RE:PRINT (NYT): Thoreau, the First Declutterer

I sit typing this post surrounded by a healthy sampling of children’s books, a box of Qtips, bagged tupperware containers, notebooks, newspapers, bottled water, and advertisements for used car dealers.  I’m suffocating.

Nearly every space in our small suite is covered by something.  A singing dog, a stacking ball, a drivers manual, a diaper bag, a roll of paper towels, a box of tissues.  Yes, some things are necessary, such as my glasses case.  But other things sit here because as a result of my inner voice asking, “What if we need . . .?”  And its close kin, “I don’t want to waste . . . ” and “Just in case . . .” follow.

Ah, to be at Walden Pond with only a laptop would be liberating, indeed.

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Thoreau, the First Declutterer

BATON ROUGE, La. — WITH household decluttering now a national obsession, maybe Americans should pause this Fourth of July and remember the nation’s original domestic minimalist, Henry David Thoreau.

He moved to a small cabin on Walden Pond near Concord, Mass., 170 years ago today, on July 4, 1845, intent on living as simply as he could. Thoreau fit everything he wanted into a dwelling the size of a tool shed.

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” he exhorted in “Walden,” the classic account of his two years at the pond. “I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”

At the approach of the country’s great industrial age, which would bring more goods to more Americans more cheaply than ever before, Thoreau sensed a complication — namely, complication itself, the challenge of too much stuff.

Thoreau might not be surprised that more than a century and a half after he published “Walden,” decluttering is all the rage. “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” the Japanese author Marie Kondo’s guide to culling and organizing possessions, has topped the best-seller list for months.

In “Stuffocation,” another recent book, the British writer James Wallman declares that clutter “is the material equivalent of the obesity epidemic.” Websites and blogs about decluttering abound, and reality-TV shows broadcast the perils of hoarding. These days, Thoreau’s call for simplicity sounds eerily prescient.

He hinted that one good result of American independence from England should be the resolve to live more basically — and authentically — than our ancestors lived in the Old World. “I look upon England to-day as an old gentleman who is travelling with a great deal of baggage, trumpery which has accumulated from long housekeeping, which he has not the courage to burn,” he wrote in “Walden.”

Thoreau said it was a coincidence of the calendar that brought him to live at Walden on the nation’s birthday. But in beginning his experiment on the Fourth of July, Thoreau demonstrated that his country’s political independence had nurtured a hundred kinds of personal independence, too, including the latitude to be unconventional. His basic scheme — to live in a hut for a couple of years with no regular work and only the barest of essentials — isn’t a plan that many could or would follow, especially those of us with a spouse and children.

But Thoreau mentioned on the first page of “Walden” that he didn’t mean his method as a model for everyone else, urging readers to merely “accept such portions as apply to them.” Like any adventurer, he was testing the limits of possibility to more clearly understand what the limits were.

What Thoreau learned over the course of his life — and what his admirers often forget — is that progress and possessions aren’t necessarily bad things. He grumbled about the intrusions of the railroad, but knew that the train made it easier for him to borrow books from Harvard’s library in nearby Cambridge.

In a journal entry, he wondered how grand it would be to have a library’s bounty out in the woods, predicting the age of easily accessible reading we now have with the Internet. If Thoreau moved to Walden today, it’s possible — if not likely — that he would bring a laptop with him. His struggles to square civilization with serenity are still very much our own.

Thoreau sought a decluttered life because he thought it would lead to a decluttered mind. The abiding lesson of “Walden” is that only in occasionally standing offstage from our daily routines can we grasp what is really important to ourselves, our family, our country. Thoreau saw solitude and citizenship as mutually sustaining, not mutually exclusive.

Being alone might seem like an odd gesture on the Fourth of July, a national holiday meant to affirm our collective strength. But in a quiet hour away from fireworks, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we can still, like Thoreau, connect with the brightest gift of our republic — the freedom to follow a thought wherever it might lead us. He believed “that a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip, if he should ever harbor it in his mind.”

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