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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Friday, July 12, 2013


It is Thoreau's  birthday today and I've taken some time to look at "quotes" websites. He of course is the quoter's dream; I've been as guilty as most "nature" writers of mere copying and pasting more times than I care to count. But today, in his honor, I rescue one of his most popular sayings (you would not believe the number of inspirational posters on Google Images for "The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it") from the twang of popularity.

Thoreau never wrote this sentence. Somebody uneasy with the complexities of his language made it simpler, more balanced, more quotable, blander and more memorable, and it took a little digging to find what he actually said, in Walden.

In his first chapter, towards the end of a discussion about birds' nests, foxholes, the wigwams of Indians, and the shelters of the poor, which are palaces full of luxurious things compared to the Indians', he actually wrote: 

"But how happens it that he who is said to enjoy these things is so commonly a poor civilized man, while the savage, who has them not, is rich as a savage? If it is asserted that civilization is a real advance in the condition of man — and I think that it is, though only the wise improve their advantages — it must be shown that it has produced better dwellings without making them more costly; and the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run."

So much for shallow sloganeering.

My cost for this slice of life? A wonderful half hour wandering in the woods and weeds of Walden.

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