IN THE WOODS
BY LISA SCHMIDT
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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, (and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.)
In the year 1845 Henry David Thoreau escapes the upcoming Industrial Age building himself a cabin near Walden Pond in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts. In the solitude of nature Thoreau wants to take distance from Victorian materialism and its hectic, unrewarding and shallow ways dedicating himself to simplicity, hoping to find the true leisure of life. Equipped with a borrowed axe the 28 years old teacher, writer and philosopher starts his experiment from scratch by cutting down some white pines in the woods to build the fundament of his new home.
The son of a pencil maker studies philosophy, classics, rhetoric, mathematics and science at Harvard College between 1833 and 1837 and starts to teach at the faculty of the Concord public school after his graduation, where he resigns only after a few weeks because of the common practice of corporal punishment. He then opens his own private grammar school with his older brother John, where not only the educational methods but also the form of teaching is rather progressive and includes the exploration of the nature. After the sudden death of this brother and the closing of the school, Thoreau works for his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as in his family's pencil factory and publishes his writings.
Being a scholar of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who leads the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century, Thoreau pursues the ideas of a powerful individual and a liberal, self-responsible life in close touch with nature. Based on the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the German Idealism in general as well as the ideas of the English and German Romanticism, American transcendentalism is an eclectic movement that goes beyond social conventions and rules and develops new ways of thinking, writing and living.
To strike out in new directions and free his mind from common standards and values, Henry David Thoreau spends two years and two months at Walden Pond, where the first writings for his often-cited drop-out manifesto “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” (first published in 1854) are done. Choosing the 4th of July to move into the woods, as Thoreau mentions in an intended casual remark, can’t possibly be a coincidence, as this date marks his very own independence day.
But what may sound like a radical drop-out in the first place is right from its very beginning an experiment oscillating between the dedication to the simple, rough and lonesome life in the nature and the constant exchange and examination with society, as already shown by the proximity of Thoreau’s cabin to the next city and his nearly daily visits there.
Far away from pristine wilderness Thoreau stylizes his life as primarily self-supported in his quintessential small house at Walden Pond as a perfect retreat for the socially critical writer and thinker, that doesn’t need much but time and space. (In that concern he may be more related to the new bohemian generation of drop-outs and retreaters - an inclusion he would be happy about.) But in the end, this is not what “Walden” is mainly about. His experimental drop-out, including all its written and unwritten ambiguity, forms the obviously factual as well as staged backdrop for a philosophical walk through nature and gives a multilayered speech on self-empowerment criticising an industrialized and materialistic system that has astonishingly much in common with a critical view on our present neo-liberal orientated, capitalistic world.
The cabin in the woods is therefore much more than an actual place of residence, it is a symbol for a deeply romantic escapism that creates an imaginary isolation from the rest of the world. It can be a think tank, it can be laboratory for ideas and creation or it can simply be a safe place. But it can also turn into a bomb cellar as it happens in the case of the so called Unabomber, Theodore John "Ted" Kaczynski, the domestic terrorist of America’s modern history, who moves into a small cabin in the woods near Lincoln, Montana, where he writes his manifest against the industrialised society and from where he mails out numerous homemade bombs to people involved with modern technology between 1978 and 1995.
Looking at today’s tendency to buy a little trailer on this beautiful lake near the city, to restore an old railway station somewhere in the surrounding area, or to live in this hippiesque tent city right in the heart of Berlin - there may also be social and political motivations behind these, but altogether today’s drop-out fantasies seem to come right from the heart of a new kind of Romanticism, where the urban exodus is mainly led by the prosperous Bohème, that fancies to decorate itself with a social critical attitude and escape into the private sphere.