Walden and One Man’s Wilderness: Two Stories of Self-Reliance

Are you disgruntled with modern society? Have you ever considered “leaving it all behind” and living off the land? Or do you consider those who attempt that sort of thing doomed to fail? Whatever your philosophy on modern living, it can be interesting to examine the realities of living alone in the wilderness. Recently, I read two very different books on the same subject, and found both to be enlightening, and in the end, enjoyable.

Thoreau is considered one of the best American authors for a good reason, as his prose evokes very vivid imagery of his peaceful life by the pond. Although it can be a bit verbose, descriptions of events such as owls hooting in the night or a vicious battle between armies of red and black ants really capture the imagination. However, this book is mostly a vehicle for Thoreau’s ideals, and the reader will find that his philosophies are interwoven with his observations in a way that is almost, well, natural. Although I found the beginning of Walden to be a slog, by the end my feelings had warmed to both Thoreau and his subject. I found myself pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed his philosophical discourse, and recommended this book to others in spite of my original trepidation.

To continue my journey into the world of self-reliance, I read the book One Man’s Wilderness, which is an extraction from the journals of Dick Proenneke, compiled by his friend Sam Keith. Dick Proenneke moved to a remote lake in Alaska at the age of 51, where he built a cabin using only hand tools. He proceeded to live there off and on for over 25 years. Since Dick was an artisan and naturalist at heart, instead of a writer and philosopher, the tone of this book is very different than that of Walden. His writing, although more familiar, is no less descriptive or passionate than Thoreau’s. Most of the book entails Dick’s first year at the site, in which he builds and supplies his cabin. The book is well put-together, and at the end, a few chapters entail some of Dick’s philosophies. Although Dick’s distaste for modern society is similar to Thoreau’s, he is a bit more humble and realistic. “Man is dependent on man” he writes. “I would be the last to argue that point….We need each other, but nevertheless, in a jam the best friend you have is yourself.”

Dick also managed to document his time on Twin Lakes through film – both 8mm and 35mm.The book includes some of his breathtaking photography, which adds a great deal of interest. His films have also been produced into a documentary, Alone in the Wilderness, which he narrates with passages from his journals. Having seen the film in addition to reading the book, I would recommend both – there are many passages in the book which are not included in the documentary and should not be missed.

Both books address the idealism of living alone in the wilderness in a way that is inspiring. Thoreau’s philosophical experiment ended much quicker than Dick Pronneke’s, which was more of a way of life. Both of these books will leave you with an appreciation for the wilderness that is hard to come by in our days of Facebook and Twitter, but there are other lessons to be learned here that can be applied to almost any lifestyle. I will close with a recommendation from Henry David Thoreau, which I believe Dick Proenneke would have agreed with: “However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest…It is life near the bone where it is sweetest.”

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