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Book Review: Henry David Thoreau – Walden




RUW Foundation has started a sustainability book club last October and is exploring wildly different views on the world, one book at a time. Last month we took a closer look at a 19th century classic Walden by Henry David Thoreau. A good choice, according to the author himself: “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”


The subtitle of this book gives away the initially rather unexciting premise of the story: Life in the woods. How engaging and interesting can a book about a guy that decided more than 150 years ago to live alone in a small shed in a forest for two years be? Well: again we are reminded that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, as this book is full of sharp analyses and poetic observations. We discover that Henry has an understanding of landscape and society way ahead of its time.

In the beginning of the book we discover that Thoreau turned his back on a society which he found too complex (in 1854!) and too strongly disconnected from nature. In his own words: “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.” We figured that if Thoreau lived today he’d probably be a tiny-house enthusiast living off-grid while blogging about his eco-experience and views on contemporary society.

What inspired many generations reading this book is the non-conformity and struggle for freedom. He truly goes back to basics and shares in painstakingly detailed accounts how he managed to do this. What we found fascinating is that the modern notion of freedom as independent from nature is challenged throughout. He felt free because he had become part of nature. He describes landscape not as merely a scenery or a collection of ecosystem services on which he depends for meeting is basic needs, but more as a partner with whom he has a reciprocal relationship.



The Walden pond hut (uudb.org)Another relevant observation has to do with time. Two of the more amusing rants in the book are about news and fashion and their toxicating, time-wasting qualities. Especially urban dwellers focus too much on these short-term and irrelevant pastimes. This creates a disconnect from the slower and more subtle pace of Nature. Interestingly, this opinion is still commonplace in the 21st century. The idea of a duality between a quick society and a slow nature has robustly stood the test of time.

The most forward-thinking example we found in the book is about the commons, a rapidly re-emerging governance model in landscape management. Thoreau managed to summarise this stewardship-driven relation with the landscape in only 7 words: “Enjoy the land, but own it not.” Given the negative impact of land grabbing and soil degradation, we couldn’t agree more. It turns out we had the wrong idea of this book when we started reading it: Thoreau didn’t turn his back on society, but developed and shared his insights for the betterment of society. His critique on progress and its one-sided relationship between nature and humanity inspired many generations to challenge the status quo and reconnect with the landscape, resulting in the emergence of movements as varied as deep-ecology and anarcho-primitivism. Walden is a story of empowerment and the radical potential of nature to change whoever is willing to expose itself to her.

The members of the RUW Foundation sustainability book club all intend to spend more time with Nature after reading this book. We invite everyone interested in reading and discussing books to join our monthly meetings. Mail to ruw@wur.nl to stay up to date. Furthermore, from the 9th until the 16th of July the RUW team applies Thoreau’s practice-based approach by organizing a summer camp in the woods of Wageningen to gain “skills for sustainability”. There are 25 places available.

Walden Or life in the woods Henry David Thoreau First published in 1845 English Price upward from €8,50 187 p.



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