It strikes me as an odd coincidence that this day, September 6, the observance of Labor Day, is also the very same day that in 1847 Henry David Thoreau packed up his meager belongings and bade his woodland cabin next to Walden Pond a fond adieu.
The oddity of this historic coincidence becomes apparent once one understands just how averse this counter-cultural odd ball was to any form of labor. At age 27, he decided to live by Transcendentalist principles, spending time alone with nature on a woodland lot next to Walden Pond loaned to him by his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He supported himself off his garden for 2+ years while reading, writing and communing with nature. He lived off the land, eating his crops, which included beans, potatoes, corn, peas and turnips, and selling them down the road in Concord, MA.
“I went to the woods, he wrote, 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.” Such writing reveals his transcendental view of life, an understanding of the importance of empirical/verifiable thinking and of spiritual matters over the material/physical world.
It is safe to say that Thoreau was not a model for the all-American Protestant work ethic. He would loathe what life in modern profit-driven, completely out-of-touch-with-nature America has become. Rather than driven by the profit motive, he was guided by the Prophet motive, the Prophet of God who spoke words such as these from the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 6:25-31): Therefore I say unto you, Be not anxious for your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor yet for your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than the food, and the body than the raiment? Behold the birds of the heaven, that they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; and your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you of much more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto the measure of his life? And why are you anxious concerning raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin; yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God does so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
(One of the memorable quotes from Walden is: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes”)
If ever there was a disciple of such simple, down to earth, nature grounded, counter intuitive, faith based prophetic preaching and teaching, it was Thoreau. In his DIY 10-by-15-foot cabin along the shore of the 62-acre pond a mile from the nearest neighbor, he communed alone with the Creator God through Nature.
While Thoreau coveted his secluded “life in the woods,” he was not to be seen as a hermit shunning his civic duties. While at Walden, he notoriously did some jail time when he refused to pay taxes to support the Mexican war. Out of that experience came one of his more famous essays, Civil Disobedience. Thoreau’s non-violent approach to political and social resistance influenced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the American civil rights movement.
Post Walden, he wrote magazine articles and was a staunch abolitionist. He worked fervently to smuggle escaped enslaved people to freedom through the Underground Railroad. In a speech, “A Plea for Capt. John Brown,” Thoreau referred to the convicted abolitionist leader as “an angel of light” and “the bravest and humanest man in all the country.“
On this Labor Day 2021 in the midst of a global climate crisis fueled by an endless growth-at-all-costs economic model that places cheap labor and pernicious profit over people and planet, it is good to pause and ponder the life of the counter-culture odd ball who came out of the woods on September 6, 1847 to become one of America’s enduring authors and influential thinkers.
So much of what he wrote about still has relevance today. His writings on government were revolutionary, and his studies of nature were equally radical in their own way. They even earned him the nickname of “father of environmentalism.” His crowning work, Walden, remains an antidote to the life-sucking virus that infects our modern rat race.