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Thoreau’s Message of Freedom and Living Life Deliberately

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Article by Laura LaVoie

Henry David Thoreau is often held up as the first tiny house adventurer; the Granddaddy of our movement, as it were. His history is complicated and interesting and to truly understand his place in the American narrative one must pour through Walden and Civil Disobedience. His philosophies are almost always shoehorned into those of his intellectual counterparts in the transcendental movement but he never quite fits there. If you’re willing to take some time to read his writing you can find plenty of inspiration for tiny house living.

Thoreau is often considered an important figure in modern environmentalism – he was an environmental scientist after all. When we put it into perspective we understand that he studied the environment in a time before cars, holes in the ozone, and the other crises we face today. Environmentalism was important to him and he not only studied it as a scientist but he revered it as a religion and a way of life. However, the motivation for building a tiny house on a friend’s land was about more than treading lightly on nature. In my estimation, his real impetus was to live deliberately.

“I went to the woods because I wished 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.” 

Living Deliberately is what I think the Tiny House Movement is all about. The common denominators for all of the people I’ve met and spoken to who have built a small house chose this experience because they want to live deliberately. We want to separate ourselves from our complicated lives. We tend to be very purposeful in every decision we make along the way. I think this is what Thoreau taught us with his experiment at Walden.

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Entrance to Tiny Cabin by the River
Tiny Cabin on the River © Travis

“Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.”

Sure, dwelling within nature was a key to how Thoreau chose to live but it isn’t the only possibility for the modern movement. Some tiny house dwellers choose to travel. Some live within the city to experience all that urban life has to offer. But everyone is choosing to live life in a way that is important to them.

Thoreau also preached simplicity. He encouraged people to live within their means and learn how to foster the best possible situations. I occasionally meet someone who thinks that if they follow some predetermined steps they will have lived life, but they don’t understand that risk and passion are what makes someone truly experience the world around them. We need to interact with the world to be part of it, not just wander through waiting for life to happen around us.

“However mean your life is, meet it and live it: do not shun it and call it hard names. Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Things do not change, we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. God will see that you do want society.”

Thoreau desired nothing more than to live on his own terms without the constraints of certain governance. He wanted to be independent and self-sufficient and his method was simplicity. These are all values of the tiny house movement. As we begin our process of downsizing our lives to fit within a tiny space we start to realize how much we need and what it is we can do without. We keep with us the necessary things to enhance our lives. It seems to me that Living Deliberately is the most important thread in the tiny house movement and this desire was fed by the life that Thoreau built for himself in his tiny cabin in the woods.

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Alex is a contributor and editor for TinyHouseTalk.com and the always free Tiny House Newsletter. He has a passion for exploring and sharing tiny homes (from yurts and RVs to tiny cabins and cottages) and inspiring simple living stories. We invite you to send in your story and tiny home photos too so we can re-share and inspire others towards a simple life too. Thank you!
{ 16 comments… add one }
  • GW
    August 21, 2012, 10:47 am

    Nailed it. For me, at least! Living Deliberately. DEEP stuff. Thinking “out loud”…

    I wonder, tho, how difficult Thoreau would find it in this present age? It’s interesting to think about. We are over crowded, over governed, over regulated, over stimulated, over concerned. It’s as if “modern Life” has become a sentient being and is now calling the shots! Are we trapped by progress?

    I have awakened to find myself “right where I was supposed to be” and I do not care for it! Now how do I extricate myself? I am working on that and slowly but surely, the physical constraints are lessening.

    I then think about how half the human population would love to trade places with me! I live in sunny So Cal, have a great job mostly outdoors, have a SFR I’m not upside down on w/ a very reasonable mortgage, a wonderful 25 year marriage, gorgeous kids leaving the nest…

    There really is a season for everything. If I was born into a different way of life, (the “country’), would I desire to be thrown into a more urban setting? Is it mankind’s lot that we desire something different for the sake of Something Different??

    I keep thinking of a Bible verse…”Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” Hebrews 13:5-6

    For me, that makes a lot of sense. Man can try to direct my lot in life. But if I remember the REAL reason for life, the physical trappings of life, or lack thereof, do not matter. All of the physical stuff falls away and the beam becomes sharp and focused.

    And suddenly I find, I’m right where I’m supposed to be for this moment. Taking care of the BIG issue makes the little things fall into place. It feels pretty peaceful…

    • August 21, 2012, 7:05 pm

      Wow thanks so much for sharing GW. Such an interesting point about life and how we as humans always seem to have these evolving sets of desires. I think it’s normal. It’s like we have this need for certainty while at the same time we have a need for uncertainty/surprise.. Always leaving us wanting something else. Just my thoughts! Thanks again and wishing you well.. Alex

    • Les
      August 25, 2012, 3:42 pm

      Yiy are absolutely right, I had life b4 like milions others. Happy me – did not have mortgage. I lost much, worked for money and having….not much, but enough. Was slave of work, apt buildings and bbq.
      one day, asked God for someone from Hi, who will share life with me, after my choices and 2 broken marriages.
      He responded, I got wonderful wife, woman of God. Then became New Christian. Start giving away all I had. B4 that lost business and start rolling down, …for simple life. NOt for poverty. God gave as gifts, prepared for life – we make a choices, mostly wrong. I robbed God all my life, never tight and offered – all was mine I was thinking. When started giving away my stuff, He started blessed me and gaev me more… Completely new experience.
      Going this days to PH, for mission, tech people about God, who is Him and let them be blessed, help them and be happy. Go out from this world. From Tim Horton and daily talks about nothing. Want live in peace, with God word and silence, enjoy real happiness – people writing books about it. and they do ot know whats that. I do – give it away – as much you can, work for others, help them and glorified God for what He is able and how greta He is. Nothing is ours and belongs us, we are blind, very often – all our life – blame all and everybody for unhappiness – except ourself.
      Thank you.

  • LaMar
    August 25, 2012, 12:17 pm

    I have read Thoreau many times and while I agree with much of his ideology I would remind people that Thoreau only experimented at simple living and failed and returned to city life after a short time.

    I would point people instead to the old homesteaders that set out with all their possessions in handcarts and wagons. That faced raw nature and survived by intelligence and hard work.

    One thing that I reject in Thoreau’s philosophy is the idea that one must eschew technology and live as a pauper and there is NO reason for anyone to live that way and suffer to prove themselves as humble or superior in our modern society.

    Technology has made going off-grid and living a simple, sustainable, safe, and rewarding life possible for many people like me.

    I use solar and wind technology to power my home. That power lets me keep food from spoiling in a refrigerator and lights my cabin without burning fossil fuels or candles. It powers my laptop computer which I use to write my books, run two online businesses and pay for those things I do not produce myself. The internet is my classroom for teaching and learning and is a big part of my social life that keeps me from feeling isolated.

    That power also recharges my cell phone which provides me contact with the outside world for business and to have more safety and security as accidents and fires are common on homesteads.

    I live in a 200 sqft cabin just slightly larger than Thoreau’s but I have a shower, sink, wood and propane heat, cooking appliances and the cabin is designed for year round use with full insulation. Living small and simple does not mean suffering and going without!

    I also disagree with Thoreau’s stance on property taxes. These taxes pay for the road I use to go to town to resupply. It pays for the library I use and the police and fire department that protect my property and schools my and everyone’s children benefit from.

    So, while Thoreau had some good thoughts I would suggest taking his work with a large grain of salt and study the old and new homesteaders for inspiration.


    • August 27, 2012, 1:28 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing, LaMar!

    • GW
      August 28, 2012, 2:23 pm

      Here here!! Well stated! I was actually having twinges of guilt that I may sell on Ebay to supplement my income whilst traveling! How silly. Making technology work for me- and not me work for it- is how it’s supposed to be…

  • Dorothy Hathway Forbes
    August 25, 2012, 1:48 pm

    Different seasons of life bring different needs and desires…I’m 74, and have spent this summer in a cabin in the Adirondack mountains, most of the time alone. I have electricity and a land line (no cell service), so it’s not a hardship. I’m not sure that I’ll be well enough to do this next year, but the simplicity of this year’s summer has been wonderful. I’ve been re-reading Walden, and find Thoreau’s adventures both profound and amusing – all those beans? Yikes! Live and learn!
    We never know what the future will bring – my rural friends still can vegetables and fruits, share produce from their gardens with each other, and freely give their excess to those who have little, or who are no longer able to garden. Several towns now have community gardens which supplement local food pantries with much-appreciated fresh produce.

    We rarely need to go to the history books, although they’re great – we can also talk to our “rural poor” and learn how to live simply and be at peace. Good relationships between neighbors is where it begins.

    • Helen
      August 27, 2012, 11:04 am

      This sounds wonderful! How did you ever find a cabin in the mountains? I’m 66 and still working to get my vintage travel trailer in shape to do some traveling, but eventually I would need to have a place to come back to and a mountain cabin sounds so great to me. I hope you’ll be able to make it back to your cabin next year!

    • August 27, 2012, 1:29 pm

      Thanks Dorothy! I’m so glad you shared.

  • Martha Federle
    August 25, 2012, 9:04 pm

    I think all of us who are interested in tiny house living, whether we actually have the opportunities to build our own dwellings, or like many, choose to live in an RV with its limited space, or just re-think what we need to live, are modern day Thoreaus, and if Henry could come back he would approve. Tiny living is as much a state of mind as it is the place we call home. This is my opinion, anyway.

    • August 27, 2012, 1:30 pm

      Well said, Martha, thanks!

  • itsasimplelife
    August 26, 2012, 6:28 pm

    I lost everything to cancer…health, job, house, stuff…and I gained a new perspective and hope for my future. It’s always difficult to make a major transition but not having a choice definitely makes it easier. Looking back, I realize that my life was killing me…literally. I was not made for the pace, the stress, the constant choices between my family and my career. Today, I live in a small cabin in the woods. Our neighbors (and friends) are mostly Amish. I shop at thrift stores and local produce stands…for major purchases, there is the local Walmart or Lowe’s. My gains far exceed my losses. I miss my old co-workers and having the money my career provided. But I celebrate every cancer free day and love that I have had this chance to re-script my life. The rest of my life will be the best of my life!

    • August 27, 2012, 1:32 pm

      Thanks for sharing and being inspiring. Wishing you the best!! Alex

  • GW
    August 28, 2012, 2:25 pm

    That is inspiring!! I’m so glad you shared this; my thoughts are with you! Your life can be such a great story for others before it’s too late. And THAT’S a lil bit of immortality! :))

  • MM
    September 3, 2012, 2:07 pm

    I like many of Thoreau’s words but let’s not forget that 1) Thoreau had no one dependent upon him when he conducted his experiment; 2) his experiment was temporary, and he knew he could give it up whenever he wanted; and 3) he took his laundry home to his mom to clean (about 2 miles away) when he needed to.

    I don’t mean to dismiss Thoreau because “living life deliberately” is a smart adage to embrace at any age. But I am also very aware that he was a relatively young man when he wrote those words.

    I think that older people who have learned to be self-sufficient and who have also spent at least part of their lives caring for the needs of others along with themselves probably have more wisdom to offer about the benefits and the tradeoffs.

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