Walden (Life in the Woods): Overview of Thoreau’s Classic

What did Henry David Thoreau expect when he went to live in the woods? How did the experience affect him?

Walden (Life in the Woods) is Henry David Thoreau’s book about the life he lived, alone, in the woods of eastern Massachusetts. More than 160 years after it was first published in 1854, people still read and find inspiration in this memoir.

Continue reading for an overview of this classic book.

Overview of Walden (Life in the Woods)

In the 1840s, Thoreau built a cabin at Walden Pond, on the outskirts of Concord, and lived there for two years. In Walden (Life in the Woods), Thoreau reflects on the experience and contends that we should all seek to live a simpler life—one unconstrained by society’s expectations, aligned with our own values, and in accord with the natural world. 

Thoreau was a naturalist, essayist, philosopher, and central figure in the 19th-century movement called Transcendentalism. The Transcendentalists believed in the goodness of humans and nature and promoted the idea that following your intuition enables you to find meaning in your life. Thoreau is also known for his essay Civil Disobedience (1849), which proposed nonviolent resistance as a means of protest and would later influence the thinking of Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, and many 20th-century protesters. 

Walden compresses the two years that Thoreau spent living at Walden Pond into a cycle of four seasons, beginning and ending with spring. We’ll explore what occupied Thoreau’s time during his time at Walden Pond. Then, we’ll look at the reasons he embarked on this experiment in living more simply and examine how we can put the principles behind Thoreau’s philosophy into practice in our own lives. We’ll also explore how historians, scientists, and literary critics have responded to Thoreau’s book—and why experts are still debating who the real Henry David Thoreau really was. 

What Did Thoreau Do at Walden? 

Thoreau decided to move into the woods near Walden Pond as an experiment in finding a simpler life: one lived in harmony with nature, at a (walkable) distance from the industrialized society that was then emerging in Concord. What he did with his time provides meaningful context for the principles that guided him both during his time at Walden and afterward. 

We’ll first discuss what Thoreau did to prepare to move to Walden Pond. Then, we’ll explain the activities that filled his time once he began living in his cabin. These activities enabled him to support himself and also to build a meaningful life during his time in the woods.  

Before Walden Pond

Before he could move to the woods, Thoreau needed a place to live. He planned to build a small cabin and chose a site in the woods a mile and a half south of Concord, Massachusetts, near Walden Pond. He explains that he chose a spot situated in the middle of a forest of young pitch pines and hickories. He felled pines, salvaged building materials, dug a cellar, and (with the help of friends) built a 10-by-15-foot cabin. He furnished the cabin simply, with a bed, a desk, a table, three chairs, and a few small household items.

Thoreau adds up all of the expenses associated with building and outfitting the cabin and finds that it cost him $28.12.  That’s less than the $30 it cost at the time to rent a room for a year in nearby Cambridge.

Thoreau writes that he considered the construction costs a good investment because a well-built cabin provides shelter for many years. On July 4, 1845, he began living full time in the cabin, even though it wasn’t finished yet. He continued to work on it after he moved to Walden, and he finished building the chimney and plastering the walls before winter.

At Walden Pond

Thoreau found a variety of ways to spend his time when he lived at Walden. When we think of Thoreau, we often envision him walking through the wilderness, observing the birds and squirrels in the summer, and peering into the ice on the pond in the winter. He did spend countless hours paying meticulous attention to the natural world—but he had many other projects that kept him busy. Next, we’ll look at the activities that occupied Thoreau’s time during the two years that he lived at Walden Pond. 

He Spent Hours Every Day Walking and Observing Nature

First, observing the natural world occupied much of Thoreau’s time. He paid close attention to the animals who lived in the woods, near the pond, and even in various crevices of his cabin. (He mentions a hare who built a nest under his floor, as well as wasps who settled in his windows and walls ahead of the cold Massachusetts winter.) It wasn’t just animals who occupied his attention. Thoreau also became familiar with memorable trees in the area, and he observed how the ponds froze in the winter and thawed in the spring.

Thoreau also spent hours each day walking in the woods. In the winter, no matter how deep the snow was, he ventured out of his cabin and into the woods. He sometimes visited a tree, other times watched an owl, and often left a fire burning in the hearth. (On one occasion, his bedding caught fire while he was away.) Thoreau also listened closely to the woods. He became familiar not only with natural sounds like the calls of bullfrogs and screech owls, but also with the sounds that revealed the presence of other humans in and around the woods. Those included the sounds of trains traveling to and from Boston, carriages passing along the road, church bells in neighboring towns, and the barking of locals’ hunting dogs.

When Thoreau became curious about a natural phenomenon, he investigated it rigorously. For instance, he wondered about the depth of the pond after hearing that some people assumed it was bottomless. So he took soundings and realized that the point where the pond’s widest and longest measurements intersect was also where the water was deepest. He studied Walden Pond and other ponds nearby. He made observations about their shorelines, the color (and taste) of their water, the fish and animals that occupied them, and the fluctuations of their water levels. Thoreau even noticed that the temperature of the water, which varied throughout each pond, affected what kinds of vegetation grew there.

He Cultivated a Field of Beans

Thoreau realized that he needed to make a modest amount of money to pay for his living expenses, such as food and farming supplies, which he calculated at about $10 to $12 annually.  He calculated that his diet of bread (homemade with rye and cornmeal), potatoes, rice, salt pork, and molasses cost 27 cents per week. He made a point of not purchasing tea, coffee, butter, milk, or fresh meat. He even stopped buying yeast after he realized that he could bake bread without it.

To cover his expenses, Thoreau planted a 2.5-acre field primarily with beans. He also grew potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips. He explains that though he didn’t particularly want beans to eat, he cultivated them to sell or to trade for rice. Tending the field took considerable time his first summer at Walden. Because his rows of beans totaled seven miles in length, he worked from five in the morning until noon each day in the field. Thoreau writes that he threw himself into the process of planting, hoeing, harvesting, threshing, picking, and selling beans.

Thoreau even found value in the work that went into preparing the field for planting. That process revealed that he wasn’t the first person to live on the land: He found arrowheads, stones burned by fires, and bits of pottery and glass that provided concrete evidence of the land’s past occupants.

He Did Occasional Day Labor

Thoreau also did occasional work as a day laborer to cover his expenses while living at Walden. Prior to moving to the woods, Thoreau had worked as a school teacher and in “trade.” But he explains that neither of those occupations would provide the kind of work—or, more importantly, the kind of time—that he envisioned needing while he lived in the woods. By taking jobs that didn’t tie him to a single employer or rope him into a larger project, he provided for himself without spending too much of his time working. When he added up his expenses, Thoreau determined that he could support himself by doing day labor for just 30 or 40 days a year. That left the rest of his time free for other kinds of work.

He Read Books and Kept a Journal

Reading occupied a significant part of Thoreau’s time in Walden Woods. Thoreau regarded reading as work that’s worthy and meaningful, like cultivating his bean field. He came to believe that his cabin was a more suitable place for serious thought—and serious reading—than a university. As for what Thoreau regarded as serious reading, he contended that more people ought to read the classics in their original languages—or at least select literature that was more substantive than the simple novels that he complains were popular at the time.

Finally, writing also kept Thoreau busy. He spent considerable time keeping a journal while he lived at Walden. In his journal, he recorded what he observed and what he thought about during his time in the woods. These journal entries would form the basis for the book later published as Walden.

What Is the Biggest Myth About Thoreau’s Time at Walden?

Thoreau spends much of the book explaining how he spent his time when he lived in the woods. Amid his accounts of cultivating beans, watching birds, canoeing on the pond, and observing the trees, he also describes passing his time in a way that tends to surprise people: interacting with other people. A pervasive myth about the time Thoreau spent at Walden Pond is that he left society behind to live like a hermit in the woods. But when he moved to the woods, Thoreau didn’t so much disengage from society as deepen his resistance to the parts of the modern world that he found objectionable. We’ll explore how Thoreau participated in society even when he was living on the outskirts of town.

He Walked Into Town Every Few Days

Contrary to popular perception, Thoreau didn’t live deep in the wilderness. Instead, he built his cabin at the edge of the woods, right outside of Concord. He walked the short route into town regularly, following the tracks of the Fitchburg railroad. He writes that, when he was in town, he enjoyed catching up on gossip and news, observing how people lived, buying the rye or cornmeal he needed, and then escaping to the woods again.

Though Thoreau writes that he disliked modern society’s materialism and its lack of meaningful connection with nature—two topics that he addresses repeatedly throughout the book—he didn’t leave Concord or its social issues behind when he moved to Walden. He sought to strike a balance between removing himself physically (and spiritually) from life in Concord and continuing to engage thoughtfully and critically with its society and politics.

He Entertained Visitors at His Cabin

Because he built his cabin within walking distance of Concord, Thoreau could regularly host visitors. He notes that when he outfitted the cabin, he chose to have not one or even two chairs, but three. He anticipated that there might be occasions to entertain several visitors.

Thoreau writes that he often had philosophical discussions with people who passed through the woods. One particularly notable visitor was a woodchopper, whom Thoreau admired for his industriousness, his unaffected appreciation for beauty, and his practical perspective, which was informed by his own observations and opinions rather than those of others.

Thoreau also enjoyed visits from people who lived in poverty or were labeled unintelligent. He writes that when he engaged them in conversation, they often demonstrated wisdom that far exceeded that of the people who had dismissed them. Thoreau explains that he enjoyed the company of people who visited the woods with the intention of really leaving the preoccupations of the city behind them. However, he encountered some people whom he chose to turn away, including those whom he characterized as simply seeking charity.

He Spent a Night in Jail Because of His Politics

Thoreau also remained engaged with politics even though he didn’t live in town. He was unafraid to make his opinions known when he did spend time in Concord. He felt so strongly opposed to some of the national policies of his day—such as slavery and the war on Mexico—that he refused to pay the poll tax he owed to the city of Concord. About halfway through his time at Walden, Thoreau walked into town to collect a shoe he’d left for repair. He encountered a town official who put him in jail for the night for failing to pay the taxes he owed. He was released the following day.

Thoreau also understood the woods as a social, even political, space. The woods weren’t empty, either figuratively or literally: They were (at least for Thoreau) occupied by the ghosts of indigenous people and earlier settlers. When walking through the woods, he also regularly encountered living people, such as railroad workers enjoying a day off and Concord residents hunting, fishing, harvesting ice, or gathering firewood. During his time at Walden Pond, Thoreau also interacted with escaped enslaved people, whom he helped on their way north.

Why Did He Move to the Woods? 

The pursuits that filled Thoreau’s time during the two years he spent at Walden Pond provide useful context for the other major subject of the book: the philosophical reasons he decided to move to the woods in the first place. We’ll explore the ideas that motivated Thoreau to move out of Concord and into a tiny cabin. We’ll also explain how his principles might help you to make changes to your own life. 

He Wanted to Live a Simpler Life

First, Thoreau explains that the choices he made in moving to Walden were motivated by a desire to live more simply—and he doesn’t hesitate to say that he thinks his readers should simplify their lives, too. During the two years he lived in the woods, Thoreau chose a life of what he calls “voluntary poverty.” He reduced what he produced and consumed to just what was necessary for survival: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel.

While Thoreau believed there is dignity in labor and in working to provide for oneself, he contended that people consume too much and work too much to pay for it. He explains that people can live on much less than they think possible. Then, with that change in perspective, they can stop overworking themselves to afford a large home, a vast family farm, fashionable clothes, or even an expensive education. Thoreau contends that the drive to acquire these and other material things results in unacceptable costs in terms of time: time that we give up for truly living in order to obtain possessions that aren’t necessary and don’t fulfill us.

How You Can Simplify Your Life

Most of us can’t just leave town and move to the woods to live a simpler life. But if you want to follow in Thoreau’s footsteps in clearing room in your life for the things that are most meaningful to you, he offers a few principles that you can put into practice.

Consider what you can do without. Thoreau believed in the virtue of economy: rejecting materialism and practicing simplicity. Throughout the book, he warns against overworking yourself just to spend money and time on things you don’t need. For instance, he chose to avoid eating animal products: In addition to saving money by foregoing purchases of butter, milk, or meat, he notes that abstaining from hunting and fishing also allowed him to avoid the cooking and cleaning that would go along with preparing meat or fish.

Manage your resources wisely. Like all of us, Thoreau had to choose how to best put to use the supplies and money he had. For example, when he hosted large numbers of visitors at his cabin—he entertained as many as 25 or 30 people at one time—Thoreau didn’t use up all his supplies to feed them all. Instead, he found other ways to make them feel welcome, such as entertaining them outside, without worrying about society’s standards for hospitality.

Savor what you have. Thoreau believed that an important part of living a simpler life was experiencing gratitude for what you have and what you’re able to do. For instance, he writes that when you sit down to eat a meal, feeling gratitude for your food and paying attention to what you’re eating is much more important than what’s on your plate.

He Wanted to Connect With Nature

A second reason that Thoreau moved to Walden Pond was to live a life attuned to the natural world, rather than set to the rhythm of life in town. He writes that modern society alienates us from the natural world. But staying in touch with the natural world—with its endless cycle of seasonal change and growth—can inspire us, awaken us, and sustain us both physically and spiritually, he contends. 

To Thoreau, connecting with nature wasn’t just about watching the sunrise or listening to the owls. He regarded the time he spent learning from nature as the most important part of his spiritual life. He even considered bathing in the pond every morning as a “religious exercise.” Thoreau writes that we can see great dignity and beauty everywhere in the natural world—even in its small and mundane events.

How You Can Get in Touch With the Natural World

Thoreau wanted to live in accord with the natural world, but he didn’t have to move into remote wilderness to do it. Just as he adopted a lifestyle in tune with nature at the edge of the woods just outside Concord, you can tune into nature without leaving the world behind.

Observe nature closely and without an ulterior motive. Thoreau put significant effort into paying attention to what was going on in the natural world. He writes that we engage with nature in a variety of ways. And some of them make it easier to appreciate the natural world than others. Thoreau contends that people who work in the fields and woods—fishermen, woodchoppers, hunters, and so on—are better able to observe the natural world than poets or philosophers. He also argues that behaving like a naturalist is another meaningful way to observe and learn about nature.

Focus on the here and now. Thoreau made a point of taking life at Walden day by day and paying attention to what was happening around him. For example, he recommends that rather than harvesting ice from the pond to cool their drinks in the summer, as people did at Walden Pond in the winter, we stop worrying constantly about the future and instead live in the present moment.

He Wanted to Spend Time in Solitude

Thoreau’s third motivation for living in the woods was to experience solitude, which he defined as spending time by himself without feeling alone. According to Thoreau, solitude enables us to find meaning and spiritual purpose. True solitude is also an antidote to a kind of loneliness that Thoreau contends is far too common in society. He argues that people feel more lonely when they spend too much time in society than when they spend time alone, deeply absorbed in their work, in the way that farmers or students become immersed in their tasks. That said, while Thoreau sought solitude, he also believed that he could reap the benefits of time spent alone without being a hermit.

How You Can Find Meaning in Time Spent Alone

In the same way that Thoreau made the choice to arrange his life so that he would experience solitude each day, you can also make the decision to spend more time—or more meaningful time—by yourself. But you don’t have to move to the woods to do it. 

Spend time getting to know yourself. Thoreau contends that we have to understand ourselves before we can understand other people—and that spending time alone is a good way to find that self-knowledge. He explains that it’s never too late for us to take a critical look at what we believe. That way, we can see through illusions that might be commonly accepted in society but prevent us from seeing ourselves for what we really are.

Do the work that you’re meant to do. Thoreau describes solitude as something more than sitting alone in silent contemplation. Instead, solitude involves devoting yourself to the work that you find meaningful, rather than worrying about conforming to other people’s expectations. For example, Thoreau found satisfaction in cultivating his bean field as well as in spending time reading and writing. He chose forms of work that provided for his material and spiritual needs.

Seek the truth. Thoreau also contends that it’s essential to know and accept the truth about who you are and what your circumstances are. That way, you can learn to appreciate life for what it is. He explains that spending time alone enables you to see beyond other people’s interpretations of reality and experience the world for yourself, as it really exists.

He Wanted to Carve Out His Own Path

Thoreau’s final motivation for going to Walden involved his confidence in his own choices and his belief that he needed to trust his intuition: He felt that moving to the woods was the right choice for him, so he followed his own path. Thoreau contends that we’re all capable of living moral and meaningful lives if we follow our intuitions and honor our convictions. He writes that there are “higher laws” than those of human society. By distancing himself from the city, even by a short walk through the woods, he could more easily live according to his own values.

Thoreau also champions self-reliance, not only in providing for your own material needs but also in enriching yourself spiritually. He argues that every person needs to seek their own path toward spiritual fulfillment, as an individual independent in their thoughts and actions.

How You Can Seek Your Own Path

Acting on Thoreau’s advice to follow your own path could look different for everyone. But he offers two principles that might help you to discern which path to take. 

Live an independent life. Thoreau doesn’t argue that you need to ignore society. Instead, he contends that it’s important to find and live according to your values, even when they conflict with what everyone else is doing. (For example, he felt happy to spend a night in jail if that meant that he was living in accordance with what he believed was morally right.) Thoreau writes that by living independently, we can make every moment meaningful.

Don’t be afraid to change course. To Thoreau, finding your own path doesn’t require committing single-mindedly to a destination and never wavering. Instead, he acknowledges that your priorities can change—as his did when he ultimately left Walden after two years. He argues that the important thing is to spend your time in ways that are meaningful to you. Everyone’s path to fulfillment is their own to choose and to change as needed.

Walden (Life in the Woods): Overview of Thoreau’s Classic

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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