Simple Gifts



My cabin on the island in the woods (2007)


{portions of this essay were published in the book, Life After Faith}


“In proportion as [a person] simplifies their life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.”

~Henry David Thoreau, conclusion to Walden


“I have just three things to teach:  simplicity, patience, compassion.  These three are your greatest treasures.”

~Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter sixty-seven


“I grow less complicated all the time and that is a joy to me.”

~John Steinbeck, letter written 8/9/33


“I am bound to praise the simple life, because I have lived it and found it good.”

~John Burroughs


During my first six months in the woods I returned to the wood-wisdom of Henry Thoreau.  In the section on “Housewarming” in Walden Thoreau describes the simple philosophy that guided his cabin life.  He chose to live in voluntary poverty as a philosopher abiding by the dictates of wisdom.  His independence was rooted in the simplicity cultivated by the bare necessities of wood-life.  He built his own chimney, plastered the walls for insulation, picked up odds and ends such as a few chairs for visitors.  For his small dwelling (10×15 like mine) he was pleased to have all “attractions” in one room:  kitchen, chamber, parlour, keeping-room.  He admits to dreaming of a larger house but this would also be a house with one room, “where you can see all the treasures of the house at one view;” “a house whose inside is as open and manifest as a bird’s nest;” “everything hangs upon its peg that a [person] should use.”  Of course, for the Concord cabinman and for me, a move into the home of the woods carries with it the intentional understanding that the forest, or any wild place, is Nature’s home and we are but guests.  A dwelling, however natural in material, is an artificial squatter’s shack in someone else’s living room.  Throughout my time among the greenlife and creatures of the sylvan land I have learned, like Henry, that my nest here has not caged anything including my body or my thoughts.  Rather, I have become “neighbor to the birds,” having settled, if only a bit, near to them and all this wild outdoor life.

While I have not built the two cabins that have been my home, I can say that I have built upon them, perhaps improved them.  I completed a railing on a porch, repaired a ceiling, constructed a solar shower, helped build and paint an outdoor “green room” for a compost toilet, bricked a base for a woodstove, hammered up hanging racks for clothes, laid rugs, cleaned and organized.  Around the cabins I have cleared paths, clipped and pruned, fixed walkways, sealed sections of the underside, chopped and stacked wood and planted squash, onions, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, mint and wildflowers.  For hospitality I have hung out feeders for winged neighbors.

Our Better Nature

Simply put, simplicity is our better nature.  It is time for the simple life.  It is Nature’s way.  If you are thinking “I can’t do that now, but I want that and will one day find the simple life” I’m sorry to say, you have missed the point but not the opportunity.  There is still time!  Because there is always time to simplify.  No, you may not be able to follow Thoreau to the woods or Muir to the mountains; you may not even desire to follow Dillard (or me) to the islands or tromp the path of countless seekers of an “alternative lifestyle”–but you can find your own way, in your own place, in your own time.  Problem is, most people wait too long, for when all is “right.” Strange but true, that moment, day, year, period rarely arrives.  This is not about “retirement,” the end-all illusion for masses of herding people.  Though an artificial future date (standards set by other rulers of our time and lives) can be a powerful motivator or goal, to effect the quality of life is not something to put off until retirement, which is, of course, never the cessation of work.  As Emerson and others have reminded, we must choose our own better way at the present time with courage and self-reliance.  Thoreau’s comment is almost biting in our age:  “As if we could injure time without harming eternity.”  Perhaps the Concord cabin-dweller said it best when he explained his reason for going to the pond:  “I did not wish to come to the end of my life and find that I had not lived.”  No matter how many times we have read this call to simplicity in relation with Nature we turn away again and again, in our busily distracted lives, awaiting that Someday that never seems to arrive.


Inspiration and challenge arise for me in the simple philosophy of John Burroughs who built a cabin for himself near the Hudson River in upstate New York.  Burroughs wrote,

“I am bound to praise the simple life, because I have lived it and found it good. . . .  I love a small house, plain clothes, simple living.  Many persons know the luxury of a skin bath—a plunge in the pool or the wave unhampered by clothing.  That is the simple life—direct and immediate contact with things, life with the false wrappings torn away—the fine house, the fine equipage, the expensive habits, all cut off.  How free one feels, how good the elements taste, how close one gets to them, how they fit one’s body and one’s soul!  To see the fire that warms you, or better yet, to cut the wood that feeds the fire that warms you; to see the spring where the water bubbles up that slakes your thirst, and to dip your pail into it; to see the beams that are the stay of your four walls, and the timbers that uphold the roof that shelters you; to be in direct and personal contact with the sources of your material life; to want no extras, no shields; to find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter; to find a quest of wild berries more satisfying than a gift of tropic fruit; to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest, or over a wild flower in spring—these are some of the rewards of the simple life.”  (“An Outlook Upon Life” quoted in Our Friend John Burroughs, Clara Barrus, 1914).

That master of simplicity, Henry Thoreau, relates a story in his chapter on “Economy” in Walden that bears repeating.  Thoreau tells us of a native tribal custom wherein the community gathers each harvest season to place all their old useless possessions, junk and remaining grain into a great common mound in the center of the village and everything is burned.  After fasting for three days all fires are extinguished. On the fourth morning the shaman sits in the center of the village, rubs dry wood together to make a fresh fire.  Then every family is given a burning stick to light a new fire in their home.  This is followed by three days of feasting, singing and dancing and several more days welcoming guests from other villages who add to the celebrations of renewal.  Thoreau comments:  “I have scarcely heard of a truer sacrament.”  Isn’t there a refreshing feel to this act of renewal?

A Simple Harvest

Within the first month living in my first forest cabin I re-read Walden.  The pond-dweller called for lovers of wisdom to start practicing the “dictates of philosophy”: simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust.  Similar qualities arise again when he discusses planting and harvesting corn and beans.  When I walked back to my cabin after harvesting organic produce, picking blueberries and raspberries, snipping stems of basil, pulling up beets, carrots and onions and plucking beans and zucchini off the vines, I was reminded of life’s goodness and Good Simplicity.  The best thing about the practice of simplicity is that it is always near at hand.  In countless ways we can discover, choose, practice the simple life right where we are, bringing a freshness, even a liberation, full center into our common dull or frantic lives.  Simplicity is ripe for picking.  Let today be harvest season.

Chris Highland

August 2006


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