Since Thoreau’s publication of Walden in 1854, a subversive movement has rippled through the generations based on humanity’s inherit connection to the land. Finding roots in the 1960s movement, the back-to-the-land mentality has continued into today’s culture where it is flourishing 161 years later. Even this morning, awakening to a glowing sunrise (“Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me”) I found myself once again contemplating the incredible impact this book and ideology continues to have on my own life, and the lives of many people around me.
After attending a bustling Seedy Sunday on March 1, it dawned on me how vital and vibrant the community of Nanaimo is in terms of homesteading, gardening, and other forms of food and community sustainability. The philosophy of reconnecting with the natural rhythms of nature, finding a true sense of self and purpose through the lands around you, and the simplicity of life are sentiments which are easily found in this community—all of which find their roots in popular society through the writings of Thoreau and other writers who have followed him.
In the early 1850s, during the heart of the American Industrial Revolution, Thoreau went out into the woods and farmlands surrounding Walden Pond to live—in his words, “deliberately”—for two years, two months, and two days. He would shrug off the modern society of his time to explore what he had concluded were the essential facts of life: spiritual discovery, self-reliance, and simplicity, as well as nature and humanity’s place in it. He completed his time in the woods with meditative walks, the cultivation of bean fields, and periods of writing and drawing, from which he created Walden. Its reception at the time of publication was lackluster, taking five years to sell five thousand copies. It went on to become a classic piece of literature and totem of the back-to-nature mindset.
In today’s society we are, like Thoreau, experiencing our own experiment. The changes in climate we are now experiencing are unprecedented, our technological progress seems to have no finishing line, many of our valued social networks appear online, and our possessions seem, at the same time, to be both treasured and disposable. Where this will take us is unknown. Many people are becoming more interested in looking back to move forward though.
Sustainability has become the goal in all walks of life, from business people to activists, and a reconnection to the land at the heart of many of these movements. Japanese businesses are encouraging their employees to partake in Shinrin-yoku, or forest-bathing. This creates a calming neuro-physical effect, changing the nervous system by enjoying the presence of trees. Therapeutic gardening is now being used in hospice residencies, outpatient cancer centres, and other healthcare environments. People all over the world are awakening to the importance of nature for our mental, spiritual, and physical well-being, which all echoes back to the convictions of Thoreau.
We can continue to learn and apply the things he discovered in today’s modern world. In his time, he saw his beloved Virginian landscape stripped of its forests for farmland and expanding human habitation, he saw his neighbours turning away from their traditional ways to technological advances, and he saw a loss in personal revelation under the influence of a blooming industrialized society. Sound familiar? Rather than becoming embittered to this situation, he turned to himself and nature to heal. Some of his teachings we can apply to our own contemporary lives are:
- Participating in the cultivation of our own food by growing a garden (even in containers), volunteering with local farm co-operatives, shopping at local farmers’ markets, or looking into raising your own backyard chickens.
- Taking time to truly enjoy the nature that surrounds us. Check out from daily schedules and obligations to go for a walk or bird watching, or try meditation and yoga in a natural environment.
- Try turning off your phone and stepping away from the computer for a whole day and see where your true self lies in life outside of technology. Rediscover old interests or try out new ones.
- Simplify your life by purging closets and possessions, complaining less, learning to say no to some things so you can truly say yes to those you really want to do, and spending time with people you genuinely enjoy being with.
- Writing a journal, poetry, and drawing are skills that encourage the brain to examine our daily lives and find a better understanding of our actions and ourselves.
- Finding a community of like-minded people that can help encourage us along a path that, if outside of societal norms, can be difficult.
A connection to the lands around us through recreation, art, gardening, or even picnicking are incredibly important to a healthy individual and community. Wendell Berry, who also wrote extensively on the topic of identity through the landscape, expressed that “A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives.” This idea of community support extends to the land itself as a member, creating a cyclic relationship where the more one appreciates the beauty of our natural world, the more desirous we are of properly caring for it.
Try some of these things out for yourself. You never know how they can improve your life or where they may take you. As Thoreau said, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”