July 12 is the bicentennial of Henry Thoreau’s birth. A good day to leave your credit cards in your purse or wallet in honor of this country’s most celebrated non-consumer.
Thoreau built his cabin at Walden for $28. The furniture consisted of a table, a chair, and a bed. For a short time he had three ornamental pieces of rock on the table, but threw them out when he found he had to dust them every day.
We can easily imagine what he would have thought of our modern era with its endless gadgetry, all that stuff that has to be maintained, greased, stored, updated and replaced with a newer model every year. His philosophy, in a nutshell, was that the less stuff you had, the more time you had for more important things – in his case, studying nature, reading, thinking, and writing.
At the dawn of the Consumer Age, he sounded this warning to his fellow Americans: “Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less? . . . [We] are employed ... laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life.”
I’m sorry Thoreau isn’t alive today, because he would have had a field day with our current President, someone whose entire persona and self-image are tied to how much he owns, how much real estate he has acquired, how glittery his women are. Gertrude Stein’s famous comment about Oakland applies here: “There’s no there there.” Nothing below that glittery surface, no commitment to or interest in deeper values like honesty, character and integrity. Not much thought, not much reading, and not much writing, either, limited as it is to 142 characters.
Thoreau summed it up as well as anyone: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”
Very few of us, I’m sure, would want to live in a small, isolated cabin in the woods. And many of us like having a few beautiful things around the house to make it warmer and more attractive.
But President Trump teaches us about the need to draw a line at some point, to put limits on our materialism. At the center of the national stage, for all to see, he provides a high-profile example of where an unbridled focus on material acquisition can lead you.
Both of these men, Thoreau and Trump, provide powerful lessons, positive and negative, about the perils of consumerism. With that in mind, I propose that we extend Independence Day all the way through to Thoreau's birthday on July 12, and on that day declare our independence from mindless consumerism, from slavery to endless gadgetry. It will free us, as Thoreau tells us, to do better and more satisfying things with our lives.
I think Thoreau, if he were still with us, might very well feel a debt of gratitude to Donald Trump for providing a high-profile lesson on how a life shouldn’t be lived, for fleshing out Thoreau’s dire warnings in “Walden.” I can just hear him saying “I told you so.”
So Happy Birthday Henry – and yes, I know, no gifts.
• Tim Holt lives a simple life in Dunsmuir, contributes articles to this newspaper, and is the editor of the quarterly North State Review.