Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: or Life in the Woods
A replica of Thoreau’s cabin
Henry David Thoreau wrote his book for “the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them.” He wrote his book claiming that “our lives must be stripped” and that we must live our lives as “experiments.” He first ventured to the woods, in his own words, “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.” During this unit of study, students will encounter Thoreau’s non-fiction, essay-style writing in terms related to their own experiences. Students will be encouraged to cultivate contemplative mindfulness, attention, and inner peacefulness during this unit of study in order that they might share in some of the “experiments” described by Thoreau in this class work of the English language.
Work and Assessment:
All students will read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, readily available for free on multiple internet websites including:
Reflective Writing: We will be reading aloud and discussing Thoreau’s book on a daily basis. After each reading, students will be responsible for writing a reflective response to the readings and/or our class discussions of them. Reflective writing is not simply summary in content or observational in tone. Reflective writing encounters the text deeply as a problem or a perplexity. Reflective writing explores texts as sources of wonder and questioning. It does not simply skim along the surface of a text but ventures into its depths and the difficulties it poses for its reader. Reflective writing can concern the meaning of symbols, ideas, and experiences; in such writing, the text can serve as a springboard for thinking about one’s own experiences of a similar nature. Daily reflective writing ought to be roughly one page double-spaced in length, and all submissions should end with a question (no “Trivial Pursuit” questions, but rather questions that arise from encountering the text deeply and vividly). Reflections are due either at the end of class, or at the beginning of the following class, since these responses and the accompanying questions will be important for our class discussions.
I. Open Air Journal: Friedrich Nietzsche admonishes us in his Will To Power notebooks: “Never trust a thought that didn't come by walking.” During this unit of study, students will keep a free form journal that is meant to incorporate the practices of contemplative sitting and/or walking. Journals are, following Thoreau’s own journalistic writing, “experimental” in nature, and may include poetic writing, photography, drawing or visual art, musical composition, diary-form entries, aphoristic writing, or longer essay-style investigations. Students will cultivate attention and mindfulness by spending 15 to 20 minutes each day after school in any of the following activities:
i. Mindful walking: Find a place, preferably outdoors, to walk in which you are alone, where you can be free from distractions: no cell phones, iPods, or other electronic devices, no gum, no candy, and no companions -- just you and, if you must, a copy of Thoreau’s book if you have one. You will walk cultivating attention. That is, you must focus upon your breathing as you walk; attend to counting your breaths in and out; your first breath in and out is ONE; your second breath in and out is TWO; your third is THREE and so on. Count until you have reached TEN, and then start back at ONE again. Allow your thoughts to rise and fall as you walk; attend to the manner in which your thoughts have a life of their own and move in all sorts of directions. When you catch your mind moving away from counting your breaths, gently redirect your attention back to the activity of your breath. See if you can develop the qualities of focus and attention through this simple activity. Having experimented with it for 15 or 20 minutes, afterwards write or otherwise record your observations. Try it several times to see if, through mindful practice, the quality of your attention and your ability to focus or develop one-pointedness in your thoughts improves.
ii. Mindful Listening: Find a place, preferably outdoors, to walk in which you are alone, where you can be free from distractions: no cell phones, iPods, or other electronic devices, no gum, no candy, and no companions -- just you and, if you must, a copy of Thoreau’s book if you have one. The best sorts of places are often parks, woodlots, countrysides, open fields, or quiet natural areas away from busyness and distraction, but if you are unable to find any such place, a more central, domesticated, even urban location will do. Find a comfortable or intriguing location to sit and listen for 15 or 20 minutes. What sorts of things can you hear around you? What sorts of things can you hear within you? What is the relation between the outer and the inner as you experience it? What is the noisiest portion of your experience? Do you ever hear silence? Listen behind each of the sources of sound for silence. How do you experience the world (and yourself) differently when you really listen? Having experimented in this manner for the allotted time, afterwards write or otherwise record your observations. Pay particular attention to the quality of sound that, in an ordinary activities, you would not be aware of.
iii. Mindful Spectating: Find a place, preferably outdoors, to walk in which you are alone, where you can be free from distractions: no cell phones, iPods, or other electronic devices, no gum, no candy, and no companions -- just you and, if you must, a copy of Thoreau’s book if you have one. The best sorts of places are often parks, woodlots, countrysides, open fields, or quiet natural areas away from busyness and distraction, but if you are unable to find any such place, a more central, domesticated, even urban or industrial location will do. Find a comfortable or intriguing location to sit and spectate for 15 or 20 minutes. Record the sorts of things you see around you. How do these sights affect you? What do they make you feel? How are your passions affected? What effect do the outward sights have upon your inward states? What sorts of thoughts do you have? What drives your thoughts? What effects do your thoughts and feelings have upon your awareness of the things you see? Having experimented in this manner for the allotted time, afterwards write or otherwise record your observations.
iv. Ecological Observations/Flora: Find a natural area in which you can be free of bricks and mortar, pavement and constructions. Look for an untended bit of nature – a bit of land left alone, undisturbed by human hands. Even a ditch full of weeds will do if you’ve nothing else handy! Now sit down in your patch of nature (however small) -- look, listen, feel, and reflect. Look closely: what do you see? What do you notice that you did not see from a distance? Think of how you’ve perhaps passed by this spot many times before, and what may have been overlooked consistently about it. Now listen to the spot you have chosen. What do you notice about it that you had not noticed before? Now “feel” the spot. What sense do you intuit from being there? What does the spot feel like? Reflect on the difference between this patch of nature as the object to which you were previously indifferent, and now as the spot with which you have become personally familiar -- as a spot that is your own, and wherein you, standing or sitting in that spot, have also become part of it, and are therefore “its own” as well. Having experimented with it for 15 or 20 minutes, afterwards write or otherwise record your observations.
v. Observations of Wildlife/Fauna: In order to perform this experiment, you will need to find some place where you are able to see wildlife. Wildlife can be any animal of the non-domesticated variety – including even squirrels, sparrows, and insects. Your observations need not be of some spectacular or rare creature, though these too are legitimate. (Obviously, use your noodle: no Darwin awards or extra marks will be won by students who observe and are eaten by bears or mountain lions!) Once you have found a good spot from which to observe wildlife unobtrusively, pay attention to its movements, the manner of its appearance, and the sounds it makes. Look for cues as to its interests and its desires. What sorts of things move it? What sort of inner life is suggested by the animal’s activities? How does the animal interact with its environment? How are you related to the animal? What do you share with the animal at the time of your observations? Having experimented with it for 15 or 20 minutes, afterwards write or otherwise record your observations.
vi. Experiments in Economy: Take stock of the manner in which you are now living and record your observations. What sort of life do you live, and towards what good is it directed? Next, following Thoreau’s experiment, “economize” and “simplify” – try living “deliberately”. Decide what among your behaviours contributes to your quest for the good life, and what do not. Then “economize” your behaviours. What sorts of things can you do without on a day to day basis that you currently do not do without? Try living experimentally without some of these things for a while. For instance, what sorts of things do you do or say that could be left out of your day? What do you use or occupy your time with that might be “dropped” without adverse effect upon your pursuit of the good life and of happiness? What is the good life? What is the root and source as well as the end of happiness? How do your daily interactions and daily dealings (the life you live AS you live it) contribute to your pursuit of the good life? Given the sorts of things that YOU yourself pursue on a daily basis, what seems to be the vision of the good life that is implied by your activities? Is this really what you think the good life ought to be? Are you living deliberately and knowingly, aware of the roots of your own actions? Look for “economy” in your daily life. Try to leave out certain unnecessaries that distract you from pursuit of the good life as part of your experimentation, and write about or otherwise record the results of your experimentations.
II. Textual Hermeneutic Presentation: Either as an individual or as a member of a small group (maximum of 4 members), choose a passage (or multiple passages) from Walden to present to the class. Presentations should examine the text not as a summation or simply as a re-telling; rather, student presentations must demonstrate evidence that group members have encountered the text deeply – that they have penetrated into the life questions around which the chosen passage gravitates. Presentations may be:
ü formal speech wherein each member takes a turn
ü live play or dramatic display
ü musical composition and performance
ü filmed performance or creation
ü PowerPoint or animation
ü visual artistic
ü philosophic interactive class discussion or debate
ü any other form cleared first with the teacher