Walden Summary

In this book Thoreau describes a period in his own life - his “personal experiment”. For two years he lived alone in the forest near the Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau tested not only his ability to survive without any goods of civilisation but also his worldview. He tried to find the new meaning of life, combining the practical skills with spiritual activities and meditations.

The first chapter, “Economy” is a description of the causes of this experiment. Thoreau thinks about the everyday life people don’t pay much attention to, housekeeping and comfort that they get without any efforts. He also briefly describes his plan: building a hut near the Walden Pond, eat only the food that he harvested or hunted himself and distance himself from the civilised world he is so used to. Thoreau claims that a modern person lives far beyond their real needs, forcing themselves to spend time and energy to earn money, while the same thing done by themselves will cost them less and would require less time and effort. Everyone can grow food for themselves, build a house with their own hands, make homemade clothes. The person who ceases to be addicted to comfort and escapes slavery of constant earning more money will have much more time to develop spiritually and grow as a person. Society distracts them from the only things that are really important.

Another thing mentioned by Thoreau is value of communication. He claims that people nowadays see each other too often and don’t have an opportunity to really value every contact. If one lives alone, they will be much more immersed into the communication with other people, guests or strangers, not taking them as granted but as a rare occasion that should be enjoyed. Thoreau himself had around thirty guests while he was living alone and was really glad to see them all. If the guest was alone, he shared his meal with him, and if there were many visitors, they just had a great, rewarding conversation. Thoreau says that learned much more about people while living in the forest than during his life in a crowded city.

The whole chapter is very practical, it contains measurements and advice and explain the meaning of the experiments, but it also explains the meaning, goals and purposes of it. So it can be taken as user manual for anyone who wants to repeat the experiment. Next chapters are more focused on author’s feelings and meditations.

Thoreau chooses beans as his primary crops. He works without horses or oxes or hired laborers, planting as much as he needs to eat. Planting beans is also a spiritual process to him: Thoreau describes it as taking strength from the Earth through the beans as channels. He doesn’t even read agricultural manuals, Thoreau doesn’t want to grow as much as possible: the process for him means more than result. With the beans he “plants” his own spiritual values: sincerity, truth, simplicity, faith, innocence. The author turns this work in a sacred ritual as it was before, and sees it more like his gift to the Earth, not wanting anything in reward.

Every two days Thoreau goes to the nearest small village to hear the latest news. He does this after the daily work, so the visits are brief. What wonders him is the perfect sense of direction he developed: Thoreau never loses his way even though he returns to his hut at night. At the same time he is not afraid to get lost in the forest, suggesting that it should be an unforgettable sensation that would teach him much. The person can comprehend all the vastness and uniqueness of nature only losing their way and their goal. Instead of panic Thoreau would use this to get closer to the place he accidentally went to.

Thoreau never closes his door, even though a lot of people from the village know where he lives. However he was never robbed. He is convinced that if everyone lived as simply as he did, robberies wouldn’t occur at all, since the cause of the robbery is either poverty or desire to have something luxurious and excessive. But if everyone had the basic supplies and nothing more there would be no reason to rob others.

Within a few miles around his cabin Thoreau finds some more ponds except Walden. He describes them as living beings. The trees on the coast seems eyelashes to him, the cliffs around - the eyebrows and the shore is like the lips the pond licks. Thoreau visits some particular trees - the black birch or the high pine - as often as he visits his human friends and spends time in their shadow.

Once, during a long walk, he finds a house of a very poor Irishman who works day and night for his employer. Thoreau is invited inside and talks to him, advising the Irishman to follow his own way. Thoreau explains that after giving up fruitless work for the employer the Irishman will be rewarded by carefree life and countless adventures. Then he will be able to overcome his needs and issues.

Sometimes Thoreau feels the desire to shift from the peaceful life to his wild origins and he goes hunting and fishing. However he thinks that it’s a sign of his insufficient spiritual growth. Thoreau thinks that he will be not interested in taking lives of other living beings if he spends more time meditating. He feels this activity to be impure, preventing the spirit from strengthening and feelings from refining. Thoreau agrees that the payment for ceasing to eat meat is the physical weakness of the body but he is sure people shall not regret it because vegetarian life will lead them to inner peace and the new level of spiritual development.

Thoreau also refuses to drink wine to always preserve clear mind. He says that he wishes to be drunk only with fresh air. The only liquid he drinks is the clear water from pond. Thoreau also describes the animals that live nearby: he tamed a wild mouse and it eats from his hand. Another his friend is a partridge with its chicks. Thoreau often looks into its eyes, describing them as calm, wise and ancient as the sky itself. He witnesses the fights of red and black ants, feeling the same excitement as if he was reading the real war chronicles. He watches the loon that hides from him diving into the pond.

When the winter approaches, Thoreau assembles a fireplace in his house. He quickly befriends the fire, looking at it in the evenings, clearing his mind and thoughts from the filth accumulated during the day. In winter only a few guests come to his cabin, but he compensates the lack of communication with watching the animals. He throws corn and potato around the house and then watches rabbits, squirrels and birds attracted by the food. Once a sparrow sits on his shoulder and Thoreau says that it is a honor much higher than any epaulettes.

In winter the pond is asleep, covered with thick layer of blue ice. It becomes a meeting point for the villagers who come to it every morning to fish and pick ice to preserve until summer. Thoreau now doesn’t have to go far to talk to people. He learns that people think the pond is bottomless. Later, armed with compass, chain and a lot, Thoreau measures the depth of the pond.

In late March the ice on Walden Pond finally starts to melt. Due to the changes of the temperature in the mornings and in the evenings it cracks. For Thoreau it resembles a living being who is stretching and yawning awakening after a long sleep. The whole Earth seems alive and sentient to him and he watches it coming back to life with joy. He observes the geese, ducks, pigeons and swallows returning from the Southern lands. The turtles and frogs also appear after the winter sleep. The grass begins to grow. This reminds Thoreau of salvation and spiritual rebirth. He believes that people should live in harmony with nature and listen to what it says them. The life secluded from nature leads to stagnation, because people willingly refuse such a source of joy and energy as wild life. Humanity wants to know everything but the nature is still an unsolved mystery to it. Thoreau is sure that people shall just accept that there are forces that surpass their own.

The first year of forest life ends. The second year goes the same way and the author doesn’t describe it. Thoreau leaves Walden on September 6, 1847. He leaves the forest for the equally important reasons he had to settle in it. He feels that he needs to know more and to do more. The peaceful and simple life showed him the laws of Universe: poverty, loneliness and physical weakness don’t matter to him anymore. So Thoreau is ready to return to the human world preserving the serenity he acquired near the Walden pond. He is sure he will no more think too much about the opinion of society because he has found his dream and goal and now his life is dedicated to becoming the person he is born to be. Thoreau finishes his book with the words about modern people looking like pygmies in comparison with their ancestors. But still one must study and improve their soul to become the greatest of pygmies and achieve the goal they were born for.