Walden is one of the most quotable books in American literature. Henry David Thoreau filled the book with gems like, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Or, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” Or that old chestnut, “Simplify, simplify.” Of course, Thoreau’s account of his time in the woods is much more than just fodder for motivational posters—it’s a work of transcendentalist philosophy that shaped how people see the natural world today.
1. Before going to the woods, Henry David Thoreau started a 300-acre forest fire.
One windy day in 1844, Thoreau went fishing with a friend. On the way back, the duo stopped by the water in order to cook a meal. A spark from their campfire set a nearby patch of dry grass ablaze, resulting in a massive blaze spanning 300 acres. The fire was put out before it reached the town of Concord, but for years after that, people mocked Thoreau, calling him “woods burner.”
2. It was a friend who suggested that Thoreau build a cabin in the woods.
Although publicly he claimed otherwise, Thoreau felt lost. Wracked with guilt and struggling to overcome his damaged reputation, he tried to plot out his next steps. His friend, the poet William Ellery Channing, wrote to him in a letter: “I see nothing for you in this earth but that field which I once christened ‘Briars’; go out upon that, build yourself a hut, & there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. … Eat yourself up; you will eat nobody else, nor anything else.”
Four months later, Thoreau was living in a cabin in the woods. His experiment was 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.”
3. Ralph Waldo Emerson owned Walden Pond.
Poet and fellow transcendentalist thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson was also Thoreau’s champion throughout his lifetime, giving him shelter and work when he needed assistance, and helping him get published. Because of their bond, Emerson’s land beside Walden Pond was a natural place for Thoreau to try his experiment.
In Thoreau’s time, the local forests had been depleted by Concord’s rapid growth, the construction of the railroad, and the expansion of agriculture. Emerson purchased the land surrounding Walden Pond in an attempt to save the lot’s trees. (Today, thanks to reforestation efforts, there are more trees around the Massachusetts town than there were in the 1840s.)
4. Thoreau’s cabin cost him less than $30 to build.
Thoreau borrowed an axe and chopped down pine trees to clear a place for his house. Then he bought a shanty from another man and recycled the boards, pulling out nails and letting them bleach in the sun. He enlisted friends, including Emerson, Channing, and Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, to raise the frame and set the roof. The result was a shingled cabin, 10 feet wide by 15 feet long, boasting two windows, a garret, closet, and fireplace. Behind the house was an outhouse and a woodshed made from scraps. Thoreau used the pond as his bathtub and the spring for his drinking water. He calculated that the construction of his cabin cost him about $28.12.
5. Thoreau was not a hermit.
Though he escaped to the woods in search of a simpler life, Thoreau wasn’t trying to drop out of society—far from it. Walden Pond was less than 2 miles from Concord, and Thoreau often visited family and friends, sometimes staying with them for days. He also played host. “It is surprising how many great men and women a small house will contain,” he wrote. “I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof.”
6. Thoreau lived in the cabin for two years, two months, and two days.
Although Walden is divided into four seasons, Thoreau lived in the cabin for twice that long. He planted a garden and lived off its fruit and vegetables plus whatever he could gather from the woods. His days were spent tending his garden, chopping wood, swimming, rowing, fishing in the lake, playing flute, and meditating. He also wrote in his journal every day and completed his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
7. It took Thoreau nine years to write Walden.
After leaving the cabin, Thoreau went through draft after draft of Walden. It finally hit shelves in 1854. His journal entry that day said simply, “Walden published. Elder-berries. Waxwork yellowing.” In the first year, the book sold 1744 of its initial 2000 copies—a vast improvement over A Week’s measly 294—although it didn’t sell out completely until 1859.
8. Thoreau inspired the Conservation movement.
Thoreau was one of the first major thinkers to write about conservation issues. One of his disciples was John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, who in 1903 convinced Theodore Roosevelt to make Yosemite the first national park.
9. the eagles’ Don Henley helped save Walden Pond from developers.
In 1989, rock star Don Henley was watching the news when he learned that 68 acres of Walden Woods was about to be bulldozed for an office complex and condominium. Henley, a Thoreau fan, launched the Walden Woods Project, a fundraising group whose aim was to stop development. Membership included everyone from Meryl Streep to John Kerry and Bonnie Raitt to Alex Haley. To date, 80 percent of Walden Woods is protected by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Walden Woods Project, and others.
10. There’s a Walden video game.
The National Endowment for the Arts gave University of Southern California’s Game Innovation Lab a $40,000 grant to create a video game based on the book. Walden, A Game is a first person simulation of Thoreau’s time in the woods. Users can “follow in his footsteps, surviving in the woods by finding food and fuel and maintaining their shelter and clothing.” No word if you can stop by Emerson’s house for tea. It’s currently available to play on Macs, PCs, and PlayStation 4 and will soon be available for Xbox users.
This story has been updated for 2019.