Stripping away the unnecessary, excessive, and superfluous is at the heart of Thoreau’s experiment. Early on in economy, he identifies food, shelter, clothing, and fuel as the only things “necessary for life” (Thoreau 11). And, he claims, all these things ultimately just serve the simple function of producing (or trapping) heat. So upon divesting himself of all but these bare essentials, and sustaining himself by the labor of his hands only, he feels true freedom can be achieved. This concept of freedom emerges as a strong theme throughout the beginning of Walden, and is juxtaposed against discussions of slavery. In my reading of “Economy” and “Where I Lived, And What I’ve Lived For,” I identified the bird as one of Thoreau’s symbols of freedom.
The simile “free as a bird” quite literally dates back hundreds of years. According to the OED, in 1603 and again in 1631, the writer and lawyer Thomas Powell penned this now-cliché phrase. But Thoreau is less explicit than this, and turns to birds most often when discussing issues related to shelter. For example, in referring to beds in houses, Thoreau writes, “…robbing the nests and breasts of birds to prepare this shelter within a shelter” (Thoreau 12). He speaks of down bedding, but his choice to use the word “robbing” instead of “using” reveals distaste for the practice. Birds represent freedom and their nest building represents honest work. To strip a bird’s feathers simply for the sake of fluffier pillows is to kill and exploit the innocent for superfluous purposes.
In his discussion of home ownership, Thoreau compares the autonomy of birds to that of modern people, writing, “Though birds of the air have their nests…not more than one half of families own their shelter” (24). The statement is intended to underscore Thoreau’s belief that building and owning one’s own shelter is the natural thing to do. He expresses this sentiment again when he writes, “There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest” (34). The bird exploits no other animals or tools to build its nest, a feat Thoreau admires and idolizes. I found his discussion of animal labor to be particularly interesting and ironic. By relying on animals to do one’s work, are the animals really slaves to the people, or is it the other way around?
Even more interesting, I found, was when Thoreau used a symbol of slavery to express feelings of freedom: “I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds; not by having imprisoned one, but having caged myself near them” (61). The line exemplifies Thoreau’s ironic style and can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. He could quite literally just mean that he has become the birds’ neighbor by “caging” himself next to them, but I think it more likely that he feels liberated in his isolation. By removing himself from the environment he grew up in and placing himself in the middle of nature, he felt incredibly connected and free.
While I have mentioned slavery a number of times, I feel as though I’ve barely skimmed the surface of what Thoreau has to say on the matter. I want to continue to examine this theme, looking for where Thoreau makes important points (and problematic ones), and better understand his view on the issue.