Thoreau on delegating our work to others

Lest you think from my previous posts that I find little of value in Thoreau, I present this passage that struck me today:

There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But Alas! we do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveler with their chattering and unmusical notes. Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter? (From “Walden”, Economy)

I have not built my own house. I, like the cuckoo, live in a “nest” that has been thrice inhabited. But I have built a backyard shed and a playhouse with my own hands and, with some temporary exceptions, found the process invigorating and enjoyable. I certainly have a better appreciate of the work that went into my own house (and, in some cases, better recognize the cheap corner-cutting that went into some parts of it).

I do not advocate throwing off our responsibilities and learning to do everything ourselves. But I do think we are benefited when we develop at least some cursory skills in various other “trades”, such as construction. The joy of honest labor and the satisfaction of a job well done (or at least completed) are potent emotions.

And simply knowing how to do something should you ever need to is always a solid investment. Whether drying your own fruit or jerky, sealing and freezing produce from your garden, or changing the oil on a car, those who know how have more options than those who do not. Waiting for periods of need to prepare yourselves is a recipe for failure, as we’ve been told by Aesop’s “The Ant and the Grasshopper” since the cradle.

It is an interesting note on the period Thoreau lived in that he, an intellectual, still knew at least rudimentary carpentry and root-crop storage. How many of us could pick up and move into the forest with any hope of survival? While I would never advocate it, I suspect we may someday be required to endure at least somewhat significant changes to our way of life that we would do well to be prepared for. Intellectual and philosopher or not, if that day comes, I’d want Thoreau around.

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