Sunday, May 20, 2012

Henry David Thoreau & The "Facebook Effect"

You simply couldn't dodge facebook chatter in the Bay Area over the last couple of months. It has been everywhere: the mural painter who is worth hundreds of millions, the anticipated boom in angel investing, the frantic wealth managers chasing the pimpled millionaires and billionaires, And then there is supposedly the 'facebook effect' on the local real estate. Home owners in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Los Altos and towns surrounding Facebook's new Menlo Park headquarters are salivating in anticipation of rising property values illustrated in this "only in the Bay Area" photograph:

I would happily take some of this wealth if I knew how but instead it made me think of Thoreau and his house on Walden Pond. I picked up my copy of "Walden" (purchased eleven years ago at the Walden Pond Bookstore in Concord) to re-read Thoreau's wonderful account of his time in that modest house and how he came to build and live in it. Let's have Thoreau speak for himself as who else could do a better job:

"Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.---Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less?"

"I have thus a tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long, and eight-feet posts, with a garret and closet, a large window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite. The exact cost of my house, paying the usual price for such materials as I used, but not counting the work, all of which was done by myself, was as follows; and I give the details because very few are able to tell exactly what their houses cost, and fewer still, if any, the separate cost of the various materials which compose them:

Boards                                          $8.03&1/2 (mostly shanty boards)
Refuse shingles for roof and sides   $4.00
Laths                                             $1.25
Two second-hand windows
with glass                                      $2.43
One thousand old brick                 $4.00
Two casks of lime                         $2.40 (that was high, More than I needed)
Hair                                              $0.31
Mantle-tree iron                            $0.15
Nails                                             $3.90
Hinges and screws                        $0.14
Latch                                            $0.10
Chalk                                           $0.01
Transportation                              $1.40 (I carried a good part on my back)
                In all                             $28.12&1/2

These are all the materials excepting the timber, stones and sand, which I claimed by squatter's right. I have also a small wood-shed adjoining, made chiefly of the stuff which was left after building the house.

I intend to build me a house which will surpass any on main street in Concord in grandeur and luxury, as soon as it pleases me as much and will cost me no more than my present one."  

Replica of Thoreau's cottage at Walden Pond
In the chapter "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For" Thoreau writes:
"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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. 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, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and to reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by exprience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."

Modern life is infinitely distracting but "living deliberately, fronting the essential facts of life" is still all that ultimately matters whether done from lofty mansions in the most desirable zip codes or from a wooden cottage on the banks of a pond.

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