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  • Ken Ilgunas

The relevance of Henry David Thoreau

[Daniel Vollaro, a professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, is interviewing subjects for a book he’s writing about Thoreau’s impact on 21st Century American culture. Below I’ve listed his questions and my answers.]

How did you become interested in Thoreau?

I can’t remember when exactly I became interested in Thoreau. He wasn’t assigned in high school or college. I think I was coming across his name in other books I respected, like Into the Wild. In my early twenties I had this unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I wanted to watch every important movie and read every important book, so his writings were just part of a long list of stuff I wanted to consume.

Can you describe your first encounter with Thoreauvian ideas?

That’s a tough one to answer. Aren’t Thoreauvian ideals already a part of the American subconsciousness? Even if we never read Thoreau, our culture can’t help but acquaint us with Thoreau’s values. More than often, we become aware of the practice of civil disobedience without knowing about Thoreau’s seminal essay on the subject. We look at nature reverently and romantically because of Thoreau’s and other romanticists’ nature writings. So I think I was probably “Thoreauvian” well before I first heard about Thoreau.

But to answer your question more concretely, I was around 22. It was the perfect time for me to be exposed to Thoreau. To have been introduced to him in high school or college would have been premature because I just didn’t have the life experiences that would have made his writings relevant to me. Later on, in my early twenties, Thoreau became relevant. I was heavily in debt, I’d been working as a cart pusher for the Home Depot, and I was beginning to get really suspicious of the consumerist culture and overly-suburbanized landscape around me. My work was soulless, my life was nature-less, and my bank account was nearly money-less. Thoreau’s book would speak to all of these issues. Thoreau, to me, wasn’t quite an epiphany or some ground-breaking discovery. I’d been thinking about a lot of the stuff he had written about on my own, so, more than anything, he helped put words to thoughts, validated my own critical observations, and simply made me feel less alone. Walden has inspired many imitators, many of them cabin builders of one kind or another. Your Thoreauvian adventure is unique. Can you explain how “Walden” made its way into the title of your book? Inspiration to live in my van came from a few places. When I worked up in Alaska for a few summers, I met people who were living in their vehicles or in small cabins in semi-subsistence villages. Their examples showed me that there are other, more creative, and less expensive ways to live and house yourself.

Thoreau’s cabin experiment was another useful example of a creative housing arrangement, but he adds something else—an element of asceticism. An ascetic performs his or her act with a public context in mind. He shares his experience with the world. And that’s when you go from being a merely frugal person to an ascetic. An ascetic is someone who does something as a stunt. The stunt could also be for personal reasons, but there is always a public component to a stunt. And Thoreau, through his publishing and also by conducting his experiment so close to town, was participating in a very public act. He was a stuntman.

I think I was combining these clever Alaskans’ housing arrangements with Thoreau’s ascetic performance. In other words, I’d move into my van to live cheap, but I’d blog about my experience to hopefully say something that needed to be said about society.

Home in Wiseman, Alaska
Chevy Suburban, home to a man named James, who lived in this vehicle for six years in Coldfoot, Alaska.

As for “Walden” in my own book’s title (Walden on Wheels), I was really hesitant about including someone else’s book title within my own. And I was thinking about this when I was writing my book. I didn’t want to be constantly referencing or alluding to the writings and deeds of dead men. Too many writers do this. Their books have more quotations from dead men than their own ideas. I think we’re scared to publicize our own opinions. I think this fear comes from our educational backgrounds: when writing anything in college, we have to carefully study, reference, and quote other people. Later on, we feel this unhealthy compulsion to legitimize our thoughts by fitting them within some sort of intellectual legacy. To some extent, it’s admirable, even necessary, to acknowledge the shoulders of the giants we stand on, but too often do our voices get lost amid all these references to the people of the past. Some people go on journeys in homage of someone else’s journey, which is a bit crazy to me when we could, with a little more effort, do something no one has ever done. I’m pretty sure Thoreau wrote about this stuff. At least I knew Emerson did, who complained that our age is too retrospective. “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” Emerson wrote. So, yeah, because transcendentalists were writing about this stuff, I was especially hesitant about placing someone else’s title within my own when the whole point of my book was to be something new. But I suppose I thought the title, Walden on Wheels, sounded nice, and it was a lot better than my second-best idea—Vandweller.

Were you self consciously imitating Thoreau?

Not really, but before I committed to the van, I considered secretly building a hut in the woods. At one point I even considered building a little coffin, or underground “hutch,” and just living in that, inspired as I was with Thoreau’s passage about living in some such box. With the van, I suppose you could say it was more inspiration than imitation. While my experiment certainly had similarities with Thoreau’s, there were fundamental differences. Part of his experiment was living in nature, while I was living in a parking lot next to a busy main street. He was growing his own food and chopping his own wood, while I bought my food at grocery stores and enjoyed the indoor heating systems on campus. The main similarity was that Thoreau had done something ballsy, and I was in the mood to do something ballsy. If there was any imitation, it was that.

I think some people will read Walden on Wheels and be inspired to imitate what you did in some way. Was that your intention in writing the book? What do you hope readers will get out of it?

My intention was definitely not to start some sort of vandwelling movement, though I would have been happy to take credit if such a thing happened. My intention, rather, was to write a book that my 17-year-old self would have enjoyed and benefited from. And I suppose, with that in mind, I’d hoped other young men and women might get something out of it, too.

I’d recognized that my book was a book that needed to be written. For one, the country had a huge student debt (and general debt) problem, but not one book, up until mine, had been written from the student debtor’s perspective. That was crazy, considering that there were like 35 million student debtors. (Now there are 44 million.) Two, I think we needed another Into the Wild-type story (about a young person getting off the school-debt-career conveyor belt), but that didn’t end fatally and that was written from the protagonist’s point of view. And three, I thought people would benefit from living more freely, adventurously, and creatively, and I thought a book about an ordinary person who makes a few bold decisions that lead to even bolder decisions could provide a helpful example. Really, I wanted to do what Thoreau’s book did for me, which is to show that we can take our crazy ideas and turn them into realities.

My van, a 1994 Ford Econoline. Lived in from 2009 to 2011. RIP: 1994-2015

My book is about the influence of Thoreau in the 21st century. What can we learn from Thoreau in this age of smart phones and streaming television?

Much of what Thoreau has said has been absorbed into the greater culture or expanded upon by subsequent writers, naturalists, and environmental thinkers. So you could make the argument that Thoreau isn’t exactly “required reading.” Yet I think we all like to point to, and need, a rich intellectual legacy for our most beloved subjects. These intellectuals from the past give us the philosophical foundation which we can build on. And Thoreau, for many subjects, is the perfect foundation. He can be considered the dark-bearded sage for American naturalists, environmentalists, civil rights advocates, anti-consumerists, and right-to-roamers. Thoreau was a pro at crafting passages that can be quoted on postcards and calendars (or their future equivalent) for centuries. (Ex. “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth,” & “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”) This is a useful skill for somebody who wants their works to outlive himself.

On another note, it helps that he doesn’t have any serious blemishes on his moral resume. He is a safe figure for we moderns to adore. Thoreau was sympathetic to the plight of Native Americans, accommodating to runaway slaves, outspoken about environmental degradation, and prescient in forecasting the demise of America’s open roaming culture. He was a good friend and family man. If there are examples of him being racist or sexist or some other “ist,” they are few and not serious, at least compared to his contemporaries. Teddy Roosevelt did more to protect American nature, but he’s harder to celebrate for all the racism and warmongering. While Roosevelt, Muir, Whitman, Jefferson and most other thinkers have moral blemishes on their resumes, Thoreau has made it the to the 21st Century without alienating anybody. He’d fit in quite well here.

He lasts, too, because he was a man of action. He didn’t just discuss civil disobedience; he did it. He didn’t just condemn the materialistic lifestyle, he built a cabin in the woods and lived in it for two years. When a person has lived a life of action, they’re much more easy to romanticize and mythologize. Emerson was brilliant, and his essays “Self Reliance” and “Nature” are worth being immortalized, but Thoreau, more than Emerson, is a mythic figure — for the full and adventurous life he lived — which will make him, more than all of his literary peers, a figure for the ages.

Thoreau wrote about the bustle of an industrializing America. He wrote about the compulsion to keep pace with our neighbors in money and material items. He talked about conserving wildness and nature in a rapidly changing world. These things haven’t changed. In fact, they’ve gotten worse. Thoreau will only be forgotten and he will only become irrelevant when these things get fixed.

There was a practical side to Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond; he wanted to finish writing a book about his brother. Your motivations were also partially practical. What are the practical reasons for a person to “drop out” of a settled, mainstream existence in 21st century America?

I think there’s always a practical element even behind the most high-minded motivation. The most obvious benefit to a Thoreauvian existence is simply having more time to yourself. And something as simple as an ordinary existence severely limits how much time we have. An ordinary existence requires a house or an apartment, and that requires all the amenities of modern life, from heat, to air-conditioning, to Wi-Fi, etc. We’re then required to devote many hours of our day to working for a company, corporation, or organization in an office where we more than likely wouldn’t willfully choose to spend our time. More than often, such a job requires a vehicle. The sedentary lifestyle requires a gym membership. And all of a sudden we’re in this endless and inescapable cycle of work to pay for all these now-necessary things and keep the lights on. But turn the lights off, and forego all the usual comforts, and you no longer need to work as much, and you suddenly have so much more time for reading, writing, reflection, walking, sleeping, and all the things that, for me at least, matter most.

In your book, you mention Thoreau’s observations about how his neighbors hated the mundane drudgery of their lives, and yet, he was a person who enjoyed hard work and doing a job with integrity. Did your experience in the van make you reflect on the nature of work and its relationship to your life? To the lives of others?

The end goal for me is not to escape work and live a life of decadent leisure, but to create a set of conditions that enable me to do the work I really want to do. And I think this desire comes from a series of jobs I’ve had that made me routinely miserable. I’ve been a cashier, cart pusher, dishwasher, landscaper, ice skate sharpener, short order cook, tour guide, and motel cleaner. Usually I was underpaid and often my work was unappreciated.

I think I also felt, deep down, that the product of my work was ultimately unnecessary. I’ve spent a great deal of my working hours attending to the comforts of middle-to-upper class tourists. I’ve spent a great deal of time working for the fossil fuel industry, an industry I have no interest in supporting. Ultimately, if I didn’t exist and didn’t perform these tasks, the world would be no worse off.

My situation was not unusual. So many of us spend our days selling some cheap plastic piece of crap that will be used once, or some garment to someone who already has a closet full of unused clothes. Let’s face it, a great deal of the work we do serves no useful, substantial purpose whatsoever, and I think this is often felt, if unconsciously. And when we spend forty hours of the week doing it, it makes our lives feel a little bit more meaningless. Yes, we may be very meaningfully feeding our families from the wages we make selling that plastic piece of crap, but in the best of both worlds, we produce or sell something meaningful and use our earnings on something meaningful.

I consider myself a writer, but I also really enjoy the work of gardening, building fences and chicken coops, revitalizing soil, tending to an orchard and a flock of chickens. This is largely because these tasks, for me, existed outside the normal, company-based work routine in which we’re carefully monitored by superiors. Our break time is carefully measured. We work within a mostly uncaring corporate bureaucracy. We seldom get to enjoy or take part in the very products or services we’re providing. Our work is so unintegrated with our actual lives. Thoreau hoed his beans, chopped his wood, and built his own home, and I think there’s a deep and meaningful and unabstract pleasure that comes from seeing and enjoying and even tasting the fruits of our labors.

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Fall 2018 Speaking Schedule

(This will be updated with links and new events as they come.) Thur. Oct. 4, 7 p.m. – New England College (Henniker, NH) in the Great Room Fri. Oct. 5, 4:15 p.m. – Bates College (Lewiston, ME) Tue.

1 коментар

Nishant Sharma
Nishant Sharma
20 бер. 2023 р.

Thank you for writing this interview transcript. I am an English teacher to grade 9th-12th here in India. I agree that Thoreau is so much relevant even now. And the man even inspired Gandhi himself. Take care!

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