Monday, July 21, 2008

Walden: a personal view

Jeff Zbar is the Chief Home Officer and creator of Home Office Highway. On his three-week "workation" this summer, he toured the American East to reveal how one entrepreneur can work and play in that place where Vocation Meets Vacation on the open road (learn more at He also found time to visit Walden - he is pictured above journaling on the commemorative rock pile beside the place where Thoreau's cabin once stood - and send his thoughts about his time there to Shedworking:
Almost all writers are work-at-homers. Some, like me, write from an erstwhile bedroom-turned-home office. Others write from "alternative" spaces like garages, sheds, cabanas or other detached structures. Even teleworkers have their workspace.

Henry David Thoreau took shedworking to a different place. Much as he may bemoan the complexity of a phrase that defines a simple workplace, consider him the father of the "alternative office." The 17th Century American poet, essayist and naturalist did some of his best writing from a cabin deep in the Central Massachusetts woods outside Concord. There, for two years, two months and two days, Thoreau essayed on the nature of the environment, civilization, and man's place amid the quickening pace of society.

Visiting Walden Pond this month as part of Home Office Highway, I truly was moved by the path Thoreau trod (or sauntered, as he came to call his walks and which his followers in The Thoreau Society are fond of proclaiming), and how much my tour followed his lessons.

The most striking observation I can offer from my last three weeks on the road conjure both the likeness and juxtaposition between my mobile RV office and Thoreau's cabin. Both provided about the same square footage of "working" space, though mine has been shared with family. Each offered exactly what the scribe needs to ply his trade. Thoreau had a desk, chair and writing instrument (pencil, I presume, given pencil making was the family business). I have the dinette table and bench, my HP tablet notebook and Verizon broadband access card, and "cloud-based" software apps like Gmail and Twitter and Flickr that enable me to work from anywhere.

Yet as we struggle and sweat to amass more stuff, Thoreau's words resound ever louder. "Simplify, simplify." If Thoreau's life's work can be summarized in a comment, it would be this. All that clamoring about 21-inch displays and uber-fast desktop workstations and Herman Miller Aeron chairs is all well and good. But as any deft writer or other professional will attest, tools don't make the tradesman. They may facilitate the process, but give me an RV, or a hotel room or a picnic table deep in the woods, and I have that place I need to work.

All Thoreau needed was his cabin. And while only the replica remains, and sits about 500 yards from the original pond-front setting where Thoreau spent two of his 44 years, it remains an exalted lesson in the theory of simplicity, of efficiency, or the ability to do more, much more, with much more meaning – and with less. Not because you have to, but because you want to, you feel the need to, and because you can.

"The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure."

That passage was written by Thoreau in the 1840s on the shores of Walden Pond. They live true today, whether your "cabin in the woods" is a shed in the backyard, a gazebo in a meadow, or an RV touring the American countryside.


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