Theater of Cruelty

To live a simpler and calmer life

On Wandering and Other Essays on Nature
Forfatter: Henry David Thoreau
Forlag: Bogreservatet, (Danmark)
ECOLOGY / Henry David Thoreau provides the recipe for a wandering life in balance with nature, but arguably also for a leisurely life in balance with oneself. He can be said to be more relevant than ever.


I find great joy in reading books. The joy has only grown stronger in recent years. The amount of books I read has also increased. This past month of July, there were 10 books read. The only problem with reading is the body stillness while I read. And it seems to be a growing problem. Henry David Thoreau writes that it becomes easier as you get older to endure the sedentary life. For me it has been just the opposite. Here in my mid-40s, I continuously find that my body, especially my legs, protest if I sit down for too long. Regardless of whether it's in front of the computer, at the dinner table with friends and family or as now reading in the chair in the summer house, my legs call out and want me to move. Stand up. Up to go.

A recipe for life

This cry is perhaps all the more true because it is Thoreau I am reading. Recently published on the Danish collection On Wandering and Other Essays on Nature (1862/2023). The American writer, thinker and surveyor Thoreau will probably be known to most as the author of the work Walden – life in the woods (1854/2015). In it, Thoreau meticulously and reflectively described the simple life he tried to achieve by living in a single house, doing simple things, and living close to the woods. Ergo, an attempt to be in harmony with nature.

The essay collection here interestingly expands on Walden. Again, Thoreau strikes a blow for man's attachment to nature instead of the permanent connection to civilization. He is not as such against civilization, technology and human ingenuity, but he clearly believes that there is a bias in the balance between nature and culture. That we have abandoned nature. That we have set ourselves higher than it. Precisely for these reasons, Thoreau can be said to be more relevant than ever. As the climate disasters rage, southern Europe is in flames and central Europe is sinking into floods, it is straightforward to unite with Thoreau's thoughts about a better balance. A balance that, according to Thoreau, can be achieved by living a more simple and calm life. Thereby the work becomes not only a book about hiking but also a recipe for life.

The recipe, in all its simplicity, is to stick to the close, find joy in simple tasks, ensure that the local community thrives, know your neighbours, get along with each other and – not least – wander. Thoreau likes to walk four hours every day, preferably more. How can he walk four hours a day, one thinks? The answer comes later in the book under the entry "life without principles". Here it appears that Thoreau tries to work less than is typically expected:

"If, like most others, I were to sell both my mornings and afternoons to society, there would be nothing left for me to live for."

«The bit of work that sustains me, and to some extent means that I am available to my contemporaries, has mostly been a pleasure, and I am seldom reminded that it is a necessity. So far I have been successful. However, should my needs grow, I foresee the amount of work required to finance them becoming a pain in the ass. If, like most others, I had to sell both my mornings and afternoons to society, there would be nothing left for me to live for.»

The quote clearly frames Thoreau philosophy of life. The simple life is not only set in the lake to take care of nature but perhaps just as much to have time to walk. Thoreau wants to keep consumption down – not only to take care of Mother Earth – but just as much to take care of himself and have time for himself. Increasing consumption equals more work, which then equals less time for oneself. The ecological way of life is therefore also a self-absorbed way of life. Critics of Thoreau – and probably also of ecology – will think that the wealth of our welfare society cannot possibly be maintained if everyone is lazy like Thoreau. Fans of Thoreau will think we can hardly afford not to. That it is only via a simpler life, less consumption and thereby perhaps also less preoccupation with work as being closest to the meaning of life, that we can manage to find the balance again.

The moving thought

But why this preoccupation with the walk, which must obviously have a significant role in life? Because walking is not just exercise – but existence in itself. Thoreau wanders in the surrounding areas but rarely on the roads. He goes out into the world to discover it. Most of all west, into America, into the new – and not east, because there lies Europe, the old world with all its plagues and ills. To the west is the hope for a new and better world. The walk is thus also a discovery of the world and a discovery of oneself.

When my reading body protests and wants me to stand up, it is the movement itself that the body craves. When you move your body, you also move your mind. The thoughts get going. They may follow different paths than the path of the sedentary mind. It happens every time I walk that my mind wanders too.

I'll move on though. Without aim, without purpose.

I get pain in my lower back one of the days in the summer house. These sudden rushes pacify me for a while. Now I can just sit and read. Not running, not swimming in the sea every day, which is otherwise my habit. But I can – I discover to my great joy – still take the old Puch bicycle and roll out to the plantation. Here I park the bike and walk over the sandy hills with the heather swaying in the wind. I go into the patch of woods and find, to my great excitement, a pair of reed hats. And the truth is that there are a few handfuls of chanterelles not under the shrubbery, but almost under the ground, which also go in my cardboard box before I cycle home. Before that happens, though, I'll move on. Without aim, without purpose. I talk to myself in the meantime. It also happens often when I go. The body goes, the thought goes, the speech goes. Body and mind thrive in movement, and it seems that they almost find each other in the monotony of walking.

Min forest walk however, is not only for finding mushrooms. Nor is its purpose the movement of thought and speech. The walk is not (only) instrumentalist. It is also just. Something in itself. It is unnecessary, because where I go, I don't need to get to. Perhaps it is in this needlessness that the hike's special attraction is to be found.

Steffen Moestrup
Steffen Moestrup
Regular contributor to MODERN TIMES, and docent at Denmark's Medie- og Journalisthøjskole.

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