Meet Thoreau: Henry Lives His Experiment

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Cabin ReplicaHenry did not carry out his experiment in one day; he planned carefully so that he could maximize his time doing the things that mattered most to him, thinking, writing, and observing nature.

In this section, you will learn how Henry carried out his project and how he spent his time during his experiment at Walden Pond. You will also learn new bits of trivia and counter the misconception that Henry was a freeloader.

 

How did Henry build his house?

Before Henry could build and move into his house at Walden Pond, he needed to make a plan and gather the necessary materials. Since his project was an experiment in living simply and deliberately, whenever possible he tried to reuse materials instead of purchasing new supplies and to spend money on essential items. The wooden boards he used to construct his house he acquired by buying and disassembling a small shanty that had been occupied by a railroad worker's family. For the rest of the lumber, he chopped down some young pines with a borrowed axe. He put used shingles on the roof, old bricks in the chimney, and secondhand glass in the windows. The only other items he bought were laths, lime and horsehair for plaster, a mantle tree iron to support the chimney, and nails, hinges, screws, chalk, and a latch. Though he did hire a workman and an ox to help transport some of the materials, he saved money by carrying most of the supplies on his back. Henry was an accomplished carpenter and very capable of building his house on his own. In fact, his abilities as a jack-of-all-trades earned him paying jobs from Emerson and other locals.

Henry began preparing the lumber in March and April in order to raise the frame of the house in May. Several of his friends and neighbors came over to literally "raise the roof" together, as was the custom at the time. Even after Henry moved into the house in July, he continued to make improvements, including installing shingles on the sides of the house, plastering the interior walls, and constructing the chimney. The second winter, Henry used a small stove instead of the fireplace for cooking, since it required less wood to be chopped down from the forest. He missed the open flame, however, writing "I felt as if I had lost a companion." (1)

How did Henry spend his time at the house?

Henry spent his time at the house writing, reading, taking long walks, observing nature, and entertaining visitors. While living at Walden he worked extensively, writing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a book about a trip he had taken with his brother John who died three years later of lockjaw. Henry also loved to read and kept two copies of Homer's Iliad with him at Walden, one copy in English and one in the original Greek. When not in the mood for such heavy literature, he also enjoyed reading books about travel. Henry was something of a traveler himself within the region where he lived. Of his lengthy daily walks he wrote, "I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least - and it is commonly more than that- sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements." (2) Thoreau was a detailed observer of nature and devoted several chapters of Walden to his observations about the seasons and wildlife in the woods, including the "The Ponds," "Brute Neighbors," "Winter Animals," "The Pond in Winter," and "Spring."

Henry believed that being present in the moment was more valuable than any kind of work he could do. "Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller's wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time." (3)

Henry also welcomed many visitors to his house in the woods, once as many as twenty-five or thirty at the same time. He frequently had Sunday afternoon visits from the Emerson and Alcott children, and he would entertain the children on walks through Walden Woods or boat trips on the Pond. He often talked with a Canadian woodchopper named Alek Therien who worked in the woods by Walden. Others passing by on the way to Concord would stop at Henry's house to talk or drink some water. He sometimes escorted runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad, helping them find a hiding place in town since his house was too exposed to protect them.

Thoreau BustHow did Henry spend his time away from the house?

To help pay for the expense of his experiment, Henry grew and sold beans and other vegetables. The first year he filled two and a half acres with rows of beans which would have been seven miles long if the rows had been laid end to end. During the May to October growing season, he often worked in the field hoeing from five in the morning until noon. Though he enjoyed the farmer's intimate relationship with the land, after the first year Henry felt he could spend less time and effort farming by only planting one third of an acre the second season. Although an unfortunate late frost in June killed off many of his crops, he was able to manage without them.

Henry occasionally left Walden Woods entirely. He took one major excursion to the backwoods of Maine to hike Mount Katahdin, a two week trip which he wrote about in the essay "Ktaadn" which later became part of the book Maine Woods.

Henry took a different kind of trip away from Walden when he was arrested for not paying his taxes and ended up spending the night in jail in Concord. Henry purposely did not pay his taxes because he did not want to support a government that was allowing slavery to continue in the South and instigating border wars with Mexico. He wrote about his night in jail in the essay "Civil Disobedience." He was not ashamed of being put into prison, however, but proud of his actions, writing "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison." (4)
 

References

 

Previous: Henry finds his Walden | Next: Henry Writes His Story

Common Misconception:

Thoreau was a freeloader.


Henry was not the loafer some people imagine, but a savvy businessman whose ingenuity propelled the family pencil making business into a national success.


Though he called himself a "squatter" on Emerson's land at Walden, Henry was not taking advantage of their friendship and giving nothing in return. In fact, Henry had agreed to leave the house he had constructed as a study for Emerson at the end of his experiment. Henry also did a variety of work for Emerson while living with him before and after his time at Walden, from household odd jobs to carpentry.


Though Henry's family sometimes invited him to dine with them or brought him food while he was living at Walden, he was not a freeloader. In reality he ate out only occasionally and was perceived by his friends to do so primarily out of consideration for those who wished to extend their hospitality to him.


When living with his parents as an adult, Henry did not expect them to cover the expense of his board but contributed money for his rent. Henry was meticulous about paying off his debts.

 

 

Did You Know?

Henry could summon his favorite wild pet, a mouse, out of hiding by playing his flute.


 Once during a rained-out picnic, Henry squeezed over twenty-five guests into his small, one-room house.


When a woodchuck chewed up a large part of his bean field, he captured it in a steel trap, but couldn't bring himself to kill it. Instead he carried it over two miles and set it free and he never saw it again.


 The inside of Henry's house was as simple as the outside. His total furniture, much of it homemade, consisted of a bed, a table, a desk, and three chairs.



For three years, Henry and his brother, John, ran a special school with a practical approach. They took students for field trips into nature, showed them how to make a boat, had recesses for fresh air, and taught applied mathematics using surveying equipment.