I derived great pleasure from experimenting and learning all the ways I could provide for my daily needs, and even my wants, using things that I made, grew, found on the property, or obtained from discards. Had I been married with children, I believe this would have been an impossible pursuit, for obvious reasons. But I was essentially alone.
I read Thoreau’s Walden Pond for the first time during this period, and found my state of mind frequently resonating with the basic themes in the book. Remember, Thoreau wasn’t a bum, or a drop-out, or an alcoholic. Actually, for that matter, he was no squatter either, for the land where he was given permission to do his “experiment” was owned by fellow writer and friend William Emerson. He built for himself a little house (a “shack” by most accounts), and did a lot of his writing there. He stayed there by himself, probably realizing even back then that many commercial interests in our society vie for our time and money, finding ever-more clever ways to convince us that we need objects which previous millennia of humans survived without.
It would be accurate to say that Thoreau – like me – was profoundly interested in the very meaning of life and wanted to discover the point of all the rushing about to get somewhere. Unable to discover these answers in his town, Thoreau built and moved into his little shack in the woods and learned how to grow the food that he ate, and found it nourishing and satisfying. He also ate purslane, an import from the old world, which even then was common throughout the eastern United States in tilled soil. He wrote “I learned that a man may use as simple a diet as the animals, and yet retain health and strength. I have made a satisfactory dinner off a dish of purslane which I gathered and boiled. Yet men have come to such a pass that they frequently starve, not from want of necessities, but for want of luxuries.” Indians and trappers would visit and talk, and somehow through this unprejudiced intercourse, he found that all people were more alike then different, and a life lived for purely material reasons is a life wasted.
Now I found myself in a similar setting, though it wasn’t in the woods but a ruralish part of Los Angeles. There was purslane and chickweed growing right outside my door. I had no pond nearby, but I did manage to get over the Arroyo Seco which was as close to my personal Walden Pond as I felt I would get.
At night, thinking over the day’s classes and studies, typing up my notes and insights, I often ruminated over how life should be lived, and wondered why we take up so much time and waste so much of life on trivial pursuits. I felt that it was important to live simply, to grow food, to discover nature’s secrets, and to find answers through thinking and through research. I wondered why others did not think like me. And with the purslane growing right in my yard, I could eat it for lunch in my salad and fancy myself some sort of urban Thoreau as I thought over these ideas.
I did learn some years later when Thoreau was mentioned by the academics he was regarded as a brilliant intellectual who discovered the simple reality that was right in front of everyone. Be here now. Imagine. The kingdom is within. Which is why I naturally assumed that his own peers would have regarded him as a saint and savior. Wrong! I have actually spoken to descendents of Thoreau’s peers and they said that in the day, Thoreau was by no means universally respected. Rather, many regarded him as a bum, an outsider, someone who had rejected society to hang out with the Indians in the woods. I was starting to see that there were more parallels with me and Thoreau than were originally apparent.
So I did my best – though usually unsuccessfully – to not be seen as a freeloading bum who chose not to work and who just sat around listening to the birds and who saw secret messages in the clouds.