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Walden PondI have been reflecting of late on the rather large gap between the rhetoric of ‘environmentally virtuous living’; on the notions that many of us have on what exactly it takes to live a ‘right livelihood’. Like the tidal flows of most popular sentiments and cultural shifts, it seems to me that most people enact adaptions to the popular sentiments of environmentally sensitive living the same way they take care of their hair. When you need to fix your hair, you head off to the hair dresser. You pay your money and you come back with a new hairdo. When the urge takes hold to declare your empathy and commitment to the environmental cause, the deal is the same. You locate your favourite ‘environmental cause’, contribute some cash and wear your new caring halo for weeks until the perm runs out. We tend, in other words, to treat our environmental responsibilities just like every other aspect of our lives; we reach for the wallet or the purse. Our capacity to express our environmental concerns is given over to the universal fantasy of the marketplace. Following on from a previous posting on carbon credit trading, I find it hard to fathom the ease with which we unload all our concerns into the dimension of commerce.

I’ve been reading Thoreau’s Walden again. As a nice audio book downloaded from the ‘ethernet’ to play through my hours of cycling solitude.

Henry David Thoreau sat contemplating these things through his two year squat on the shores of Walden Pond. He wondered (in the 1850’s) at the inclination of people to build walls between ourselves and the power of raw environmental connection through remaining closeted within the swamp of the human constructed economy. Thoreau had no problems with valuing the returns from his solitude in terms beyond the understandings of the marketplace. He could fill a day watching his pond and feel the satisfaction of a good day’s work. I particularly liked his attitude to housecleaning… He had, he said, some rocks. They seemed to attract dust. These possessions then enslaved him to the tyranny of maintenance. So he threw them out. A slave no more to the cause of maintaining one’s material wealth.I wonder, though, how he would react if he could re-visit the site of his cabin as it is now. I think he would be less than pleased.Walden Pond Gift Shop

One can still visit Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts. It is now a shrine to Henry David Thoreau. The visitor will find a replica of his simple cabin. It is conveniently near to the Walden Pond Car Park, Gift Shop and Visitor Rest Rooms. For an outlay of one to several hundred dollars, the modern transcendentalist can consume all the Thoreau he or she can afford. You can purchase a nice leather bound copy of Thoreau’s major works, sport your designer T Shirt, purchase a musical soundtrack and then head off for an organised walk. You can spectate in the replica cabin and capture its essence in your digital camera, and you can spend one minute and ten contemplating the lake’s edge. Wondering what it might be like to live in a world untouched by the dictates of the marketplace. Or perhaps, more realistically, you might simply reflect on how one might procure a replica cabin for your own lake.

I wonder why Thoreau still has such a hold. What is it that the modern consumer sees? Is it the thrill of seeing a life that one cannot comprehend? Is it some kind of devotion to a life we hold as some kind of unrealisable ideal? Is it to reflect on the loss of something that we can, these days, barely describe? And isn’t it amazingly poignant that when we think these thoughts, on the banks of Walden Pond, that we are never too far from the comfort zone of the Thoreau Gift Shop. Like a lifeline back into the world of cash that has so profoundly captured our souls, sensibilities and wit.

Thoreau liked his solitude. He liked his time for contemplation. He liked the completeness of hard work and reflection combined. Searching around for a modern Pond to sit by, he might these days declare defeat. But he might not give up. He might think laterally. He would, I am sure, find all that he once found through heading off on a mountain bike instead.

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