There was a lot that struck me about this section of Thoreau’s treatise on simple living and how it relates to the concept of shelter.
Here, Thoreau describes shelter as an elemental human necessity, dating back to the time of Adam and Eve. “Man wanted a home, a place of warmth, or comfort, first of physical warmth, then the warmth of the affections.” As he will do repeatedly throughout the piece, Thoreau draws a spiritual connection with the idea of home/shelter and the means with which someone attains it.
The landlord shows up as an oppressive figure here, a manifestation of the cost of our consumption. He says, “…it is evident that the savage owns his shelter because it costs so little, while the civilized man hires his commonly because he cannot afford to own it.” And later, when describing the advantages of ‘civilized’ people – “…I wish to show at what a sacrifice this advantage is obtained, and to suggest that we may possibly so live as to secure all the advantage without suffering any of the disadvantage.” Consumption is not only a material burden, but also a psychic one, inhibiting inner freedom.
In some sense, this scenario that Walden talks about speaks to an idea of balance. Ostentatiousness, overconsumption, overcommitment creates a debt – both a material debt (to the landlords and creditors to whom you owe money) and also a spiritual debt. Perhaps an ideal shelter should reflect this notion of balance – balance and harmony with nature and the surroundings, but also a spiritual balance that reflects inner peace and the knowledge that you took only what was needed.
And what of Walden’s thought experiment to have college students have the experience of building their own dwellings, to save themselves money, give them much needed life experience, and perhaps even influence their values in some way? I know I would have benefitted from some experience like that. Using your own hands to make something real can expand your idea of what is possible.