Especially in times of crises, when our very foundations tremble, many people seek to ground themselves: By stepping back from the demands of modern life, wandering through the countryside, or contemplating nature. The great outdoors are scientifically proven to do wonders for our wellbeing. But does that mean you have to quit everything and go live in a yurt? What can Thoreau’s classic book “Walden” teach us today?
Walden, the mother of all ‘simplify your life’ books
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) lived for over two years in the woods. The American writer and philosopher turned his back on the 19th-century civilization, not out of protest or escapism, but simply to pursue an alternative lifestyle. “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life,” he wrote in his famous diary during this period of retreat in the woods. His book ”Walden. Or Life in the Woods,” completed in 1854, is a plea for a self-determined life in harmony with nature, without, however, unnecessary and time-consuming luxury. Throughout the book, Thoreau presents the reader with observations, not only on the perfection of flora and fauna but also on the satisfaction of merely studying and observing them.
As a result, Walden remains to this day a source of inspiration for part-time dropouts, nature lovers, and ascetics, perhaps even being the “primordial mother of all ‘simplify your life’ books,” as Denis Scheck wrote in German newspaper Die Welt. During his lifetime, however, Thoreau was denied any recognition and was dismissed as an eccentric. Even among his fellow novelists and transcendentalists that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott, no one else lived so radically or wrote in such a down-to-earth manner as Thoreau. His longtime best-seller retains its relevance and, in fact, was far ahead of its time. In particular, his then rather unpopularly viewed skepticism towards progress seems to be quite astute from today’s perspective: “Most men (…) are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life. (…) Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day (…). He has no time to be anything but a machine.” Through simplicity and independence, Thoreau devoted his life to opposing this meaningless, mechanical clatter. Even today, it is worth asking ourselves: Are there really no alternatives to the constraints imposed by our affluent society?
The Idea of Going Back-to-Nature is Far More Attractive Than Doing it
Just as Thoreau retreated into the woods to find inner peace back in his day, it appears that we also yearn to return to nature, especially when possessions, everyday routine, and the pressures to succeed become a burden or when our economic bastions begin to crumble. In particular, during periods of crises, whether personal or global, we develop a need to ground ourselves. Not infrequently, this quite literally leads us out into nature. Yet, according to Peter Wippermann, the Hamburg-based trend researcher, actual cases of people turning their backs on their mundane daily routines, giving up doing their taxes, and abandoning their narrow-minded regulated lives are extremely rare. Although transcendentalism still claims adherents or free spirits, as the case may be, who are favorably disposed towards the ideal of a lifestyle defined by freedom, self-responsibility, and being in tune with nature, few individuals are prepared to completely abandon the Western way of life to go and build a hut in the woods. Instead, one typically finds small, self-sufficient communities organized as organic farms or eco-villages, offering tours and seminars to help ensure their economic viability. These communities are frequently religiously motivated or structured as communes with their own notions of free love.
The idea of the back-to-nature lifestyle is far more attractive than actually turning one’s back on society. This impression is underscored by the sheer number of tourists who annually make the pilgrimage to Thoreau’s Walden Pond, not to experience solitude, but to satisfy their fascination with the free spirit (while unfortunately also endangering the lake’s ecosystem). A similar phenomenon occurred in Alaska with the “Magic Bus,” an abandoned vehicle in which the American outsider Christopher McCandless set up home and eventually died in 1992. An article by Jon Krakauer entitled “Into the Wild” was turned into a bestseller in 1996, and a film with the same name by Sean Penn reached an audience of millions. It recounts the true story of a young academic with a good upbringing who decides to leave behind his affluent family and accompanying hypocrisy. Turning his back on civilization, he escaped to the Alaskan wilderness, where, after 113 days, he died of starvation and poisoning. In the end, he came to the sad realization that nature, contrary to his expectations, did not bring him happiness, but only made him lonely. In June 2020, the bus was finally removed, as it had become a dangerous place of pilgrimage, costing the lives of other hikers attempting to reach it.
The New Hiking Boom
The fascination with the forces of nature and perhaps, the belief in purification and healing through the wilderness has experienced a renaissance in recent years. One catalyst for this was the 2014 film “Wild.” The story is based on the autobiographical writings of Cheryl Strayed, played by Rees Witherspoon, who, without any previous hiking experience, embarks alone on a 1000-mile journey along the Pacific Crest Trail, a route in the Western USA that stretches from the Mexican to the Canadian border. Following a number of personal setbacks, the young woman experiences the hardships of hiking and confronts her past, culminating in her attaining a sense of self-realization. Although the film, which also appeared in German cinemas in 2015, was not a smash hit, various sources have nonetheless pointed to the movie as triggering the new international hiking boom.
The past five years have seen annual growth in hiking associations and Alpine clubs across all age groups. Over 70 percent of Germans now regularly engage in rapid and target-oriented walking. The motives are various and illuminating: to escape from everyday life, to clear one’s mind, to exercise in the fresh air, to stretch one’s limits, discover the countryside, and experience nature – in other words, to do something good for your body and mind. Besides, there are few obstacles – hardly any costs, risks, or barriers. Hiking is based on natural human locomotion, and it is scientifically proven to evoke feelings of happiness. A trek’s pace, the route, and the company one keeps are a matter of personal discretion, which is why hiking has become one of the most popular individual sports, which is now regarded as meditative instead of boring.
From after-work hiking to taking a summer vacation in the mountains, the trend has now shifted to long-distance hiking. But it doesn’t always have to be the Pacific Crest Trail like in the film, although the number of PCT hikers has tripled over the past five years from almost 2000 to close to 6000. Other popular trails are the Alpe Adria Trail from the Grossglockner in Austria to the Mediterranean and the Great Ocean Walk in Australia. If one follows the hype, one tends to get the impression that it is more about lifestyle than having a pure back-to-nature experience. Concept stores with outdoor equipment are booming. Magazines, books and illustrated books on the subject sell like hotcakes. And in compliance with Christopher McCandless’ final realization (as recorded in his diary) that “Happiness is only real when shared,” every scenic view into the distance is shared on social media.
It seems that not only the experience of nature has gotten somewhat lost here, but also the original idea of temporarily retreating from the daily grind or hiking to find inner peace. Perhaps it is not so easy, after all. Those who treat themselves to some rare time-out know how difficult it can be without (media) diversions. You can already feel the tension whenever you’ve left your smartphone at home. We have forgotten how to be alone. The ability to experience solitude is a desirable skill that can lead to contentment and happiness, asserted the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer around 1850. That is another reason to take the deliberate step of occasionally stepping back from one’s routine life, embrace solitude, go on a hike, and take time to reflect while being at one with nature.