Thoreau and the Flow of Handwork

For all his potential hypocrisy, there’s no debating that he knew his way around hand tools. The first chapter of Walden, “Economy,” includes a fussily detailed description of the supplies, carpentry, layout, and furnishings of his cabin. He describes how he first visited his homesite in March 1845, bringing an axe he’d borrowed from a neighbor. He notes that “it is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise.” (He also reassures us that he returned his neighbor’s axe “sharper than [he] received it.”)

He spent days felling and hewing the timbers for his home, sturdy pine studs 6" square. Thoreau rhapsodizes that working outside with the most basic of tools caused him to feel a “spring of springs” arise in his soul, rising to a “higher and more ethereal life.” Thoreau, a noted overthinker, didn’t even do much thinking while he happily hewed, totally immersed in the flow of handwork, later writing, “So I went on for some days cutting and hewing timber, and also studs and rafters, all with my narrow axe, not having many communicable or scholar-like thoughts, singing to myself.” As this episode suggests, the grace of physical labor, whether walking for hours or hoeing a row of beans or banging together rough carpentry, was interlaced with Thoreau’s writing life. He didn’t distinguish between “hands-on” and “mind-on” learning.

–Cameron Turner, excerpt from “Crafting an Education: Recreating Henry David Thoreau’s Desk with 11th Graders,” in Issue Eight


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