Henry David Thoreau’s residency, starting in 1845, in a 10-by-15-foot shack next to Walden Pond for two years, two months, and two days is generally considered by scholars as a publicity stunt, or perhaps the first example of performance art. Yes, he built it with his own hands (and 28 dollars, 12½ cents worth of materials); yes, he grew his own beans and corn — but there is evidence that he might have brought his laundry home to his mother and picked up a few free meals in town.
So, what was his point? Build a small house: “…exercise a little Yankee shrewdness … Consider how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary….”
Oh, would the man be spinning in his early grave if he could see the world we live in now. (So would our own Harry Kemp, who lived for a time in a converted chicken coop out on the dunes.)
These thoughts occur to me as my dog and I walk past many large and vacant houses this rainy February day in the East End of Provincetown. Through the windows of a few I can see the covered furniture piled up, waiting for the fair-weather inhabitants or renters to return in a few months. These were not the houses Thoreau saw when he visited Provincetown in 1849, 1850, and 1855. He describes modest dwellings surrounded by fish flakes or drying racks. I am sure he could not have imagined the tourist economy and the incredible appeal of coastal living in what he described as “wild and unkempt” surroundings, “wholly unknown to the fashionable world.”
It is not just the trophy houses that are large. In my immediate neighborhood, three of my neighbors have recently or are currently enlarging their houses, and another is planning to do the same; around the corner, two more houses are expanding. These expansions require more raw materials (lumber is wood, after all, which comes from trees that grew somewhere), and will eventually require more energy to heat and cool and light them. In the face of the growing threat of climate change, we rightly focus on recycling and other incidentals, but have more trouble facing the effects of our basic activities: shelter and food and transportation.
It is not just Provincetown and the Cape: since 1950 the average size of a single-family house has tripled, even as family size has basically leveled off. It is not just the rich (the Obama family, by the way, just purchased a $15 million property on Martha’s Vineyard), but all of us expanding our carbon footprints when we can. I probably would do the same, if I had the means.
So what is my point?
I am not sure. Thoreau, like Jesus, or Benjamin Franklin, or Karl Marx (or Jon Stewart), can be a guide to living a good life, but we also need to look at things in context. Thoreau could not have comprehended the enormous wealth in this country today, not to mention the financial dynamics of home ownership. Any investment in property on the Cape is probably well worth it — for the time being. He talked of people’s houses keeping them “poor as long as they live.” He was also aware of income inequality, describing the dirt-floored shanties of poor Irish laborers, but could he have envisioned the dangerous extremes of today? He is sometimes referred to as the father of the environmental movement, but it would be unfair to expect him to have foreseen the climate disaster that is barreling its way towards us.
No, we have to go it on our own. We need to home in on those aspects of our lives that will be most rewarding, to ourselves, to others, to the planet. We need to love, to get serious, and have a good time. We need to avoid a lot of extraneous, distracting, and soul-destructive nonsense.
“Our life is frittered away by detail,” Thoreau wrote. “Simplify, simplify.”