Rebecca Solnit, Henry Thoreau, and Huckleberries

by Evan Edwards


In her article, “The Thoreau Problem,” Rebecca Solnit begins by drawing our attention to the mythical place that huckleberries play in Thoreau’s writing. In his two most famous texts — Walden and “Civil Disobedience” — Thoreau recounts the story of being taken by the authorities for not paying a tax that would go toward paying for the Mexican-American war. For Thoreau, this war was unjust not because it was an act of violence, as is commonly believed, but because he thought it was little more than a thinly veiled attempt on the part of the American government to take land that rightfully belonged to another nation. His resistance to the war was then similar to his resistance to slavery and to the genocide of native Americans: these things constituted an infringement on the right to self-determination, and further that this infringement was “the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool.” Thoreau writes, in both Walden and “Civil Disobedience,” that when he was released from jail, he went straight to the huckleberry field “to get [his] dinner…on Fair-Haven Hill.” Solnit calls our attention to this repeated story to pose the following question: why did Thoreau consider “the conjunction of prisons and berry parties, of the landscape of incarceration and of pastoral pleasure” significant?

This question seems to me to have two separate but interrelated parts. First, we might want to ask why Thoreau thought to go to the huckleberry field after a night of incarceration in the first place. If you have ever spent a night (or longer) in jail, you will know that such an experience is not pleasant, it is dehumanizing, terrifying, and demoralizing. After such an experience, we might more readily expect Thoreau to go home, take a shower, sleep, or seek out a friend. That he chooses to, almost nonchalantly, go to a huckleberry field should give us moment to pause and consider the significance of this decision. Second, we might want to ask why Thoreau thought to tell us that he went to the huckleberry field after being in jail. He is a deliberate writer—he went through seven full drafts in nearly ten years in the process of writing Walden, and each draft shows an increasing precision in his choice of words, concepts, and structure—and so the choice to include this detail in his account is significant. The fact that he does not end his account of incarceration with his release suggests that for him, there is something significant about placing the experience of being in jail alongside the experience of going “a’huckleberrying.”

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Frugality, simplicity, and environmentalism

by Emrys Westacott

Many people today are drawn toward the ideals, values, and lifestyles that fall under the broad concept of “simple living.” ImgresDownsizing, downshifting, embracing radical frugality, building and living in “tiny houses,” going back to the land, growing one's own food, choosing greater self-sufficiency over consumerism, and seeking to preserve or revive traditional crafts: these are all part of this trend. So, too, is the Slow movement, a general term for the various ways in which people seek to combat the frenetic pace of modern life. The movement includes Slow Food, Slow Cities, Slow Sex (all originating in Italy), the Sloth Club (Japan), the Society for the Deceleration of Time (Austria), and the Long Now Foundation.[1]

According to some, the millennial generation (roughly those born between 1980 and 2000) are helping to boost this trend Compared to their elders, they are less interested in home ownership, happy to share cars rather than buy them, and savvy at using technology to save money and keep things simple through using companies like Zipcar (transport) Airbnb (accommodation), and thredUP (clothes).

A lot of people live frugally out of necessity, of course. But there are also philosophical arguments in favor of simple living. In a venerable tradition stretching that goes back to ancient thinkers like the Buddha, Socrates, and Epicurus, two lines of argument have been especially prominent.

1. Simple living is associated with moral virtue. E.g. It keeps us physically and spiritually pure, fosters traits like resilience and independence, cultivates sound values, and is typically viewed as a sign of integrity (think Gandhi).

2. Simple living is the surest path to happiness. E.g. It helps us be content with what we have, enhances our enjoyment of simple pleasures, allows us more leisure time by enabling us to work less, keeps us closer to nature, and generally promotes peace of mind.

In recent times an additional reason for embracing simplicity has come to the fore: namely, the environmentalist argument.

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