The Wildness of Simplicity

It is easy to think of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as a celebration of complete wildness—after all, it was Thoreau who penned the now-famous saying “in wildness is the preservation of the world”. On first glance, or after only a cursory reading, Walden can seem filled with similar sentiments. It cannot be ignored that the book catalogues season upon season spent away from regular human company. Upon closer inspection, however Walden can be read a different way; a way that contains a far more complex message.

The scenes of nature and wildness throughout Walden are tempered by references to a more human and conventionally unnatural presence. In Jedediah Purdy’s 2013 blog piece for the Huffington Post, he reflects on this observation, saying: “The book’s key passages do not just acknowledge the damage and breaking of the landscape: they seem to begin from them, to depend essentially on them.” The ways that Thoreau does this are myriad. In almost every chapter that includes scenes of ecological observation or pastoralism, there is an accompanying reminder of human interference—or, to use Purdy’s word, profanation. Some of these references are more powerful, more visceral, than others. One of the most striking comes from the chapter “Spring”. Thoreau writes:

“At the approach of spring the red-squirrels got under my house, two at a time, directly under my feet as I sat reading or writing, and kept up the queerest chuckling and chirruping and vocal pirouetting and gurgling sounds that ever were heard; and when I stamped they only chirruped the louder, as if past all fear and respect in their mad pranks, defying humanity to stop them. No you don’t—chickaree— chickaree. They were wholly deaf to my arguments, or failed to perceive their force, and fell into a strain of invective that was irresistible.” (230-231)

The cursory read of this passage might seem quite wild—Thoreau is among the animals, after all. His house is among them and he depicts himself as wholly powerless to impose his will upon them. How many of us, born in cities and suburbs, or even in farm country, have even found ourselves in the presence of red squirrels, let alone witnessed their breeding season antics? In today’s world, this rust-colored, thick-furred relative of our familiar gray squirrel is often as much a hermit as Thoreau thought of himself. They stay away in the deep pine woods of New England and only venture south along the wild spine of the Appalachians, where humans are much fewer and further-between.

But then one reads more closely. Thoreau records the cheerful, if odd, music of squirrel courtship and then, if the narrative can be trusted, attempts to quiet the sound. He stamped to disturb them, to see if he could convince them to quiet themselves, or at least to continue their amorous activities elsewhere. Furthermore, the only reason that Thoreau is a witness to the scene is that he has placed himself among the squirrels. They are under his house, one has to assume, since there had been no house there for years. The newcomer is Thoreau, not the squirrels, and it is his presence that causes the tension and drama that is portrayed. When taken in context with the rest of Walden, Thoreau’s presence among the squirrels is, in this reading, the harbinger of the coming suburban sprawl. Thoreau is but an early intruder into the squirrel’s world, simply the member of human society that has struck out furthest from the village first, and will soon be followed by many more.

It is not surprising that this reading is not popular among some. As I write, I can hear generations of self-declared environmentalists and conservationists before me crying foul—how can the great the environmental and ecological saint that is Henry David Thoreau be forerunner to the tremendously destructive building practices of today? And I have a response to those who say this, or rather Thoreau does. In the same breath that he uses to describe his efforts to quiet the squirrels living below him, he says, almost wondrously, that the neighbors were beyond his ability to silence. He goes so far as to describe how they seemed to curse him with their “strain of invective” (pg 231), and pronounce their irreverent tone towards him as being irresistible to hear. The significance of this would be that even as humanity creeped into the woods at Walden Pond, nature was pushing back—thus the wilderness that Thoreau praises is not truly wild because of its purity. Instead, it is wild because it manages to retain a touch of wildness despite the impending violations at the hands of the human world. And in Thoreau’s world, a creature as small and seemingly inconsequential as the button-eyed red squirrel is the focal point of the natural world’s rebellion against the looming threat of human oppression. A Thoreauvian metaphor if ever there was one.

Perhaps only slightly less famous than Thoreau’s proclamation on the crucial nature of wilderness is Thoreau’s proclamation on simplicity. In Walden he declares, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail” (69). This declaration has probably been taken at face value, just as the statement on the necessity of pure wilderness has been. The reader who is unprepared for the commitment and deliberation needed to read can read that statement and assume that they have read all they need to know about Thoreau and simplicity. However, I would argue that there is as much room for conflict in this proclamation as there is in any other Thoreau wrote.

And yet, Thoreau betrays his truer purpose. He does not truly believe in simplicity as we would be expecting to understand it. He may not even truly believe that simplicity is simple. In “Conclusion”, he writes the following of the person who is willing to engage in an experiment as he did with his stay at Walden Pond:

“He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.” (241)

He presents simplicity as being the gold standard and a pure thing in one line, and in the very next explains how the act of complicating one’s life is what allows for simplification. The ideas he plays with here—the “expansion” of former knowledge, a newer more “liberal” set of ideals, a “higher order”—these are not the words to describe that which is classically thought of as simple. These words describe deep and complicated thought and reflect what the reader knows to have been long and tumultuous meditation during his time at Walden Pond. Furthermore, the ideas that solitude is not truly to be alone and that poverty is not truly impoverishment are not ideas that are easy for anyone to wrap their heads around. Yet Thoreau claims that these experiences are the signs of having reached a true simplicity in life.

And here lie the ironies of Thoreau; complexity is the key to living simply and understanding plainly. Similarly, wilderness is not truly about being pure and untouched by humans, but about how the wilds of the world push and pull against the encroachment of the human world. The fact that Thoreau presents these two facts in terms that are almost paradoxical is, I think, the saving grace of Walden. In our world, it is easy to be lost in the complexity of the world, and to view our place in that world as hopelessly muddled. It is easier still to decry the loss of wilderness as the greatest crime of our era, and in some way these things are both true. But then Thoreau steps in to remind us that, in order to preserve wildness, the must be something to preserve it against. Without complexities beyond measure to wade through, we can’t reach a simpler understanding of the world.