Economy, Part III

Return to the Thoreau homepage.In the first part of "Economy," Thoreau pointed out that his neighbors worked very hard to secure very little. In the second part, he explained his own "labors" and looked at the necessity of clothing and shelter some more, pointing out that simple clothing and simple housing would allow one time to concentrate on the important things in life. Now, he intends to show his own solution to the problem of home ownership and thus tells the story of building his cabin at Walden Pond.

After telling us how his house was build, he comments on architecture, and then provides a list of his expenses. Finally, he criticizes the division of labor found in our colleges, railroads, and other modern improvements, pointing out that the student would learn more and the traveler would have a better trip if they did the work for themselves.

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Thoreau's Text in This Column
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Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it. It was a pleasant hillside where I worked, covered with pine woods, through which I looked out on the pond, and a small open field in the woods where pines and hickories were springing up. The ice in the pond was not yet dissolved, though there were some open spaces, and it was all dark-colored and saturated with water. There were some slight flurries of snow during the days that I worked there; but for the most part when I came out on to the railroad, on my way home, its yellow sand-heap stretched away gleaming in the hazy atmosphere, and the rails shone in the spring sun, and I heard the lark and pewee and other birds already come to commence another year with us. They were pleasant spring days, in which the winter of man's discontent was thawing as well as the earth, and the life that had lain torpid began to stretch itself. One day, when my axe had come off and I had cut a green hickory for a wedge, driving it with a stone, and had placed the whole to soak in a pond-hole in order to swell the wood, I saw a striped snake run into the water, and he lay on the bottom, apparently without inconvenience, as long as I stayed there, or more than a quarter of an hour; perhaps because he had not yet fairly come out of the torpid state. It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and more ethereal life. I had previously seen the snakes in frosty mornings in my path with portions of their bodies still numb and inflexible, waiting for the sun to thaw them. On the 1st of April it rained and melted the ice, and in the early part of the day, which was very foggy, I heard a stray goose groping about over the pond and cackling as if lost, or like the spirit of the fog. Channing had written Thoreau and said, "I see nothing for you in this earth but that field which I once christened "Briars"; go out upon that, build yourself a hut, and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive." Emerson had purchased that eleven-acre briar field and then had been persuaded to buy the adjoining three acres of woods.

Two contemporary drawings of Thoreau's house differ quite a bit in its location; one showing it out in a flat field near the road, with no lake in sight, and the other showing it high on the bank of the pond, under the trees. Although both drawings show areas near the pond correctly, the cabin was neither on a bank or in the field, as can be inferred by carefully reading Thoreau's text. Thoreau also marked its location on his map. The actual cabin site has been located; check the story of my visit to the pond to see the exact location.

Thoreau uses the snake to bring up the theme with which he will end Walden, that man has a higher nature that can be aroused by what he calls here "the spring of springs."

Note that Walden begins and ends in the spring for symbolic reasons (while he did start work on his house in the spring, he moved out in September).

So I went on for some days cutting and hewing timber, and also studs and rafters, all with my narrow axe, not having many communicable or scholar-like thoughts, singing to myself,

    Men say they know many things;
    But lo! they have taken wings --
    The arts and sciences,
    And a thousand appliances;
    The wind that blows
    Is all that anybody knows.

I hewed the main timbers six inches square, most of the studs on two sides only, and the rafters and floor timbers on one side, leaving the rest of the bark on, so that they were just as straight and much stronger than sawed ones. Each stick was carefully mortised or tenoned by its stump, for I had borrowed other tools by this time. My days in the woods were not very long ones; yet I usually carried my dinner of bread and butter, and read the newspaper in which it was wrapped, at noon, sitting amid the green pine boughs which I had cut off, and to my bread was imparted some of their fragrance, for my hands were covered with a thick coat of pitch. Before I had done I was more the friend than the foe of the pine tree, though I had cut down some of them, having become better acquainted with it. Sometimes a rambler in the wood was attracted by the sound of my axe, and we chatted pleasantly over the chips which I had made.

This is Thoreau's own poem. It makes me think of Bob Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind." Thoreau's poetry was generally fuzzy and lacked the bite of his prose. The same is true of the verses he uses from other writers. I think A. E. Houseman and Dylan Thomas later wrote poetry that matches the power of Thoreau's prose.

This is a good opportunity to point out Thoreau's pose style as well. Notice how the paragraph rambles about what he did during those days, mentioning details about house-building, eating lunch, and pausing for conversation, not a complete or even coherent view of his activities. But Thoreau is not making a spreadsheet; he is painting a picture, and he is mentioning details and words based on their emotional impact. The result is very much like poetry, even though in the form of prose.

By the middle of April, for I made no haste in my work, but rather made the most of it, my house was framed and ready for the raising. I had already bought the shanty of James Collins, an Irishman who worked on the Fitchburg Railroad, for boards. James Collins' shanty was considered an uncommonly fine one. When I called to see it he was not at home. I walked about the outside, at first unobserved from within, the window was so deep and high. It was of small dimensions, with a peaked cottage roof, and not much else to be seen, the dirt being raised five feet all around as if it were a compost heap. The roof was the soundest part, though a good deal warped and made brittle by the sun. Doorsill there was none, but a perennial passage for the hens under the door-board. Mrs. C. came to the door and asked me to view it from the inside. The hens were driven in by my approach. It was dark, and had a dirt floor for the most part, dank, clammy, and aguish, only here a board and there a board which would not bear removal. She lighted a lamp to show me the inside of the roof and the walls, and also that the board floor extended under the bed, warning me not to step into the cellar, a sort of dust hole two feet deep. In her own words, they were "good boards overhead, good boards all around, and a good window" -- of two whole squares originally, only the cat had passed out that way lately. There was a stove, a bed, and a place to sit, an infant in the house where it was born, a silk parasol, gilt-framed looking-glass, and a patent new coffee-mill nailed to an oak sapling, all told. The bargain was soon concluded, for James had in the meanwhile returned. I to pay four dollars and twenty-five cents tonight, he to vacate at five tomorrow morning, selling to nobody else meanwhile: I to take possession at six. It were well, he said, to be there early, and anticipate certain indistinct but wholly unjust claims on the score of ground rent and fuel. This he assured me was the only encumbrance. At six I passed him and his family on the road. One large bundle held their all -- bed, coffee-mill, looking-glass, hens -- all but the cat, she took to the woods and became a wild cat, and, as I learned afterward, trod in a trap set for woodchucks, and so became a dead cat at last. The walls of the house were constructed on the ground and then raised into place; houses are still sometimes built this way; my cabin was built this way.

Besides telling an interesting story, this account of visiting the Collin's shanty shows how poorly a small house can be built. The statement that it was "an uncommonly fine one" is ironic considering its condition and its price. The damp dirt floor, likely to cause a fever or ague, the hens running around and undoubtably leaving droppings, the dark interiors, requiring the use of a lamp even in the day time, the broken window, allowing cold weather to enter, the dirt heaped around, which would allow termites to enter the wood, and the shade-less location of the house, which would cause it to be hot in the summer, all demonstrate poor design that could lead to poor health.

One of Thoreau's goals is to convert the poor to a more sensible lifestyle. He will discuss the poor again in "Economy" and discuss them at length in "Baker Farm."

Considering the fact that someone had tossed it out the window, it's easy to understand why the cat ran away, if it was not abandoned.

I took down this dwelling the same morning, drawing the nails, and removed it to the pond-side by small cartloads, spreading the boards on the grass there to bleach and warp back again in the sun. One early thrush gave me a note or two as I drove along the woodland path. I was informed treacherously by a young Patrick that neighbor Seeley, an Irishman, in the intervals of the carting, transferred the still tolerable, straight, and drivable nails, staples, and spikes to his pocket, and then stood when I came back to pass the time of day, and look freshly up, unconcerned, with spring thoughts, at the devastation; there being a dearth of work, as he said. He was there to represent spectatordom, and help make this seemingly insignificant event one with the removal of the gods of Troy. Notice that here and elsewhere, Thoreau does not hesitate to compare events in his life with profound historical events elsewhere. Of course, there is deliberate humor involved in a comparison of the demolition of the Collin's shanty and the demolition of Troy.
I dug my cellar in the side of a hill sloping to the south, where a woodchuck had formerly dug his burrow, down through sumach and blackberry roots, and the lowest stain of vegetation, six feet square by seven deep, to a fine sand where potatoes would not freeze in any winter. The sides were left shelving, and not stoned; but the sun having never shone on them, the sand still keeps its place. It was but two hours' work. I took particular pleasure in this breaking of ground, for in almost all latitudes men dig into the earth for an equable temperature. Under the most splendid house in the city is still to be found the cellar where they store their roots as of old, and long after the superstructure has disappeared posterity remark its dent in the earth. The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow. There is still a mark in the ground where this cellar was located.

The cellar served as a natural refrigerator, keeping produce at the temperature of the ground and protecting it from the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter.

At length, in the beginning of May, with the help of some of my acquaintances, rather to improve so good an occasion for neighborliness than from any necessity, I set up the frame of my house. No man was ever more honored in the character of his raisers than I. They are destined, I trust, to assist at the raising of loftier structures one day. I began to occupy my house on the 4th of July, as soon as it was boarded and roofed, for the boards were carefully feather-edged and lapped, so that it was perfectly impervious to rain, but before boarding I laid the foundation of a chimney at one end, bringing two cartloads of stones up the hill from the pond in my arms. I built the chimney after my hoeing in the fall, before a fire became necessary for warmth, doing my cooking in the meanwhile out of doors on the ground, early in the morning: which mode I still think is in some respects more convenient and agreeable than the usual one. When it stormed before my bread was baked, I fixed a few boards over the fire, and sat under them to watch my loaf, and passed some pleasant hours in that way. In those days, when my hands were much employed, I read but little, but the least scraps of paper which lay on the ground, my holder, or tablecloth, afforded me as much entertainment, in fact answered the same purpose as the Iliad. Thoreau was not exaggerating about his helpers. All were close friends, and four achieved fame. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a famous and successful speaker, poet, and author, and almost a father to the transcendental movement. Amos Bronson Alcott was a poet and author, and had experimented with communal living at Brook Farm and Fruitlands. His daughter, Louisa May Alcott, later achieved greater fame. Ellery Channing spent more time with Thoreau than with his wife, had also lived in a cabin alone, and later wrote a biography of Thoreau. George William Curtis later became a famous editor and helped found the Republican Party.
It would be worth the while to build still more deliberately than I did, considering, for instance, what foundation a door, a window, a cellar, a garret, have in the nature of man, and perchance never raising any superstructure until we found a better reason for it than our temporal necessities even. There is some of the same fitness in a man's building his own house that there is in a bird's building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas! we do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveller with their chattering and unmusical notes. Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter? What does architecture amount to in the experience of the mass of men? I never in all my walks came across a man engaged in so simple and natural an occupation as building his house. We belong to the community. It is not the tailor alone who is the ninth part of a man; it is as much the preacher, and the merchant, and the farmer. Where is this division of labor to end? and what object does it finally serve? No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself. This concept of self-sufficiency is, of course, the exact opposite of consumerism. Because we do not design and produce for ourselves, we are forced to spend our lives living in other people's houses and wearing other people's clothes. When I was designing and building my own beehives, saving considerable money and improving the management of my bees at the same time, a friend objected because I was not using standard parts and thus would not be able to sell my beehives someday. But I pointed out to him that I could only get $10 to $20 per hive, and only then after considerable work, and I was saving more than that by building them to my design. There is no greater satisfaction that designing and making your own house, clothes, software, and equipment.
True, there are architects so called in this country, and I have heard of one at least possessed with the idea of making architectural ornaments have a core of truth, a necessity, and hence a beauty, as if it were a revelation to him. All very well perhaps from his point of view, but only a little better than the common dilettantism. A sentimental reformer in architecture, he began at the cornice, not at the foundation. It was only how to put a core of truth within the ornaments, that every sugarplum, in fact, might have an almond or caraway seed in it -- though I hold that almonds are most wholesome without the sugar -- and not how the inhabitant, the indweller, might build truly within and without, and let the ornaments take care of themselves. What reasonable man ever supposed that ornaments were something outward and in the skin merely -- that the tortoise got his spotted shell, or the shell-fish its mother-o'-pearl tints, by such a contract as the inhabitants of Broadway their Trinity Church? But a man has no more to do with the style of architecture of his house than a tortoise with that of its shell: nor need the soldier be so idle as to try to paint the precise color of his virtue on his standard. The enemy will find it out. He may turn pale when the trial comes. This man seemed to me to lean over the cornice, and timidly whisper his half truth to the rude occupants who really knew it better than he. What of architectural beauty I now see, I know has gradually grown from within outward, out of the necessities and character of the indweller, who is the only builder -- out of some unconscious truthfulness, and nobleness, without ever a thought for the appearance and whatever additional beauty of this kind is destined to be produced will be preceded by a like unconscious beauty of life. The most interesting dwellings in this country, as the painter knows, are the most unpretending, humble log huts and cottages of the poor commonly; it is the life of the inhabitants whose shells they are, and not any peculiarity in their surfaces merely, which makes them picturesque; and equally interesting will be the citizen's suburban box, when his life shall be as simple and as agreeable to the imagination, and there is as little straining after effect in the style of his dwelling. A great proportion of architectural ornaments are literally hollow, and a September gale would strip them off, like borrowed plumes, without injury to the substantials. They can do without architecture who have no olives nor wines in the cellar. What if an equal ado were made about the ornaments of style in literature, and the architects of our bibles spent as much time about their cornices as the architects of our churches do? So are made the belles-lettres and the beaux-arts and their professors. Much it concerns a man, forsooth, how a few sticks are slanted over him or under him, and what colors are daubed upon his box. It would signify somewhat, if, in any earnest sense, he slanted them and daubed it; but the spirit having departed out of the tenant, it is of a piece with constructing his own coffin -- the architecture of the grave -- and "carpenter" is but another name for "coffin-maker." One man says, in his despair or indifference to life, take up a handful of the earth at your feet, and paint your house that color. Is he thinking of his last and narrow house? Toss up a copper for it as well. What an abundance of leisure be must have! Why do you take up a handful of dirt? Better paint your house your own complexion; let it turn pale or blush for you. An enterprise to improve the style of cottage architecture! When you have got my ornaments ready, I will wear them. Thoreau disagrees with the idea of making the ornaments have "a core of truth" because he sees no value in the ornaments. To him, a beautiful building is not one with a lot of fancy embellishments but one that has been designed from the foundation up to fit its purpose. True beauty comes from function rather than from ornamentation.

His rant here impressed some later architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright and helped influence modern architecture. One only wishes he had influenced it more.

Thoreau, through the introduction of a turtle, brings the idea of house design and personal character together, a deliberate confusion that he retains until the end of the paragraph. In fact he states that architectural beauty grows out of the character of the home dweller and says that the only real beauty that he finds was unconsciously produced, with the most humble houses being the most beautiful.

He also uses this opportunity to criticize other deliberate attempts at beauty in literature. True beauty in literature comes from form and function being closely aligned, not from some artificial process.

And the same is true of our own lives. We can't make them beautiful by artifice. It's much more sensible to focus on making them worthwhile.

Before winter I built a chimney, and shingled the sides of my house, which were already impervious to rain, with imperfect and sappy shingles made of the first slice of the log, whose edges I was obliged to straighten with a plane. Wedge-shaped shingles were made by splitting short sections of log. He straightened the sides so they would fit closely together.
I have thus a tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long, and eight-feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on each side, two trap-doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite. The exact cost of my house, paying the usual price for such materials as I used, but not counting the work, all of which was done by myself, was as follows; and I give the details because very few are able to tell exactly what their houses cost, and fewer still, if any, the separate cost of the various materials which compose them:

Boards . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $ 8.03½ (mostly shanty boards.)
Refuse shingles for roof and sides . . .    4.00
Laths . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .    1.25
Two second-hand windows with glass .    2.43
One thousand old brick . . . . . . . . . . . .    4.00
Two casks of lime . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .    2.35 (That was high.)
Hair . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .    0.31 (More than I needed.)
Mantle-tree iron . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .    0.15
Nails . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .    3.90
Hinges and screws . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .    0.14
Latch . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .    0.10
Chalk . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .    0.01
Transportation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .    1.35 (I carried a good part on my back.)
In all . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $28.12½
Thoreau's cost of $28.12½, of course, is in 1845 money. In a following paragraph, Thoreau states that a dollar a day was the normal wages for a working man; we have the expression "another day, another dollar" as a result of those wages remaining the same over a long period of time. We could use different figures for a working man's wages today, from a little above $5 an hour to something like $12 an hour, or $40 to $100 a day. Multiplying Thoreau's cost for his cabin by 40 and 100 yields an equivalent cost of from $1,125 to $2,812.50, which is within the ballpark of what such a cabin would cost today, using modern materials and using Low-Cost, Owner-Built Homes as a guide, as I did. Of course, it could also cost far more than that, if the owner was so disposed.
These are all the materials, excepting the timber, stones, and sand, which I claimed by squatter's right. I have also a small woodshed adjoining, made chiefly of the stuff which was left after building the house. A squatter is someone who lives on property without legal authority; after living there long enough, the person can acquire legal rights. Thoreau was not a squatter, as he had made an agreement with Emerson.
I intend to build me a house which will surpass any on the main street in Concord in grandeur and luxury, as soon as it pleases me as much and will cost me no more than my present one. Concord had many large houses, and Thoreau helped build some of them. Of course, Thoreau's boast is not literal.
I thus found that the student who wishes for a shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually. If I seem to boast more than is becoming, my excuse is that I brag for humanity rather than for myself; and my shortcomings and inconsistencies do not affect the truth of my statement. Notwithstanding much cant and hypocrisy -- chaff which I find it difficult to separate from my wheat, but for which I am as sorry as any man -- I will breathe freely and stretch myself in this respect, it is such a relief to both the moral and physical system; and I am resolved that I will not through humility become the devil's attorney. I will endeavor to speak a good word for the truth. At Cambridge College the mere rent of a student's room, which is only a little larger than my own, is thirty dollars each year, though the corporation had the advantage of building thirty-two side by side and under one roof, and the occupant suffers the inconvenience of many and noisy neighbors, and perhaps a residence in the fourth story. I cannot but think that if we had more true wisdom in these respects, not only less education would be needed, because, forsooth, more would already have been acquired, but the pecuniary expense of getting an education would in a great measure vanish. Those conveniences which the student requires at Cambridge or elsewhere cost him or somebody else ten times as great a sacrifice of life as they would with proper management on both sides. Those things for which the most money is demanded are never the things which the student most wants. Tuition, for instance, is an important item in the term bill, while for the far more valuable education which he gets by associating with the most cultivated of his contemporaries no charge is made. The mode of founding a college is, commonly, to get up a subscription of dollars and cents, and then, following blindly the principles of a division of labor to its extreme -- a principle which should never be followed but with circumspection -- to call in a contractor who makes this a subject of speculation, and he employs Irishmen or other operatives actually to lay the foundations, while the students that are to be are said to be fitting themselves for it; and for these oversights successive generations have to pay. I think that it would be better than this, for the students, or those who desire to be benefited by it, even to lay the foundation themselves. The student who secures his coveted leisure and retirement by systematically shirking any labor necessary to man obtains but an ignoble and unprofitable leisure, defrauding himself of the experience which alone can make leisure fruitful. "But," says one, "you do not mean that the students should go to work with their hands instead of their heads?" I do not mean that exactly, but I mean something which he might think a good deal like that; I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? Methinks this would exercise their minds as much as mathematics. If I wished a boy to know something about the arts and sciences, for instance, I would not pursue the common course, which is merely to send him into the neighborhood of some professor, where anything is professed and practised but the art of life; -- to survey the world through a telescope or a microscope, and never with his natural eye; to study chemistry, and not learn how his bread is made, or mechanics, and not learn how it is earned; to discover new satellites to Neptune, and not detect the motes in his eyes, or to what vagabond he is a satellite himself; or to be devoured by the monsters that swarm all around him, while contemplating the monsters in a drop of vinegar. Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month, -- the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this, -- or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the meanwhile, and had received a Rodgers penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers? . . . . To my astonishment I was informed on leaving college that I had studied navigation! -- why, if I had taken one turn down the harbor I should have known more about it. Even the poor student studies and is taught only political economy, while that economy of living which is synonymous with philosophy is not even sincerely professed in our colleges. The consequence is, that while he is reading Adam Smith, Ricardo, and Say, he runs his father in debt irretrievably. The cost of Thoreau's house is similar to the cost of his college room, so he shifts into the new topic.

Before getting started, Thoreau adds a caution that his personal shortcomings don't affect the truths he points out. That is, he is not saying, "This is what I can do but only because I'm so exceptional" but "This is what I did, and anyone can do the same thing, because I share the same faults as everyone else." He acknowledges a problem with his own "cant" and "hypocracy"; "cant" being high enthusiasm for things one doesn't really believe and "hypocracy" pretending to virtues one doesn't possess.

He might be somewhat apologetic about criticizing his college. Another purpose might be to say, "Look, even if you think I'm full of bull, pay careful attention to this application of my experiment to an important issue."

He points out that his house cost less than a year's rent at college, even though his college room was only a little larger and a lot less nice to live in. Thoreau doesn't add the problem of a roommate.

Thoreau and his family struggled to meet his college expenses, so the complaint is based on experience.

Thoreau, in criticizing the college, attacks the whole capitalist system, pointing out that the division of labor by which we do things is quite often the most expensive rather than the cheapest method. Rather than seeing socialism as an answer, as even some of his fellow transcendentalists did, Thoreau sees self-sufficiency as a solution. The students could build their own quarters at an lower cost and to greater profit. In fact, the students lose thrice: first, they have the extra expense, second, they experience idle leisure, and third, they don't gain practical experience.

Thoreau then launches into an attack on the theoretical type of learning that students engage in (this emphasis on theory, to the exclusion of anything practical, is still more likely to be the rule rather than the exception today). Students are very likely unable to apply their theoretical learning to practical issues, such as applying economic theory to their personal economics.

In teaching school, Thoreau practiced what he preached, for instance, taking the children into the woods to study biology.

Adam Smith, Ricardo, and Say were leading economists of that time and advocates of the capitalistic system that Thoreau criticizes. Adam Smith is the economist who first advocated (in 1776) that nations do nothing to restrict or influence free trade, a policy that Ronald Reagan much later took to heart.

As with our colleges, so with a hundred "modern improvements"; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. The devil goes on exacting compound interest to the last for his early share and numerous succeeding investments in them. Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough. After all, the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages; he is not an evangelist, nor does he come round eating locusts and wild honey. I doubt if Flying Childers ever carried a peck of corn to mill. Thoreau is not opposed to all materistic progress, but he sees it as often blocking or substituting for intellectual and spiritual progress. It makes no sense to get where you're going quicker if you have no good reason to go there.

The Internet demonstrates the same problem today. While the Internet has great potential for education and communication, many see it as a cash cow for get-rich schemes, questionable services, photos of sex acts, stock speculational, sales, and trivia. The many worthwhile discussions on the net are greatly outnumbered by the junk.

The "tunnel" under the Atlantic is the Atlantic cable; attempts to lay it were unsuccessful until after Thoreau's death. Flying Childers was a race horse.

One says to me, "I wonder that you do not lay up money; you love to travel; you might take the cars and go to Fitchburg today and see the country." But I am wiser than that. I have learned that the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot. I say to my friend, Suppose we try who will get there first. The distance is thirty miles; the fare ninety cents. That is almost a day's wages. I remember when wages were sixty cents a day for laborers on this very road. Well, I start now on foot, and get there before night; I have travelled at that rate by the week together. You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there some time to-morrow, or possibly this evening, if you are lucky enough to get a job in season. Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day. And so, if the railroad reached round the world, I think that I should keep ahead of you; and as for seeing the country and getting experience of that kind, I should have to cut your acquaintance altogether. People see the automobile as the quickest form of transportation today, but that is because they do not include the time they spend on the car and the time they spend earning money to drive the car. Also, there are many hidden and indirect costs that are difficult to even calculate. Traveling by bicycle is faster than driving a car if all the costs are considered and counted as time and, with the same consideration, walking is almost as fast as driving within the downtown area. This doesn't include, of course, the health benefits and the enjoyment involved.
Such is the universal law, which no man can ever outwit, and with regard to the railroad even we may say it is as broad as it is long. To make a railroad round the world available to all mankind is equivalent to grading the whole surface of the planet. Men have an indistinct notion that if they keep up this activity of joint stocks and spades long enough all will at length ride somewhere, in next to no time, and for nothing; but though a crowd rushes to the depot, and the conductor shouts "All aboard!" when the smoke is blown away and the vapor condensed, it will be perceived that a few are riding, but the rest are run over, -- and it will be called, and will be, "A melancholy accident." No doubt they can ride at last who shall have earned their fare, that is, if they survive so long, but they will probably have lost their elasticity and desire to travel by that time. This spending of the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once. "What!" exclaim a million Irishmen starting up from all the shanties in the land, "is not this railroad which we have built a good thing?" Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is, you might have done worse; but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt. The paradox is that all of our modern improvements don't improve. It has been demonstrated time and again that computers do not improve the productivity of the work place, in spite of trillions of dollars invested. Houses are no cheaper and not much better today than in Thoreau's day. People can travel long distances in short periods of time due to airlines, but very few have both the time and the money to make such trips. People love their automobiles and complain about high taxes, but they ignore the high costs and hidden tax subsidies, the health problems (created by a sedentary lifestyle), and the enormous enviromental cost ("grading the whole surface of the planet") of our automobile culture. They still tend to think that they will "ride somewhere, in next to no time, and for nothing." If we were wiser, we would see these shortcomings and respond accordingly.
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WALDEN: | House Warming | Former Inhabitants | Winter Animals | The Pond in Winter | Spring | Conclusion | | Copyright © 2000 Ken Kifer | Changed a paragraph, January 22, 2002