Survival Insights of an American Genius, by Wayne M. Thomas

Many people remember the book Walden as the story of a hermit living in a hut who survived on twigs and berries in the Concord, Massachusetts woods. Its author, Henry David Thoreau, was no hermit, but a survivalist and philosopher who personified the best of American values of self-reliance, simplicity, love of the land, individualism and defense of personal liberty against governmental overreaching.
He lived simply on Walden Pond from 1845-1847 without a GPS, iPod, iPhone, laptop or wi-fi.. Long before we developed a dependence on electronic devices, Thoreau defined some first principles for personal autonomy and survival. We find them in Walden, his gift of essential life strategies that we ought to re-learn before stuffing our G.O.O.D. bags and thinking that we have prepared ourselves to meet the Black Swans ahead. He would warn us today that we must not bet our lives on electronic survival devices because others control them and can jam them by the flick of a switch.

Thoreau’s EDC bag

This article lifts up seven of Thoreau’s survival principles that we can rely upon; that each of us can own at no cost, and which no government or terrorist can destruct. Think of these principles as the fabric of an indestructible carry bag large enough to stuff with all our plans and tools for personal survival.
Many surprises await us in the 2000s. This we know, but none of us knows the timing. Thus, we create short-term and long-term survival strategies. Thoreau’s principles are an overarching everyday strategy, holding that a life worth living depends upon remaining free and independent, living as autonomous men and women alert and able to confront, ignore, or go around obstacles in our way. The best survival strategy is to be always ready, but live well always.

The individual versus the world

“Simplify, simplify,” Thoreau repeated, and be certain that you have the essentials for life–food, shelter, fuel and clothing–under your control. Thoreau’s sojourn in Walden woods lasted two years, two months and two days in the cabin he built himself. It was no coincidence that his move-in date was the fourth of July. Thoreau explained, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Writing four hours a day on the shore of Walden Pond, he pondered how an individual could maintain his autonomy against a mighty government, powerful business interests and a growing trend to materialism. Just as in 1845, our politicians continue to grab power by making thousands of promises. What they deliver is trillion dollar debts and more promises. It is said that each of us now owns $2 million of government debt. (Have you budgeted for that?) In a cozy relationship with politicians, business spends billions coaxing us to buy things we do not need, that rarely perform as advertised and that often drag us under a pile of debt. Thoreau saw a way for an individual to get around these growing influences, and he spelled it out in Walden.

What’s essential; what’s not

To emphasize his points, he often wrote in extremes. For example, Thoreau defined anything non-essential to life as a “luxury.” While he succumbed to a few luxuries himself, Thoreau spent within his means by deciding his own balance of essentials and luxuries and then earned just enough to sustain it. He called this living “deliberately”, and it was the centerpiece of his life strategy. If he lived deliberately, he would not get into debt and therefore, not become enslaved by work to pay it off. Debt is more than dollars and cents because it represents the amount of life we must trade in work to pay it off. Time is money, and Thoreau became rich by acquiring it.

Thoreau enjoyed the work he did, but tried to work as little as possible. He believed that society had it all wrong about the role of work in life and said so in his Harvard graduation speech. People sat up in their seats as he declared that they had things backwards and that they should work just one day a week and have the other six to do what was important to them. This was no utopian dream. It is how he actually lived. Incidentally, I verified this with the Institute at Walden Woods.

Personal responsibility to do what’s right
Thoreau believed that each of us has an intuitive sense of morality, what is right and wrong. He held that we have a personal responsibility to uphold higher moral laws when they come into conflict with manufactured laws. Consequently, he had a personal theory of “nullification” of government law when it conflicted with moral law. He maintained that no government has any “pure right over my person or property but what I concede to it.” Thus he was philosophically consistent that as a good neighbor, he would train with the Concord militia because he chose to. However, he chose not to pay a tax to a government waging an unjust war in Mexico, and that cost him a night in jail.

Thoreau’s arrest inspired his world-famous essay Civil Disobedience where he proclaimed, “I heartily accept the motto, — ‘That government is best which governs least’; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.” Many people mistakenly limit Thoreau’s thinking to passive resistance. He railed against the government’s hanging of John Brown who raided the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry to arm slaves. Violence is not the preferred way to protest government policies, but as a last resort, Thoreau agreed with President Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Today few of us could replicate Thoreau’s life in a 10 x 15 foot cabin a mile from his closest neighbor. What we can do whether we live in New York City, Los Angeles, or in between is to think of Walden as a state of mind.

Walden’s principles and maxims are as relevant in 2012 as in 1853. In fact, times were remarkably similar to our world today. Global competition was common. Better quality German pencils nearly drove the Thoreau family pencil business under. The Panic of 1837 was as severe as our financial downturn today. A real estate bubble burst due to sub-prime lending, and real estate prices plummeted. Families lost jobs, spending power, and risked their savings as half the banks in America folded within weeks. The federal government, whose policies touched off the contagion, was growing in power and would continue piling on public debt. Even then, the U.S. government depended upon foreign countries to finance its operations.

As the nation entered the industrial revolution, Walden was Thoreau’s challenge to a society forgetting cultural values and practices of the first Americans such as self- reliance, thrift, and the importance of the family. Fortunately, those practices are coming back into style, as survivalists worldwide look to authentic sources such as Survival Blog to re-learn skills our consumer culture has forgotten. These tried and true skills together with the seven critical Thoreau principles taken from my book Walden Today combine to make us better prepared every day.

Thoreau’s Choices to Live Deliberately:

1. Be true to yourself.
In 1837, Thoreau was one of the first to identify societal pressure as the underlying motivation that drove people to consume more than they could pay for. As we know, Thoreau resisted pressure to conform; his brain thrummed to the beat of what he called a “different drummer.” He wrote, “No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof.” He urged us to think for ourselves– to believe nothing told us by church bureaucracy, government or acquaintances without first checking it out and deciding for ourselves. Nor had he any confidence in advice from his elders: “Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living.”
In life, we alone have the job of choosing what to believe, and how to act upon what we determine. Any lifestyle or work, no matter how humble or unconventional is a success–as long as it works for you. Thoreau adds, “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind…Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of others?” In other words, Thoreau exhorts us to question society’s
norms because the herd may understand an issue exactly backwards, often due to the influence of media. There are no do-overs in life, so do not waste time living up to someone else’s expectations.

2. Network to grow and thrive.

Thoreau had friends with diverse interests, and he networked well among them. His friends included some of America’s best thinkers including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman. Thoreau tested his ideas and stood his own ground against these thoughtful minds.

Thoreau’s relationship with Emerson brought him paid work as a tutor, handyman, lecturer, schoolteacher, and more. His friends sent him referrals in his surveying business because of his reputation for honesty and competence–attributes which never go out of demand. His love of nature connected him with famous Harvard botanist Louis Agassiz for whom he collected botanical specimens never before catalogued.
Networking is also the source of our family’s small business success. Former business associates provide almost all our new opportunities, while our church family remains a key source of Christian fellowship and education for our children.

3. Life is short, so enjoy it by living simply to stay free.
To live simply, Thoreau acquired the things that are “necessary to life.” He avoided most “luxuries,” those things that he perceived as constricting his freedom because of debt required to acquire them or the effort required to maintain them. He worried that collecting “stuff” would make him “a tool of his tools.” He thought it foolish to keep up with the proverbial Joneses. Doing so would distract him from his more
important activities and goals. In the bargain he remained autonomous by exchanging as little life as possible for possessions.

4. Become self-reliant: do it yourself.
The Thoreau family’s main source of income was the manufacture of lead pencils. Their product quality slipped over time and by the 1840s there were four pencil manufacturers within a few miles of the Thoreau factory. In a crowded market, and with an inferior product, the outlook for Thoreau pencils was grim. Young Henry came to the family’s rescue. Harvard never taught him chemistry, engineering, operations management or marketing—expertise that would be necessary for the Thoreaus to regain their market position. He learned all these disciplines on his own, and thought outside the box to create the country’s highest quality pencils. His innovations included a line of pencils new to the world numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4 for hardness—including the iconic #2 pencil we use today.
With so many resources available, we can learn to become a do-it-yourselfer at almost anything. Just painting your own home, for example, is a great way to save money, gain self-reliance, and involve the whole family in a satisfying accomplishment no matter their age or intellectual disadvantage. Even young children or the elderly can carry cool water to refresh family painters just as the first Americans did. A do-it-yourself attitude is not so common anymore in America. However, with the millions of weekly hits on practical skills articles and videos on the Web, and the rising cost of tradesmen, self-reliance is definitely coming back.

5. Adapt to changes in life by continually learning and trying new ideas.

Thoreau’s ideal was to remain autonomous and earn just enough to support himself.
Surveying and pencil making were his primary income sources; however he was flexible and humble enough to earn his living even by menial work. He wrote to a fellow graduate, “I am a Schoolmaster— a Private Tutor, a Surveyor–a Gardener, a Farmer—a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster [an unskilled poet].” He was also a consultant, lecturer and book author.

When he moved into his Walden home, Thoreau hoped to earn income by farming the field behind his house. He learned quickly that the time required to tend acres of beans consumed too much of his free time. He changed his gardening plan for the next year to grow food only for himself. Ever pragmatic, Thoreau looked to earn more and work less as a self-taught surveyor. In the bargain, surveying gave him two full seasons and many interim weeks off for leisure. His advice to us is to learn continuously all our lives and stay alert to new income opportunities to guard our independence.

6. Take advantage of the conveniences and opportunities of the age.

The train and telegraph were technologies that fascinated Thoreau. I think he would have loved our Internet to bring him the cultural riches of the world. I am equally sure he would never have wasted hours surfing the net, texting, or checking his email every five minutes. He chose to be poor in terms of money, but poor is a relative term. What is scraping by to one person, can be a life of plenty to another. Thoreau found countless
opportunities for cultural enrichment, personal growth, and entertainment available at no cost to him. He explored the Merrimac River by canoe, attended lectures at the Lyceum, participated in Emerson’s discussion groups, climbed Mt. Katahdin and walked for hours in the woods each day enjoying the beauty of nature and being outdoors.

America still has vast tracts of public lands for our use, and the electronic age provides us with innumerable opportunities—also at little or no cost—for education, culture, entertainment and earning a living. Each of us has access the same information as a college professor. We can watch sporting events free and see better than those in $500 seats in the stadium. We can savor the world’s most breathtaking scenery and treasures from our homes and hear beautiful music in Surround Sound. In Thoreau’s day, the average person never heard a symphony orchestra. To do so would have been a considerable expense to travel for days to hear one of the few symphonies in America. We can learn practical skills and economic analysis from expert bloggers around the world and be as informed as any reporter on the planet can. Today there is no reason for anyone, regardless of income, to be bored if they use the virtually free conveniences of our age for entertainment and learning once reserved for only the wealthy.

7. Work Deliberately.

Thoreau lived and worked “deliberately.” He emphasized, “I make my own time. I make my own terms.” This is the key to freedom and independence. Controlling his time and terms, he would never lock himself in to a job that enslaved him with long hours, stress, and fear of losing the job. As a delightful side benefit, he would never have to bite his tongue when speaking to management, work for jerks or go to work every day if he could do the week’s work in a single day. When you work for yourself, you will never hear the words, “you’re fired.”

In 2012 with employment uncertainty in almost every field, many people hedge their bets by starting their own business on the side as they work their primary job. A well- employed client of ours bought a franchise business for his wife, and she is growing it to guarantee that the family will have income and independence no matter what happens to their primary source of income. Gaston Glock was a factory manager when he started a side business in his garage. In addition to planning for income redundancy, we advise friends to have savings stashed away to live for six months to a year. This is not easy to do. However, we have found that there are many things to cut back on if your primary goal is to remain free and independent.

Living “deliberately” belongs in every EDC bag.

Thoreau made his EDC bag from the principles of deliberate living. They guide my family today as in 1994 when we began to adopt them. Each of us must rely on his own effort to survive and truly live. The central decision–or non-decision is to “live deliberately” or not to. If you are reading this blog, you likely have made your decision already.

JWR Adds: Wayne M. Thomas is the Editor of Walden Today