Letter from America – The Simple Life

letter-from-america-36Henry Thoreau never rode an electric bike – or any other kind of bike, for that matter. He died in 1862, during the American Civil War. Had he lived in our time, no doubt he would have delighted in all the alternatives featured in A to B. He would probably have been a faithful supporter of the magazine, and might have contributed an article from time to time. He would probably have seen that the magazine is about more than bicycles and scooters. It is about sane, sensible living, and he had a few things to say about that subject.

Mr.Thoreau lived almost all of his 45 years in Concord, Massachusetts.That place is sacred ground to Americans who know their history. UK readers may recall that in the 1775-76 era a certain unpleasantness erupted between the troops of King George III and his American subjects. Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson described it best in 1835 in his Concord Hymn:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled Here once the embattled farmers stood And fired the shot heard round the world.

Sacred ground or not, Henry Thoreau did not think much of his society. He saw those around him rushing through their lives and doing whatever it took to ‘get ahead’ during the 1840’s and 1850’s, all the while staggering under their burden of debts and obligations. He saw it all, and in his classic book Walden (1854) he observed, ‘The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation’. Later in the book he gave his remedy for all this misery. ‘Simplify, simplify’, he wrote. Mr Thoreau would have been very comfortable with A to B.

Historian David Shi tells us that in the USA there has been a regular shift between periods of excessive luxury and periods of a return to simpler living, which in the early years of the American republic was called republican simplicity.The current name for this return to sane, sensible living is voluntary simplicity.The leading American spokesmen for Henry Thoreau’s ideas today is Duane Elgin. He, in his book Voluntary Simplicity, sees the need to eliminate much clutter and stress from our lives in order to find a life that is, ‘Outwardly Simple And Inwardly Rich’.

Our modern world has given us wealth and convenience beyond the dreams of past generations. It has given us other things, too – workaholism, frantic living, mindless consumption and a never-ending supply of tranquillizers. Something is clearly out of balance, and we would do well to take a close look at how we live.

Mr Elgin’s thoughts are those of Thoreau, updated to reflect the dilemmas of modern life. Like Thoreau, he sees lives of quiet desperation all around him, and like Thoreau, he sees that it does not have to be that way.There are remedies, if we will only adopt them.

A human face for all of this has been supplied by Linda Pierce, a self-described reformed Yuppie lawyer. In 2000, she published the results of her Pierce Simplicity Study, which she titled Choosing Simplicity. It is a survey of 211 Americans: ‘Real people finding peace and fulfilment in a complex world’.

The heart of Ms Pierce’s book is in the responses of these 211 people, 40 of whom were interviewed in depth by telephone. All 211 were invited to fill out the usual forms and check off the usual boxes.They were also asked to add any personal comments they wished about their attempts to find a slower, saner and simpler lifestyle. Most did comment, supplying the author with everything from small note cards to 30-page handwritten letters.

The result of all these efforts provides a fascinating look at people who seem to live largely without quiet desperation. Most live in cities and suburbs, rather than mountain tops. Most have regular jobs and homes or apartments.There is Joe Judge, whose life is quite different from Armando Quintero, whose life is extremely different from Colette Bryant. For all their differences, these people and the rest, report lives of considerable fulfilment. Mr Thoreau might find their accommodations to our modern world a bit odd, but he would probably not quarrel with the results.

There are millions of people all around us who are living differently from the mass of men.You might find it worthwhile to wander into your local library or bookseller’s and meet Duane Elgin and Linda Pierce.They would be pleased to share some thoughts with you. Henry Thoreau will be there too, of course. Modern readers will probably find that his expressions are a bit out of date, and that his thoughts are not. As we all move through these times, it is well to keep in mind an old Chinese proverb:

When the student is ready, a teacher will appear