoreau never had to trade a personal computer for a pencil.

With all due respect, I wonder, how tough was Thoreau’s sabbatical with simplicity? Is it true that he occasionally walked from Walden Pond back to Concord, where Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife had a home-cooked supper waiting for him?

As Andrew Delbanco notes in his wise book, Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), reading Thoreau can make us feel “accused of hoarding comforts.”  We might even try to find holes in Thoreau’s impassioned pitch for the simple life. And yet Thoreau is, as Delbanco says, “an irresistible writer; to read him is to feel wrenched away from the customary world and delivered into a place we fear as much as we need.”

How true. Just as Thoreau did, I’d like to weed out, pare down, live deliberately, be a resident philosopher. (Would the family miss me?) A life devoid of clutter sounds positively blissful, especially when there are no empty spaces on my calendar.

But making choices is so much more difficult in a culture fueled by sheer busyness and commercialism. There are few places, few wooded Waldens, where one can escape the incessant bombardment of to-do lists or product advertising.

Visiting the “real” Walden Pond in Concord not long ago, I was amazed and disappointed to find the place overrun. Locals were strewn on its small beach. You couldn’t walk the path around the pond without rubbing shoulders with other curious sightseers; there wasn’t a spot left for soulful, solitary reflection.

If nothing else, my rendezvous with Thoreau got me thinking. What — and how much — do I really need? What price have I paid for technology and convenience? In which landfill will all my stuff end up?

And how would I fare if I were delivered into a place I fear as much as I need, as Delbanco put it? Could I survive in a one-room cabin with barely more than chair, a wooden table, a bowlful of raw vegetables, and my laptop? Honestly, I wish I could. — Cindy La Ferle

–A slightly different version of this post was published in The Christian Science Monitor. The original piece is reprinted in my essay collection, Writing Home and in McDougal Littell’s American Literature textbook.–

Michigan art show

Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.”  ~Twyla Tharp

Two of my art pieces are in the Michigan Annual art exhibition through Feb. 27 at the Anton Art Center in Mount Clemens. A link to an Oakland Press article on the show includes a photo of one of the pieces, “Shrine to Mary: Our Lady of the Lost & Found.”

The other piece (at left) is an altered book titled “Nature.” A tribute to Thoreau’s Walden, it was made from a vintage insurance ledger and embellished with things I collected on long walks and bike rides.

Most of my artwork features found objects or recycled materials. I’m drawn to the rusty, ragged beauty of broken things. (I’ve been caught going through trash and pocketing rusty bottle caps littering the curbs in my neighborhood on trash day.) Most of my pieces are personal tributes to favorite works of literature or poems.  –CL

Now on exhibit


“A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.” — Henry David Thoreau

While I’m taking a break this week, I wanted to share a small piece of good news with you…. Earlier this month, I was honored to learn that one of my altered books, “Nature,” was chosen for inclusion in the annual Michigan Fine Arts Competition at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center.

For me, there has always been a mystical connection between writing and art — just as there is a connection between my gardening and cooking. Like many of my altered art and mixed media projects, “Nature” was inspired by a favorite work of literature — in this case, Thoreau’s Walden.  It was crafted from an old children’s board book and rebound with the cover of a turn-of-the-century leather insurance ledger from a thrift shop. The cardboard pages in the book are collaged and embellished with ephemera, nature quotes, and found objects collected from flea-market visits and, of course, nature walks. The exhibit runs through April 17. For more information, click here. — CL