Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Thoreau Calculation

I was in college the first time I really read Thoreau, working my way through Walden when I suppose I should have been working my way through something else. I count those hours long ago as time well-spent, for Thoreau's empirical approach to the problem of making one's way in the world resonated with something in my nature. When I read:
There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.
I knew that being a professor of philosophy was not my goal or my calling. But this being a philosopher thing, that seemed like a good way to spend a life. In the intervening years I've lost track of many of my fellow students from those days but I like to think that some are mathematicians and some are carpenter's wives. I managed to leave the university with a degree that said I'd studied a fair bit of philosophy and somehow I've been good enough at solving certain kinds of problems to remain adequately fed and housed for the thirty years since I first read Walden.

The subject of Economy makes up the first chapter of Walden and pervades the work. The notion that I find the most persuasive in Thoreau's work is the calculation of the relative values of money and time. There is an exchange rate between the two and often we are tricked by haste into spending our time poorly. Thoreau illustrates the problem in the tale of a trip to Fitchburg:

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 tomorrow, 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.

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.

Now I, for one, am glad of the Irishmen (and others) who built those railroads for I was able to ride some of those rails across a great country more than a century after Mr. Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days living in cabin he had built on his friend Mr. Emerson's land. And I'm very glad that Mr. Thoreau took the time in those years to distill from his journals the work that became Walden and that work contained the wildness that preserved this section of the world. I was also glad that I was able to ride my bicycle to the shores of Walden Pond and to tread the same paths Mr. Thoreau trod many years before.

While some travel swiftly by foot, I have a fondness for the wheel and find the pleasure in the complexities of spokes and tires and chain and grease. I have found the bicycle to be a rewarding piece of machinery, asking little and returning much. Another philosopher, a Mr. Mercury, noted that "I like to ride my bicycle, I like to ride my bike. I like to ride my bicycle, I like to ride it where I like." Wise words.

In making Thoreau's calculation, figuring the best ways in which to spend our life's currency, the time we have been given, it is good to remember that Einstein tells us that time is relative. He stated this in general and special ways, in equations and very lovely mathematics. He also explained it this way:
“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity.”
We all build the world in which we live, our choices become our actions and inform our lives. I think some of my friends and relatives were surprised thirty years ago when I found the pretty girl who still makes the hours pass like minutes for me. Somehow they were thinking I was headed for a cabin by a pond in the woods but the value to me always seemed to be not in the cabin or the location, but in making the best choices with the time we have. I have now spent the better part of my life married to Christine and it has been, in every way, the better part of my life.

Thoreau wrote that:
"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."
I think that Thoreau's enduring value lies not in the answers he found, but in the questions he asked. A bicycle is more complex than a walking shoe and being married is, as most folks will agree, more complex than being single, but ultimately the wisest thing we can do is spend our time, our treasure, with the people we most value, doing the things we value most. Thoreau's life would have been simpler if he'd chosen not to spend so much time writing in those journals, but the world would be a poorer place if he had.

I do not live a solitary life in a cabin by a lake. My Walden has wheels and I hold hands with the woman I love when we get off our bicycles and hike on trails that are new to us and try to solve the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


kfg said...

"I do not live a solitary life in a cabin by a lake."

Neither did Mr. Thoreau. He lived just solitary enough.

It was noted in the introduction to a popular book club edition of Moby Dick that Melville (although living in a city) was a true solitary, not a half and half solitary like Thoreau.

But as Mr. Einstein also said, "We should make things as simple as possible, but not simpler." If we make our lives so simple that we become true solitarys then there will be no huckleberry partys.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Philosophy and bikes, together as they should be :)

Sarah said...

Another group of wise men wrote,

"Well it's alright, riding around in the breeze
Well it's all right, if you live the life you please."

I concur with your sentiments; your post was moving.

Vertigo said...

A very beautiful post. I have biked to Walden a few times, so I understood what you wrote.

Invisible Man said...


That's a beautiful post. I recently tried to explain some of my more reflective thoughts about why I cycle here - . I probably don't do it as prettily as you, however,

The Velo Hobo said...

Thoreau's calculation would be more difficult today. Today we can travel on credit (we can even “credit card tour” ~ imagine that). Why save up for a trip when we can travel now and pay later? With only the smallest of compounded interest rates of course.

With the illusion of traveling on someone else’s money and the delusion of “oh I’ll pay that bill as soon as it comes in the mail” we can explore the world in style and comfort.

Great post, Jack

JuliaR said...

Perfectly poetical post, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Very nicely written.
It seems that not only can you solve problems you can write pretty darn good too!
Alway enjoy your blog but this post is one of the best you've written.

Cecil "Zeke" Yount said...

You often speak of how lucky you are to have Christine in your life. I bet she feels equally as lucky to have you in hers. Another great post that gets me to thinking...


Doug said...

So well written. Thank you for this post.

Ted said...

I rode a motorcycle to Walden pond and took a solitary skinny dip near the site of Thoreau's cabin when nobody was around.

As a lifelong fan of Thoreau, I envy that you traveled there by bike.

The passage you quote is very similar to the sentiments I have expressed several times over on "Commute by Bike."

See: "The Selfishness of the Winter Bike Commuter"

When you walk or bike somewhere, you are done getting there when you arrive. Motorized forms of transportation require that you continue working to get there long after you have arrived.

Sam Joslin said...

He did not ride a bicycle, but, given the gist of the thing, one believes he could have explained how best to ride it.