Experimental Ways of Living

Near the end of March, 1845, Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) took an axe into the woods near Concord, Massachusetts, and he built himself a cabin by a lake where he lived, on and off, for the next two years. He went into the woods for a number of reasons and in the book that he subsequently wrote about it he gave three of them. In Walden (1854), he said that he went into the woods looking for the seclusion to write a book about a river trip he had taken with his brother who had recently died, he went into the woods in order to live deliberately, and he went into the woods because he had got ready to go into the woods.

Walden is pretty hard to categorise or describe to someone who has not read it, and only once you have read the book do you properly understand the difficulty of describing what you just read. It is not a diary, as such, but it is a roughly chronological account of the experiences to be had living in the woods by a lake, and much of what he describes did happen to him whilst he lived there. But the time is telescoped into one narrative year and it does not in any event claim to be a true account of the particular two years that he spent in the woods.

And, importantly, although he is talking about living in the woods, that is not what he is really talking about at all. His real topic is the lives of the people who do not live in the woods. Going to the woods is a way of contrasting what Thoreau thought of as “modern life,” with its magnetic telegraph and steam trains and indoor plumbing and all, with the more fundamentally honest and pure mode of living to be had if we were only to look at life, the world, our environment, in a completely different way.

Walden is a philosophical enquiry about the nature of modernity and the benefit, if any, of living our lives as though we are tools in a capitalist machine. He gives a number of examples of people he meets whose lives are made miserable and hollow and without joy or pleasure of any kind purely because they view their life as an attempt to earn money.

One man he comes across lives in a shack on a small parcel of land with a wife and some children. The man goes out each day to a piece of land owned by someone else where he digs peat all day. The landowner pays him for the peat and he then goes home exhausted from a long day of hard manual labour with barely enough energy to do anything else and with barely enough money to feed his family. Thoreau points out, quite reasonably, that if the man stopped digging peat and grew crops on his own land and kept chickens and a hog he could feed his family for free. But the man won’t change, because he is scared of not having any money. He views freedom from poverty as being about how much money he has.

Thoreau, meanwhile, spends his day walking in the woods picking huckleberries and wild blackberries, fishing in the lake, harvesting wild honey, growing corn and beans and watching the squirrels playing in his woodpile. Just like the peat-digger, he doesn’t have any money, but neither does he spend eight hours a day digging peat so that someone else can make money out of it. Thoreau’s point was that neither man had any money, but they were not equally poor.

Walden is beautifully and lyrically written and is a joy to read but it is also a polemic consisting of long looping and rhetorically convoluted debates about the incomprehensible reasons why, to take one example, farmers work their whole life to pay off a mortgage on land that was essentially given away for free. The words themselves are simple, well-chosen and easily read but the thoughts they express are complex and require some work from the reader, work that is rewarded with political and economic arguments that are compelling but have ultimately failed to convince large numbers of people.

Later on I read another story about a person living on their own. Her name was Joyce Carol Vincent and she lived on her own in a housing estate in London, England. She did not intend to live on her own and she wasn’t doing it to prove a point and didn’t write a book about it, she just happened to be on her own. When the local council banged on her door to find out why her rent had not been paid they found her on the sofa, with the television flickering and just-wrapped Christmas presents gathered at her feet. She had been dead for three years, and no one had noticed.

Documentary film maker Carol Morley took an interest in the story and eventually made a film out of it. She spoke to Vincent’s friends and family, she met previous boyfriends, work colleagues, friends on the edge of the music industry through whom Vincent had met Stevie Wonder, punk legend Captain Sensible, American disco singer Judy Cheeks and the soul singer Betty Wright. Morley even unearthed a video of Vincent meeting Nelson Mandela when he came to London. So Vincent wasn’t a loner, she wasn’t one of those sad drug addicts no one wants to know or an angry drunk who drives their friends away, she just happened to be alone when she died, and no one noticed for three years.

The point that both of these stories are making is that if the world were in some way better, these things would not happen. If the world were a better place we wouldn’t have to dig peat for eight hours a day in order to feed our children and people with no friends would not die alone in their two-bedroom apartment in a tower block filled with strangers. In the language of the sixties, “Come the revolution, brother.”

This thought led me to a surprising piece of American poetry. Gilbert “Gil” Scott-Heron came from Chicago where he was born in 1949. His mother was an opera singer and his father was a football player, the first black man to play with Glasgow Celtic. His parents separated when he was seven and he went to live with his grandmother in Tennessee. She died when he was 12-years-old and he went to New York where he lived with his mother.

This broken childhood, is, I think, important, because his childhood taught him that there wasn’t anyone looking out for him and he had to take care of himself, and this made the adult Scott-Heron a self sufficient and somewhat bold and assertive person. He became a blues poet, speaking poetry over a musical accompaniment that incorporated elements of what would later become the rap and hip-hop styles of music.

One of his more famous pieces is a poem called, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1970). When I read the title the first thing I thought of was the Arab Spring appearing on Youtube videos and Twitter feeds and how the sanitised version of the news we see on television is only a very small portion of, and a highly politicised version of, the actual events. I thought about how we only got to see one side of the war in Syria, or the War in Vietnam. I thought about how, as a young man, I had watched the news of the troubles in Northern Ireland and how after a while I gradually realised that only one side in the conflict were getting to tell their story. What I imagined Scott-Heron saying was that when the revolution comes the media companies will not be showing those events on television because political forces will ensure that news of it is covered up. “They,” won’t allow it to be shown. When I actually read the lyrics of his poem I, not unnaturally, learned that he was saying something else altogether. The first verse says:

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised

Gil Scot-Heron (1970)

What follows is a long list of things the revolution will not be. It will not be sponsored by Xerox, or star Natalie Wood or Steve McQueen, NBC will not be able to predict the winner and there will be no signed pictures of Wilie May.

Eventually, I realised that what he was saying is that the life we are living is the revolution. The revolution is happening day by day, it is taking place and will continue to take place so that the modern life Thoreau railed against no longer exists and would today be considered old-fashioned hardship. Scott-Heron was saying that this is the revolution, you are in the throws of the revolution, always have been, always will be. And so it goes.

Which means that those two stories about what might happen in a better world, will not just organically happen in a better way, “come the revolution.” A better world will only let things like that not happen if we actively do something to create that better world. We can’t just sit back on cruise control watching the revolution taking place all around us hoping for a better world, wishing for a world where no one goes to work to make money for super-rich oligarchs with more money than they know how to count, unless we actually do something about it.

I don’t go to work and I don’t live in a house I built myself and my mother gave my fishing rod to a jumble sale so I haven’t caught a fish in thirty years. I don’t have a mobile phone or a Facebook account and can’t imagine ever saying anything in 140 characters on Twitter, but I am happy in a comfortably basic Thoreau-in-the-woods kind of way that doesn’t require constant consumerism to validate my life. So far, I have looked online and learned that to buy an axe would cost me fifty-three pounds. I have not actually bought an axe, much less walked to the woods to build a cabin with it, but I have read Walden (1854) and will know how to live when I get there, and I have come to realise that what Thoreau said to that man who was digging peat is as relevant to us today as it was in 1854. We can change the world by the way that we live from day to day and that everything we do, even the little things, picking huckleberries and buying books from Amazon, both matter and have consequences. We get the world that we make, for ourselves and for our future.

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