On July 12, 1817, a baby boy was born to a pencil manufacturer in Concord, Massachusetts. He would later become one of the most famous American naturalists, essayists, and philosophers of all time. A leader in transcendentalism, he is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in a natural environment. He was also a steadfast abolitionist. When he wasn’t frolicking in the woods near Walden Pond, he was actively fighting against the Fugitive Slave Law, a law that required runaway slaves be returned to the state they escaped from. In 1849, he wrote Civil Disobedience, which inspired the works of Martin Luther King Jr. Sound familiar? We’re talking about Henry David Thoreau, and today is his 205th birthday!
Henry David Thoreau
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” One of Thoreau’s main goals in life was to discover what it truly meant to be alive. According to Thoreau, some of the things we experience while living are considered “life,” and others are not. But Thoreau was a cynic. Friends, family, food, drink, community, and most work, education, and conversation were not considered “life” to him. In order to get away from these daily distractions, he moved to a small patch of pond-side land lent to him by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Thoreau lived near Walden Pond for two years, two months, and two days. During this time, Thoreau completely immersed himself in his natural environment. He spent his days fishing, boating, swimming, exploring Walden Woods, and enjoying the view on the water. He also meticulously recorded the observations he made in a journal. After leaving Walden Pond in 1847, Thoreau spent seven more years compiling his thoughts and experiences into the Walden we know and love today.
Walden was published on August 9, 1854. Today, Walden is revered as an essential social experiment in human independence, self-reliance, and self-discovery. But nobody should spend their birthday alone! To celebrate Thoreau’s 205th birthday, here are five birthday gifts I would give him to make cabin-life more comfortable!
Thoreau is about as mindful as they come. After all, he went to the woods because he wished to “live deliberately.” But imagine if he had a few writing prompts to help him reflect on his time at Walden Pond! For his first birthday gift, I would give him a mindfulness journal to help fuel his nature-inspired writing. Maybe a positive resource to record his observations and reflections would help him to be less satirical in his original writing.
Fun fact: Thoreau is a bit of a hypocrite. As much as he tried to live a solitary life, he couldn’t completely erase himself from civilization. Walden Pond is only two miles away from his hometown in Concord, and Thoreau frequently visited his family and friends. During his visits to town, his mother often provided him with food and even did his laundry! Even while living in his cabin, Thoreau wasn’t completely isolated. He often had famous visitors, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott!
That’s why, for Thoreau’s second birthday gift, I would give him a pack of postcards. With these postcards, he could communicate with his family and friends while still fulfilling his goal of solitariness. However, he’d have to make quite the trek in order to deliver it. The United States Postal Service wasn’t founded until 1971, so he’d have to find the nearest Pony Express— or maybe even a balloon!
While alone near Walden Pond, Thoreau liked to bird-watch from dawn until noon. Imagine how much more fun bird-watching would be if he had a good pair of binoculars! Binoculars were invented by Johan Freidrich Voigtlander in 1823. However, the early form of the binoculars we use today weren’t popularized until 1894, 32 years after Thoreau’s death. For his 205th birthday, I would surprise Thoreau with a pair of tech-savvy binoculars. Technology would give Thoreau a heart attack, especially with all those pesky social media apps. But binoculars? At least they’re great for exploring nature!
Once he got used to the binoculars, maybe I’d introduce him to the University of Southern California’s Walden-inspired video game.
During his time at Walden, Thoreau used natural resources in order to survive. Although his mother often brought him sandwiches and baked goods, Thoreau primarily lived off the food he grew, such as beans, peas, corn and turnips. He drank water from a nearby spring. And for personal hygiene? Walden Pond was his bathtub!
I certainly hope the pond water was fresh, but just in case, I would buy him some tea tree shampoo for his birthday. It’s packed with natural ingredients, which he’d find intriguing, and it would help him from scaring his visitors away. Next on my list: a toothbrush.
Thoreau wanted to live at Walden during every season, which meant he had to brave even the coldest of winters. After the pond froze, Thoreau spent many winter evenings alone beside a fire while snow fell outside his cabin. January was an especially lonely month for Thoreau. To try and encourage visitors, Thoreau managed to dig a path to town through the deep snow. Still, nobody wanted to walk through his hazardous pathways or the freezing weather. For Thoreau’s last birthday gift, I would give him a sturdy snow shovel that would help him get to town easier. Hopefully his mother will have hot chocolate waiting when he gets there!
Happy birthday, Henry David Thoreau! Here at Bookstr, we hope you pay homage to this famous American writer by exploring your environment or dusting off Walden from your bookshelf. If you’d like to read more interesting facts about Henry David Thoreau and his cabin, click here.