A Word on Walden… Why Thoreau Says You Can’t Afford Not to Grow Your Own Food

Realizing that it has been a month since the last post, there is a LOT to write about! It would seem that between chasing after a 9-month old, trips, summer festival season and all of the time spent out in the backyard, we haven’t given much time to blogging. (Admittedly, since being on maternity leave, I have enjoyed the freedom of being away from a screen, preferring to feel dirt under my fingertips rather than a keyboard.)

Henry David Thoreau. Image from http://lkthayer.wordpress.com

Henry David Thoreau. Image from http://lkthayer.wordpress.com

I also haven’t been making as much time as I would like for reading, but I have been slowly working my way through Walden – a non-fiction work by Henry David Thoreau (1854) in which he describes his two-year experiment of living in a small self-built cabin near Walden pond in Massachusetts. Through Walden, Thoreau – one of the most influential transcendentalist philosophers – emphasizes a life of self-sufficiency and simplicity, including growing his own food, greatly reducing his acquisition of material goods and connecting to his natural environment.”My greatest skill in life has been to want but little.” he writes.

While 1850s English literature might not be everyone’s cup of tea, there are some concepts in Walden that are seriously relevant in 2013… perhaps even more relevant today than in 1854 given the out-of-control nature of our consumerist culture and its dire consequences on the planet. But the best part of Walden is that Thoreau doesn’t write about anti-consumerism and growing his own veggies from a “save the planet” perspective. His philosophies stem from the notion that the ultimate unit of measurement of something’s value is not its monetary worth. It is time. Our LIFE time, to be more precise. Everything we buy with money should be weighed against the hours that it has taken us to earn those dollars. A life characterized by rampant consumerism is a lifetime of servitude in which we are the slaves to our “stuff”, sacrificing time with family, time for self, time for creativity and time in nature so that we may acquire more things.

One of the most common arguments from people against growing a vegetable garden is that they do not have the time. To that argument Thoreau would say that, on the contrary, you cannot not afford to grow your own veggies if we use LIFE as the unit of measurement of value of our food. How many hours must be worked at a desk job to earn the money to buy all of the fresh, local, organic produce you consume? How many hours of joyful labour working your own land would be required to produce the same quantity of vegetables? (As an illustrative experiment to this point, I’m planning to keep track of the tomatoes we produce this year (by weight) and will try to determine how many (after tax) working hours it would take me to earn the cash to buy equivalent produce at the local farmers’ market.)

In the opening chapter of the book, titled Economy (an excellent essay worth a read even if you don’t delve any deeper into the book), Thoreau says that if one wishes to travel 30 miles, they will typically assume they need to buy a train ticket to get there. However, he says “the swiftest traveler is he who goes afoot… The distance is 30 miles; the fare ninety cents. That is almost a day’s wages… Well, I now start on foot, and get there before night… You will in the meantime have earned your fare, and arrive there sometime tomorrow, or possibly this evening, if you are lucky enough to get a job in season. Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day. And so, if the railroad reached round the world, I think I should keep ahead of you; and as for seeing the country and getting experience of that kind, I should have to cut your acquaintance altogether.”

Perhaps we all have something to learn from Thoreau – work less time toiling in our cubicles and more time being self-sufficient while being outdoors, moving our bodies and breathing fresh air into our lungs. I have a desk job. We have a mortgage. As much as Walden hits home for us, we are not about to quit it all and build ourselves a shack in the boonies. But it is certainly an inspiration and a motivation for our efforts to live consciously and move towards greater food self-sufficiency.

If you’re looking for some not-so-light summer reading maybe try some seriously powerful transcendentalist philosophy like that found in Walden… but please do pick up a copy second hand, or better yet, borrow it from someone!