"Walden" by Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau, America's poet-naturalist, as he might
be called, was born at Concord, Mass., on July 12, 1817. His
great-grandparents were natives of the Channel Islands, whence
his grandfather emigrated. Thoreau was educated at Hartford,
and began work as a teacher, but under the influence of Emerson,
in whose house he lived at intervals, made writing his hobby
and a study of the outdoor world his occupation. In 1845, as related
in "Walden," he built himself a shanty near Walden Pond,
on land belonging to Emerson. There he busied himself with
writing his "Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers," and
in recording his observations in the woods. After the Walden
experiment he mingled the pursuit of literature and the doing
of odd jobs for a living. His books, "The Maine Woods," "A
Yankee in Canada," "Excursions in Field and Wood," were
mostly published after his death. He died on May 6, 1862, from
consumption. Emerson, Hawthorne, and Alcott were his warm
friends in life, and helped the world to appreciate his genius.
A poet in heart, Thoreau was only successful in giving his
poetry a prose setting, but that setting is harmonised with the
utmost delicacy. No one has produced more beautiful effects in
English prose with simpler words.
The Simple Life
When I wrote the following pages, I lived alone, in
the woods, a mile from any neighbour, in a house I had
built for myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord,
Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labour
of my hands only. I lived there two years and two
months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life
Men labour under a mistake. By a seeming fate,
commonly called necessity, they are employed laying up
treasures which moth and rust will corrupt. It is a fool's
life, as they will find when they get to the end of it if
But it is never too late to give up our prejudices.
What old people say you cannot do, you try and find
that you can. I have lived some thirty years and I have
yet to hear the first syllable of valuable advice from my
To many creatures, there is but one necessity of life—food.
None of the brute creation require more than
food and shelter. The necessaries of life for man in
this climate may be distributed under the several heads
of food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. I find by my own
experience a few implements, a knife, an axe, a spade, a
wheelbarrow, etc., and for the studious, lamplight, stationery,
and access to a few books, rank next to necessaries,
and can all be obtained at a trifling cost. Most
of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of
life, are positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.
None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life
but from the vantage ground of voluntary poverty.
If I should attempt to tell how I have desired to spend
my life in years past it would probably astonish those
who know nothing about it.
I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove,
and am still on their trail. Many are the travellers I
have spoken, concerning them, describing their tracks
and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two
who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse,
and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and
they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had
lost them themselves.
How many mornings, summer and winter, before any
neighbour was stirring about his business, have I been
about mine! So many autumn, aye, and winter days,
spent outside the town trying to hear what was in the
wind, to hear and carry it. At other times waiting at
evening on the hill-tops for the sky to fall that I might
catch something, though I never caught much, and that,
manna-wise, would dissolve again in the sun.
For many years I was self-appointed inspector of
snow storms and rain storms, and did my duty faithfully;
surveyor, if not of highways, then of forest paths.
I looked after the wild stock of the town. I have
watered the red huckleberry, the sand cherry and the
nettle tree, the red pine and the black ash, the white
grape and the yellow violet, which might have withered
else in dry seasons.
My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live
cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some
private business with the fewest obstacles.
When I consider my neighbours, the farmers of Concord,
I find that for the most part they have been toiling
twenty, thirty, or forty years, that they may become the
real owners of their farms; and we may regard one-third
of that toil as the cost of their houses. And when the
farmer has got his house he may not be the richer but
the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him.
The very simplicity and nakedness of men's life in the
primitive ages imply that they left him still a sojourner
in nature. When he was refreshed with food and sleep
he contemplated his journey again. He dwelt as it were
in the tent of this world. We now no longer camp as
for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten
Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and
went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to
where I intended to build my house, and began to cut
down some tall, arrowy, white pines, still in their youth,
for timber. It was a pleasant hillside where I worked,
covered with pine woods, through which I looked out on
the pond, and a small open field in the woods where pines
and hickories were springing up. Before I had done I
was more the friend than the foe of the pine tree,
having become better acquainted with it.
By the middle of April my house was framed and
ready for raising. At length, in the beginning of May,
with the help of some of my acquaintances, rather to
improve so good an occasion for neighbourliness than
from any necessity, I set up the frame of my house. I
began to occupy it on the 4th of July, as soon as it was
boarded and roofed, for the boards were carefully
feather-edged and lapped, so that it was perfectly impervious
to rain, but before boarding I laid the foundation
of a chimney. I built the chimney after my hoeing
in the fall, before a fire became necessary for warmth,
doing my cooking in the meantime out of doors on the
ground, early in the morning. When it stormed before
my bread was baked I fixed a few boards over the fire,
and sat under them to watch my loaf, and passed some
pleasant hours in that way.
The exact cost of my house, not counting the work, all
of which was done by myself, was just over twenty-eight
dollars. I thus found that the student who wishes for a
shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not
greater than the rent which he now pays annually.
Before I finished my house, wishing to earn ten or
twelve dollars by some honest and agreeable method, in
order to meet my unusual expenses, I planted about two
acres and a half of light and sandy soil near it, chiefly
with beans, but also a small part with potatoes, corn,
peas, and turnips. I was obliged to hire a team and a
man for the ploughing, though I held the plough myself.
My farm outgoes for the first season were, for employment,
seed, work, etc., 14 dollars 72½ cents. I got twelve
bushels of beans and eighteen bushels of potatoes, besides
some peas and sweet corn. My whole income from
the farm was 23 dollars 43 cents, a profit of 8 dollars
71½ cents, besides produce consumed.
The next year I did better still, for I spaded up all the
land that I required, about a third of an acre, and I
learned from the experience of both years, not being in
the least awed by many celebrated works on husbandry,
that if one would live simply and eat only the crop which
he raised, he would need to cultivate only a few rods of
ground, and that it would be cheaper to spade up that
than to use oxen to plough it, and he could do all his
necessary farm work, as it were, with his left hand at
odd hours in the summer.
My food for nearly two years was rye and Indian
meal without yeast, potatoes, rice, a very little salt pork,
molasses and salt, and my drink water. I learned from
my two years' experience that it would cost incredibly
little trouble to obtain one's necessary food even in this
latitude, and that a man may use as simple a diet as the
animals and yet retain health and strength.
Bread I at first made of pure Indian meal and salt,
genuine hoe-cakes, which I baked before my fire out of
doors, but at last I found a mixture of rye and Indian
meal most convenient and agreeable. I made a study of
the ancient and indispensable art of bread-making, going
back to the primitive days. Leaven, which some
deem to be the soul of bread, I discovered was not indispensable.
Thus I found I could avoid all trade and barter, so
far as my food was concerned, and having a shelter
already, it would only remain to get clothing and fuel.
My furniture, part of which I made myself, consisted of
a bed, a table, a desk, three chairs, a looking-glass, three
inches in diameter, a pair of tongs and andirons, a kettle,
a skillet, and a frying pan, a dipper, a wash bowl, two
knives and forks, three plates, one cup, one spoon, a jug
for oil, a jug for molasses, and a japanned lamp. When
I have met an immigrant tottering under a bundle which
contained his all, I have pitied him, not because it was
his all, but because he had all that to carry.
Earning a Living
For more than five years I maintained myself solely
by the labour of my hands, and I found that by working
for about six weeks in the year I could meet all the expenses
of living. The whole of my winters, as well as
most of my summers, I had free and clear for study.
I have thoroughly tried school-keeping, and found that
my expenses were out of proportion to my income, for I
was obliged to dress and train, not to say think and believe
accordingly; and I lost my time into the bargain.
I have tried trade; but I have learned that trade curses
everything it handles; and though you trade in messages
from Heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the
business. I found that the occupation of day-labourer
was the most independent of any, especially as it required
only thirty or forty days in the year to support me. The
labourer's day ends with the going down of the sun,
and he is then free to devote himself to his chosen pursuit,
independent of his labour; but his employer, who
speculates from month to month, has no respite from one
end of the year to the other.
But all this is very selfish, I have heard some of my
townsmen say. I confess that I have hitherto indulged
very little in philanthropic enterprises. However, when
I thought to indulge myself in this respect by maintaining
certain poor persons as comfortably as I maintain
myself, and even ventured so far as to make them the
offer, they one and all unhesitatingly preferred to remain
The Life with Nature
When I took up my abode in the woods I found myself
suddenly neighbour to the birds, not by having imprisoned
one, but having caged myself near them. I was
not only nearer to some of those which commonly frequent
the garden and orchard, but to those wilder and
more thrilling songsters of the forest which never, or
rarely, serenade a villager.
Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my
life of equal simplicity, and I may say, innocence, with
Nature herself. I have been as sincere a worshipper of
Aurora as the Greeks. Morning brings back the heroic
ages. Then, for an hour at least, some part of us awakes
which slumbers all the rest of the day and night.
Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?
As for work, we haven't any of any consequence. We
have the Saint Vitus' dance, and cannot possibly keep
our heads still. Hardly a man takes a half hour's nap
after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head
and asks: "What's the news?" as if the rest of mankind
had stood his sentinels. "Pray tell me anything
new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe."
And he reads over his coffee and rolls that a man has
had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito
River, never dreaming the while that he lives in the
dark, unfathomed mammoth cave of this world, and has
but the rudiment of an eye himself.
Let us spend our day as deliberately as Nature. Let
us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without
perturbation. Let us not be upset and overwhelmed in
that terrible rapid and whirlpool called a dinner situated
in the meridian shadows.
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it,
but while I drink I see the sandy bottom, and detect how
shallow it is. Its thin current glides away, but eternity
remains. I would drink deeper, fish in the sky, whose
bottom is pebbly with stars.
My residence was more favourable, not only to thought
but to serious reading, than a university; and though I
was beyond the range of the morning circulating library
I had more than ever come within the influence of those
books which circulate round the world. I kept Homer's
"Iliad" on my table through the summer, though I looked
at his pages only now and then. To read well—that is
to read true books in a true spirit—is a noble exercise
and one that will task the reader more than any exercise
which the customs of the day esteem. Books must be
read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.
No wonder that Alexander carried the "Iliad" with
him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written
word is the choicest of relics.
In the Sun
I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans.
Nay, I often did better than this. There were times
when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the
present moment to any work, whether of the head or
hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes
on a summer morning, having taken my accustomed
bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon,
rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and
sumachs in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the
birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house,
until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the
noise of some traveller's waggon on the distant highway,
I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those
seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better
than any work of the hands would have been. They
were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over
and above my usual allowance. I realised what the
Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of
works. Instead of singing like the birds I silently
smiled at my incessant good fortune. This was sheer
idleness to my fellow townsmen, no doubt, but if the
birds and flowers had tried me by their standard I should
not have been found wanting.
Regularly at half past seven, in one part of the summer,
the whip-poor-wills chanted their vespers for half
an hour, sitting on a stump by my door, or upon the
ridge pole of the house. When other birds were still the
screech owls took up the strain, like mourning women
their ancient u-lu-lu. Wise midnight hags! I love to
hear their wailing, their doleful responses, trilled along
the woodside. They give me a new sense of the variety
and capacity of that nature which is our common dwelling.
Oh-o-o-o-o that I had never been bor-r-r-r-n! sighs
one on this side of the pond, and circles, with the restlessness
of despair to some new perch on the gray oaks.
Then: That I had never been bor-r-r-r-n! echoes another
on the further side with tremulous sincerity, and
bor-r-r-r-n! comes faintly from far in the Lincoln woods.
I require that there are owls. They represent the stark
twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all have.
I am not sure that ever I heard the sound of cock
crowing from my clearing, and I thought that it might
be worth the while to keep a cockerel for his music
merely, as a singing bird. The note of this once wild
Indian pheasant is certainly the most remarkable of any
bird's, and if they could be naturalised without being
domesticated it would soon become the most famous
sound in our woods.
I kept neither dog, cat, cow, pig, nor hens, so that you
would have said there was a deficiency of domestic
sounds, neither the churn nor the spinning wheel, nor
even the singing of the kettle, nor the hissing of the urn,
nor children crying, to comfort me; only squirrels on the
roof, a whip-poor-will on the ridge pole, a bluejay
screaming beneath the window, a woodchuck under the
house, a laughing loon on the pond, and a fox to bark in
This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is
one sense and imbibes delight through every pore. I go
and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of
herself. Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar
leaves almost takes away my breath; yet, like the lake,
my serenity is rippled, but not ruffled. Though it is now
dark the wind still blows and roars in the woods, the
waves still dash, and some creatures lull the rest with
their notes. The repose is never complete. The wildest
animals do not repose but seek their prey now. They are
Nature's watchmen—links which connect the days of
I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the
time. I never found the companion that was never so
companionable as solitude. A man thinking or working
is always alone, let him be where he will. I am no more
lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud. God
is alone, but the devil, he is far from being alone; he
sees a great deal of company; he is legion. I am no
more lonely than a single dandelion in a pasture, or a
humble bee, or the North Star, or the first spider in a
In my house I have three chairs: one for solitude, two
for friendship, three for society. My best room, however—my
withdrawing room—always ready for company,
was the pine wood behind my house. Thither in
Summer days, when distinguished guests came, I took
them, and a priceless domestic swept the floor and kept
the things in order.
I could not but notice some of the peculiarities of my
visitors. Girls and boys, and young women generally,
seemed glad to be in the woods. They looked in the
pond and at the flowers, and improved their time. Men
of business, even farmers, thought only of solitude and
employment, and of the great distance at which I dwelt
from something or other; and though they said that they
loved a ramble in the woods occasionally, it was obvious
that they did not. Restless, committed men, whose time
was all taken up in getting a living, or keeping it, ministers,
who spoke of God as if they enjoyed a monopoly
of the subject, and who could not bear all kinds of
opinions, doctors, lawyers, and uneasy housekeepers, who
pried into my cupboard and bed when I was out, young
men who had ceased to be young, and had concluded
that it was safest to follow the beaten track of the professions—all
these generally said that it was not possible
to do as much good in my position.
After hoeing, or perhaps reading and writing in the
forenoon, I usually bathed again in the pond, washed the
dust of labour from my person, and for the afternoon
was absolutely free. Every day or two I strolled to the
village. As I walked in the woods to see the birds and
the squirrels, so I walked in the village to see the men
and the boys. Instead of the wind among the pines I
heard the carts rattle.
One afternoon near the end of the first summer, when
I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler's, I
was seized and put into jail, because I did not pay a tax
to, or recognise the authority of, the State. I had gone
down to the woods for other purposes. But wherever
a man goes men will pursue and paw him with their
dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong
to their desperate Odd Fellows society. However,
I was released the next day, obtained my mended shoe,
and returned to the woods in season to get my dinner of
huckleberries on Fair Haven Hill. I was never molested
by any person but those who represented the State. I
had no lock nor bolt but for the desk which held my
papers, not even a nail to put over my latch or window.
I never fastened my door night or day, and though I was
absent several days my house was more respected than
if it had been surrounded by a file of soldiers.
I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there.
Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives
to live and could not spare any more time for that one.
It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into
a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.
I had not lived there a week before my feet wore
a path from my door to the pond side, and though it is
five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct.
So with the paths which the mind travels. How worn
and dusty then must be the highways of the world—how
deep the ruts of tradition and conformity. I learned
this, at least by my experiment, that if one advances confidently
in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to
live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a
success unexpected in common hours. 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.