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Henry David Thoreau by Vallotton in Guantanamo

Henry David Thoreau by Vallotton in Guantanamo (Photo credit: Eugenio Hansen, OFS)

I continue to read and listen to John Muir’s books. Although he sometimes lingers too long describing rock formations or reciting scientific names of the wildlife and flowers, when he focuses on his adventures in the wilderness, especially his interactions with others, I am captivated. I also enjoy reading about his nature-based spirituality. Muir found God everywhere he looked in nature.

One of John Muir’s biographers wrote, “Muir was extremely fond of Thoreau and was probably influenced more by him than even Emerson. Muir often referred to himself as a disciple of Thoreau.” That  got me thinking: what does it mean to be a disciple–follower–of Thoreau and is it possible today? The threads that wove together Thoreau’s thinking and lifestyle are:

  • voluntary poverty
  • living a simple, non-materialistic life
  • non-conformity to mainstream society
  • constant contact with wilderness for personal growth and stability.
  • civil disobedience
  • faith in God

To Thoreau, that meant living alone in the woods with few possessions, removing oneself from the trivialities of society, practicing civil disobedience when it challenged moral values, and worshiping God in the great outdoors. In today’s terminology, Thoreau is a green, tree-hugging minimalist, living a self-sufficient lifestyle and caring little about what society thinks of him and his lifestyle.

Yet, there was one major difference between now and then: much of the “green movement” today is removed from anything to do with faith. At most, the modern-day minimalist is “spiritual but not religious,” which I interpret as, “no intentional pursuit of the divine, but I think something may be out there.” Thoreau, however, believed unwaveringly  in something bigger than himself. He intentionally sought experiences of God and found his own path (literally and figuratively) to the divine. He believed that others should be encouraged to follow their own path. Thoreau wrote about faith,

“I would have each one be very careful and find out his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.”

“Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought”.

So, yes, it is possible to be a follower of Thoreau today as long as one is mindful of Thoreau’s faith-based framework We cannot simply extract his thinking from that foundation: it does not work without the divine any more than it works without the pond or the trees.

However, another question rises to the surface. Does discipleship to Thoreau require living in the country and taking a vow of poverty? Can I adopt the spirit of Thoreau and not the specifics? Thoreau championed the individual right to self-determination, so I answer yes. What matters is a seeking of  more simplicity and self-sufficiency, an awareness of  how we are manipulated by general society (of course you need and can afford that McMansion), an ability to think for oneself and not follow trends (political and otherwise) and a desire to wander outdoors, even if it is just the city park. Seeking the outdoors for solace and exercise must become routine.  Materialism must be fought, a daily battle for me as I sell off my excess possessions one week and wait for UPS to arrive with new, high-tech camping gear and an inflatable kayak the next week.

Thoreau set the bar high for people living then and it is higher still for us now. It is Black Friday, a “holiday” that ironically, now rivals the importance of Thanksgiving. A step towards Thoreau means saying no to the Black Friday obsession specifically and no to Christmas materialism in general. That no is not easy, but it is liberating once made. Imagine if all the Black Friday shoppers dropped their money in the Salvation Army bucket and took a walk outside of town instead.

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