Lance Brett Hall

Stories Make Meaning. How Do We Make Stories?

Thoreau in a Pandemic


There was no way for him to have known this, but when Henry David lived alone, in the woods he was making a wonderful companion for self-isolation.

I finished Walden living in what must be one of the most suburban of urban environments in the world. I’ve barely left Los Angeles during the past year, and have only ventured anywhere outside of the orbit of our apartment and my (deserted) office in that time for two trips to nature to keep our sanity.

I want to consider myself tough and flexible, but I notice more and more that a year of avoiding human contact is beginning to wear on me. In the middle of this, the idea and the simple longing behind Walden is not new to me: there is a patch of woods and Midwestern farm land beside Big Bureau Creek I grew up understanding to be our own Walden Pond. A place to reconnect to something big, to stare at nature for no reason other than to see it looking back at me, and to watch and hear and step in the the dark waters of a little stream that came from fields of corn and beans and will go the Illinois River, then the Mississippi, then the Gulf of Mexico, then the Atlantic, and then maybe find its way back again to our little square of earth.

The edition I read pointed out the first occurrence of Walden Pond something like halfway through the book, and used this as a footnote to mention that Walden is not simply a collection of nature essays. It’s a meditation on living life, and on a connection with the source of things.

Thoreau went to the woods not only to live in nature, but to live, and when he left Walden Pond on September 6, 1847, he left because perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.

Soon, we’ll be marking one year of stay-at-home, shelter-in-place, and isolation orders. Thoreau’s words seem cutting in an era when all we can do is stay home, stay safe, and wait. I have more lives to live, I whine to myself, than traveling the twenty feet from my bed to my desk to work, then traveling back again.

Thoreau’s little house, isolated from Concord, Massachusetts, and the book and challenges to us that it engendered are the words I needed, even if they make me long for Home. After all his writing about the cycle of the seasons he lived in the woods, the Conclusion of the book is a call to live, to live simply, to live connected to the truth, even if visitors to my little house are scarce (or digital).

The next time I splash into Big Bureau Creek, I’ll have a little son to introduce to the woods, the fields, the corn, the beans, the campfire, and to all the experiences there have meant to me. The biggest of all is that there is a world outside of screens and timesheets and the scurry and isolation of urban life, and that the timber and sandy shores beside cold water remind us to live connected to what’s important:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.