May 15, 2015

Retreat to the Local


Every New Englander might easily raise all his own breadstuffs in this land of rye and Indian corn, and not depend on distant and fluctuating markets for them.                                                                                                                                         “Economy,” Walden

Retreat (n.) c.1300, from O.Fr. retret, nom. use of pp. of retrere “draw back, draw again” from L. retrahere “draw back,” from re- “back” “again” + trahere “to draw”

While engaged in my daily chores—transplanting seedlings from greenhouse to field, among other regular acts of caretaking the land, I thought about a label recently applied by some visitors to my homestead: “retreat.” After hours of attempting to make my field “say beans,” I straightened up and gazed over at the clearings that dotted the forested hills of Walden, Vermont surrounding my farm. I wondered whether my fellow “transplants” consider their centuries-old farmhouses up here as Vermont incarnations of the quintessential American retreat: Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond.

It is interesting to note that nowhere in Walden does Thoreau refer to his cabin as a “retreat.” A century’s worth of commentators certainly have, though they seem to have largely overlooked the metaphorical potential of the very word they aptly use to describe Thoreau’s “experiment in living.” And in so doing, they potentially sidestep some of the significant motivations behind Thoreau’s groundbreaking “retreat” to the woods.

These reasons form the basis to the model of economic independence he “re-drew” for himself through his retreat to and at Walden. In his book, Thoreau descries the economy of mid-19th century America, (one eerily resembling our own contemporary debt-based model), a system, he maintained, that existed so “the corporations may be enriched” at the expense of consumers. The vast majority lead lives of “quiet desperation,” he asserted, because they are irretrievably “indebted” to mortgages and consumer loans for costly luxuries they mistake for necessities. If we could only “simplify” our lives, he reasoned, by becoming debt-free through adopting a “content with less” attitude—accumulating only the basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter and heat—we could enhance not only our independence and self-reliance, but deepen our connection to the natural world around us. Thoreau’s approach to maximizing his economic independence served, in essence, as a “retreat to local living.”

He did so in the etymological meaning of the term. Uncannily resonant with contemporary food sovereignty and local food initiatives, Thoreau essentially “re-drew” his relation to society—as well as to the natural world—by embracing a local economy:

Yet so far are we from simplicity and independence that, in Concord, fresh and sweet meal is rarely sold in the shops . . . the farmer gives to his cattle and hogs the grain of his own producing, and buys flour . . . at greater cost, at the store. (“Economy”)

Through growing his own vegetables, baking sour dough and wild-yeasted hearth breads over a fire, saving seeds, gleaning, wild-crafting, and eating in each season, Thoreau managed “to avoid all trade and barter” for food, essentially “re-drawing” an approach to agriculture that exchanged economic independence and self-reliance for indebtedness.

Thoreau’s “experiment in living” involved creating a plan that allowed him to reduce his expenses and thus the necessity to earn large amounts of money by significantly scaling down his needs. His model of self-sufficiency involved not borrowing any money to purchase a house or farm, relying instead on local, recycled materials to create what he called a “homestead” on fallow land (upon which he squatted) and wood from the forest to make his own furniture. He recounted the lessons he learned from his experience of local living in Walden, a book he hoped would help others find their own ways to retreat to the local.

Many of us have relied on his account as a guide to taking the steps necessary to exchange a life of indebted accumulation with one grounded in the local. While not necessarily mutually exclusive categories, Thoreau’s retreat—and mine—are rooted in a debt-free, radically simplified existence. In my case, it took a “deliberate” effort and a multi-year economic plan—based on Thoreau’s model—to jump off the treadmill of economic advancement.

I had the distinct advantage of being unable to skirt Thoreauvian themes of economic independence and “simplicity” since I taught Walden daily to university students for a decade—just a short distance from the shores of Walden Pond. As I watched students transform their own thinking by “re-drawing” the contours of their lives from studying Walden, I realized that my own education remained incomplete without embarking on the transformational journey from “talking the talk” to “walking the walk” along the “less-traveled” road of Thoreauvian simplicity. My own long walk to “up here” has grounded me in a fundamentally new way, shifting my gaze from the ethereal clouds of theory to the wondrous earth in which I have “transplanted” myself.


Like Thoreau at Walden before us, in homesteading among the fields and forests, hills and hollows of Vermont, my fellow “transplants” and I have left behind the corporations and their uniform-looking food in our “retreat to the local”—for our own earth-encrusted carrots and potatoes, our wild apples and berries, and our own wheat, rye, and oats, grown in our own greenhouses and fields. Through our lifestyles, we are “re-drawing” our relation to society at large by embracing the act of living locally—and in turn, harmoniously, with the natural world. Through this commitment, we are offering an alternative model to the fate of economic servitude inherent in a global economy, contributing to what is called a “pastoral economics” based on Thoreau’s model of “simplicity,” the act of treading locally—and lightly—on Mother Earth.

And while I may eventually discover that I have “other lives to live,” I shall cherish my time being part of this local community, made up of ever-inspirational fellow transplants and locals—both human and otherwise. For now, I take pride in knowing that I “live deliberately” up here in my retreat to local living.

As one of the characters in my novel, The Road to Walden North, (forthcoming with Green Writers Press) states as he looks lovingly over his thirty acre bean field:       “It’s not work. It’s a lifestyle.

It’s through our retreat to local living that we discover Thoreau’s insight:

“Heaven lies under our feet.”


Reprinted with permission from Green Writers Press, GreenZine.

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