Thoreau Had the Right Idea

The Mountain Farmgirl is convinced that Thoreau had the right idea after all …  He may not have lived in the mountains, but his heart was in the right place down at the ‘Pond’. Come take a ‘peak’ with Mountain Farmgirl Cathi Belcher, on how getting ‘back to the source’ and simplifying our needs can lead to a richly bountiful life … 

Well, Friends, a hearty and healthy ‘hello’ from the White Mountains of New Hampshire!  I’m feelin’ pretty good tonight, considering how fast time is moving and how many things have to be crammed into it these days. I had the pleasure of meeting my first real ‘farmgirl’ friend in person about a week ago … and guess where she turned up? Right here under our roof as one of the guests at our Lodge!!  It was a lovely surprise to meet Deborah F. and her husband, who both hail from the Valley Forge area of Pennsylvania. What a delightful connection. (I was wearing my Farmgirl Sisterhood necklace and we met during breakfast. Imagine!)  I am also tickled pink to receive all the email comments from so many other farmgirls around the country.  I feel like I am getting to meet many new friends with whom I would never have had the opportunity to connect, and I have this great big desire to write each and every one of you back. I wish that summer here in the mountains at our Lodge could afford me more time…  I truly treasure the conversations we are having here, though. Please keep them flowing as I love to hear what’s going on where you live, and what you are thinking and doing there.

So let’s see … Last time we chatted I was up to my eyeballs in chores, activities and responsibilities … and I can’t say that life has truly settled much since then, but the steep climb up Mount Washington is over, as well as a few other ‘biggies’ that I can now put behind me ‘til next year. Of course time marches on and yesterday’s accomplishments are replaced by ever more things to do. But sometimes, when it collectively catches up with you and demands your attention all at once (like it did me last time in what I described as my ‘zucchini moment’) it is time to stop and reflect, to take a deep breath, and refocus life’s compass.

And ‘catch up with us’ it always does at some point or other, doesn’t it? As women, we often wear too many hats for our comfort: our family hats as wives, mothers, and daughters; our professional ones; our Farmgirl hats (or should I say our aprons … as we all wear them whether we have just THREE tomatoes or 3 acres of them); and our church and other community hats that also require our time and responsibilities. Let’s face it: as busy women we are the ultimate multi-taskers, but we can only keep all those balls juggling for so long before we get bone tired and something has to give. Whom amongst us has never seriously asked herself the question: “What am I doing all this for?!  Does life have to be THIS crazy? There must be a better way!”  I have found that these kinds of questions can lead to truly cathartic moments that help to re-evaluate and redefine what is really important in our lives. For me it always boils down to sorting the wheat from the chaff, followed by a conscious simplification of my life. It is a deeply healing and therapeutic process that helps us discover the balance between life’s responsibilities and its possibilities … and for me, that always involves getting rid of the clutter, silencing the extraneous ‘noise’ of life, and getting back to basics.

Henry David Thoreau was a hero of mine as far back as I can remember. For most of my classmates in high school, reading books like Walden or his essay on Civil Disobedience were just ordinary homework assignments, but for me, it liberated something … a passion for getting down to the essence of life – and then to live it in its fullest but simplest terms.   Don’t you just love the part where Thoreau says that he wants:
 “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I wanted to drive life into a corner, reduce it to its lowest terms, and if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it … or if it were sublime, to know it by experience …”   I love that!

Almost 40 years since my high school American Lit class, I still think that Thoreau was on to something vital to the nourishment of our souls, and I revisit him whenever I need to get back on track. When I get overwhelmed, I like to take action steps toward simplifying my life to the greatest extent possible, and it always revolves around a fantasy of living simply and self-sufficiently, and definitely: out of debt.

To understand Thoreau’s Walden experience is to know that he moved into a one-room cabin that he built with his own two hands back in 1845. True, it was just an experiment, not a permanent lifestyle change, and as he tells us himself, he stayed there only ‘2 years, 2 months and 2 days’. But his purpose was “not to live cheaply or dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest of obstacles …”    Hmmm, no obstacles is good … I’m listening, Henry …

But busy lives sometimes seem full of obstacles, don’t they?  No matter how well we live, I’m fairly sure that obstacles are not going to go away, nor probably should we wish them to. I remember reading once that baby chicks who were ‘helped along’ while hatching, (that is, the ones that didn’t have to struggle to get out of their eggshells), ended up as weak, unhealthy chickens.  Likewise, tender seedlings that have to deliberately work their way through tough soil to find the sunlight are much stronger than ones that don’t. I’m fairly convinced that it works that way for people, too.  What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right?!   I’m sure Thoreau had his moments, too, both at Walden Pond and beyond its boundaries. Simplicity in and of itself is not going to prevent problems, but I think it’s a whole lot easier to solve them in a simpler lifestyle than an overly busy and complex one.

I think the Tumbleweed Tiny House that we have here at our Lodge for the next year or so is what got me thinking along these lines this week. Its sharp contrast to the large demands of life is striking.  It’s nearly midnight and I’m sitting in it right now, writing this on my laptop.  It’s quiet and peaceful in here and the ever-present cell phone is turned off -- all I can hear are the crickets and the sound of the river. Each day since its arrival, I’ve stolen a bit of time to sit in this tiny house and experience some solitude, soaking in the utter simplicity of such a tiny space meant only to contain one person (without a mortgage … Minimalism at its best!).  I’ve tried to imagine life as Thoreau did, pared down to the core, in which my ‘stuff’ does not define me, but the essentials of what is truly important becomes the ‘stuff of life’ instead.  How much do we really need to be happy, and when is ‘enough’ enough? Such questions are so exciting yet difficult to answer (and tougher still to put into practice…). Raising a family and being a spouse has always precluded a Walden-type, solitary lifestyle for me, but sitting here in the ‘paring down’ mindset is extremely invigorating and challenging to all my sensibilities … it entices me like the Pied Piper! I mean, how many pairs of shoes do we each really need?  Do I have to have 8 denim skirts, when really 2 or 3 will do just fine? Wouldn’t I actually take better care of fewer things and have more free time and financial security if, as the comedian’s monologue goes, I had less ‘stuff’? These are interesting thoughts for me. I think Thoreau was somehow on the right track.

It is late now and in a few hours I will need to get up again with the chickens, so I think this is a good place to close for now. By the way, have you noticed that our feathered friend of the forest who ushers in the morning light with his sweet revelry, is getting up just slightly later these days? Have you noticed the perceptible difference in daylight by now? Up here in the North Country, the days are beginning to get noticeably shorter. However light or no light, I will still need to get up earlier than I’ll want to tomorrow morning. The little bed in this tiny house, where I am going to spend what’s left of this very late night, is calling, calling …

But I definitely want to continue this conversation next time, as I feel I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. My husband and I share a uniquely rich history together, in which we’ve explored and experimented with living the simple life these past 40 years. At times our adventures involved living in a tipi and building and inhabiting some rather unusual housing alternatives. On several occasions we had the privilege of meeting Helen and Scott Nearing when we were in college, and there are a few other little known surprises on our paths to simplicity as well. I’d like to tell you about them. I also want to share my midlife perspective on the fact that no matter how conscious we are of living a simple life, keeping the ‘clutter out’ is always going to be an ongoing challenge.  It is a process, and in the end, it’s all about the choices we make.

In the meantime, I’d like to hear from all you gals to find out if you also contemplate/struggle with these same issues, too?  How do you balance everything that life demands without getting so busy that simple living becomes a dream rather than a reality? And maybe we never do actually achieve it – maybe it’s just a beacon we try to steer and strive for.  Anyway, I have so much to tell you of my own journey along these lines that I feel like I am going to burst having to wait two whole weeks!  And so until then, please write … and may your every day between ‘now and next time’ be filled with a bountiful harvest! Talk to you soon.
Much love,
The Mountain Farmgirl




By: Rhonda
On: 08/09/2010 06:22:50
Oh my, this post sounds as if you were talking directly to me today! Looking forward to hearing more! Enjoy our fleeing summer.
By: Morgan Dickerson
On: 08/09/2010 07:45:42
I love your blogs! I agree, it seems as though the "simple life" is an ongoing search. As a young wife and mother of three children, I began to feel as if everyone else was able to achieve more and live simply in their same twenty four hours. It is comforting to know, that simplicity is like raising children, it takes work too!
By: Reba
On: 08/09/2010 08:11:31
Your comments are such a great reminder to savor the simple in life. My husband and I worked long, HARD, hours on the job a few years back, with the determination that we are going to live "debt free." It is an accomplishment similar to the baby chick coming out of the shell (especially when you have a daughter in college at the same time and teaching her how to live debt free by example)!!! But, boy, is it well worth it!!! As we worked on the journey of reducing and ending debt, it seemed to "automatically" cause us to deal with the clutter in our home and busy lives. We decluttered closets while blessing charitable organizations. Don't we wear the same (our favorite outfits) usually anyway??? We learned to see and enjoy the "eternal" value in people, making memories that last. There is so much more time to love and play, not to mention learning to live creatively again. We have found that you do not have to wait until 63 years old or whatever the age is to enjoy life "in retirement." Who wants to retire from this??? Not me!!
By: JoEllen
On: 08/09/2010 08:13:55
Love your thoughts, and subsequent actions on those thoughts, Cathi! I agree wholeheartedly. I live in the Northwest, have raised 4 children and have numerous grandchildren. Life is blessed for me, but I have been caught up lately in getting "more" in the area of garage sales & thrift stores. The cheapness of stuff does not mean that we need to accumulate so much that it becomes unhealthy and unwise. When the weather turns again to rain,(have to enjoy this sun while it lasts!) I will be in the process of purging the excess and keeping only what is needed and well loved. Keep up the good work!
By: Raynita
On: 08/09/2010 08:20:49
You are truly speaking to my soul:) Seems I will forever struggle with trying to balance these very things you speak of in my own life......those desires to sit by my "Pond" and the love of my busy family life. I have to realize that maybe our struggling between these two worlds are actually what I so believe in.....BALANCE....and I should not take that blessing for granted. The blessing of knowing that these two worlds exist and I can find time for both sort of makes them co-exist I guess. Well, you have me rambling.....that's a peaceful thing for me:) Thanks, Raynita
By: Raynita
On: 08/09/2010 08:21:03
You are truly speaking to my soul:) Seems I will forever struggle with trying to balance these very things you speak of in my own life......those desires to sit by my "Pond" and the love of my busy family life. I have to realize that maybe our struggling between these two worlds are actually what I so believe in.....BALANCE....and I should not take that blessing for granted. The blessing of knowing that these two worlds exist and I can find time for both sort of makes them co-exist I guess. Well, you have me rambling.....that's a peaceful thing for me:) Thanks, Raynita
By: Tammy
On: 08/09/2010 09:44:05
For me lately, I have taken the time to have tea and sit in a swing by my herb garden. It is the most wonderful part of my day. I love watching the sky, listening to the frogs and farm animals, and smiling at the fireflies. This whole summer for me has been a recovery from burnout as a teacher the year before. It was a long year. God used the summer to heal me physically and in my soul. I am ready for school now but with a much different idea of how much to do and learn to say no. I feel like a butterfly who has been given her wings to soar. It is wonderful. While I know summer will soon be over, my herbs will be in pots in my special room with my rocking chair so I can still have tea and enjoy the quiet.

Blessings on your week
By: Keleen
On: 08/09/2010 09:58:36
Nancy Reagan taught me a VIP (Very Important Principle)for keeping busy-ness and clutter to a minimum: "Just Say No!" Applying her slogan to my everyday life has given me freedom and empowerment to live a more simple life; to have control of life instead of letting life control me.

I loved your article. Go Mountain Farmgirl!
By: Heather Jackson
On: 08/09/2010 10:05:30
Thank you God for this new blog, and your wisdom on the subjects you write about. I am a homeschooling momma of two beautiful gifts from the Lord. I do my very best to have my life reflect my priorities, and I can see that you are striving to do the same! I live at the base of the Rocky Mountains, and have been trying to work my way up that mountain for years! :) I can't wait to get to know you more through your writings!
Thanks and may God bless you richly in all your endeavors!
By: Cari Lin
On: 08/09/2010 12:59:26
Hi Cathi! I love this post. How cool that you met the Nearings. I can't wait to read more about your path to the simple life. That's awesome that you have a Tumbleweed House too. I dream of escaping in one of those often. I hope you find some downtime soon! Cari
By: PAT G.
On: 08/09/2010 13:42:36
All I know is this, "....there is more to life than increasing the speed!" As soon as I apply this instruction, I find the balance I'm yearning for so desperately.
I admire your Blog and it's contents. Thank you for your writings.
Right now I'm concentrating on my "Never-Ending-Vegetable Stew". Chuckle Chuckle
My rather large vege garden is booming with patty pans, zuch's, tomatoes, bell peppers and a couple of struggling watermelons. So I slow cook stew meat and lots of seasonings and start adding pureed tomatoes and broth to start the beginnings of N.E.V. Stew....every day I add additional sauteed fresh picked veges to this on-going saga. Within about five days, I start all over. Whatever is left in the refrig. as left overs is thrown into this pot. You never know the flavors you'll discover. I even added some butternut squash soup I found in the freezer that was too salty so I add cubes to blan broths to season and flavor it to give it a more Fall flavor in the midst of summer.This project is the highlight of my morning and it's just that simplicity I strive for.
Happy Journey.....sincerely Pat G.
By: Nancy Murray
On: 08/09/2010 14:16:17
I appreciate the time you take to share your reflections. I am in the heat of a Tennessee summer wishing for a morning cool enough to sit in my new chaise lounge and reflect on the coming Fall and holidays. I will print your blog and read it again when we have the first cool morning. In the last 5 years I moved to the country, learned to can and garden and things are getting simple little by little. I just need encouragement along the way! thanks.
By: Juanita Massey
On: 08/09/2010 15:34:20
Oh Dear, where do I begin. You were speaking right to me. I know you were.
I have a desire to live simply and to do the will of God and live as close to simple as I can. You know this is far from me right now. How do we accumulate so much STUFF. My husband marries almost 5 years ago and he and his deceased wife had a house full after 40 years of marriage and I was divorced and living on my own and had a house full, Talk about complcated. What do you do with the belongings. The kids don't want them in their houses right now, but want you to save them for them! My mom passed away about 2 years ago and she gave me all her sewing stuff and I had alot of my own. I will never get our from under the clutter. To good to just throw away, Maybe a yard sale? I'm over whelmed to say the least. You know life gets pretty hard if we let it, and yet I don't mean to complain, could be worse. I guess if I had a little house to go to I would stay there for awhile too. LOL. I love hearing from you and keep up the good work and I will let you know when I get out from under. HaHa Juanita
By: Sue
On: 08/09/2010 16:29:31
I so enjoyed this blog installment, Cathi -- Please tell us more about the Nearings! I would love to hear about them from you, and your experience of actually being with them, as opposed to the articles I have read about them. Really looking forward to the next installment! From the Adirondacks, Sue
By: KimberlyD
On: 08/09/2010 17:10:22
I believe in simplfing my life and not needing a lot of stuff. I take care of my elderly dad and last month was touch and go for him, he had to have surgery and all the running you have to do to all the doctors and test before surgery just wares one out. I enjoy sitting out front on my patio that I layed out and watching the horses or deer int he field across the road and relaxing with a good book and lemonade. Here in Michigan everyones gardens are a month a head of time and the corn in the fields are already turning brown more than a month a head of time for them, so soon winter and being closed in is coming here too. Love your little place I could go for a place like that. I could imagine myself sitting in your willow bench or is it grape vine bench? With a class of lemonade or herbal tea. Thanks for the blog enjoyed reading it.
By: Christine
On: 08/09/2010 18:46:06
Yes, we woman do seem to where many hats, always doing or taking care of something for others. We have a screened gazebo that I love to set in and read or relax watching and listening to Gods wonders that He has made! I feel we do have to much stuff. I have been cleaning out over the past few years, thinking, have I used this lately or what meaning does this have in my life. I feel so much better when I get rid of things, giving it to Goodwill or charity not filling up the landfills. I'm recycle, organic, reuse if possible, do it yourself, vegitarian kind of girl.
By: mellee
On: 08/10/2010 05:47:56
what a wonderful, soul-searching post. not just for you but your readers as well. i know now having reached the midddle of my life that it is not all about what you can get out of life, but what you can give during this life. rather than working to have more stuff, i know it is much more important these days to be home for my kids, both the teenager i homeschool and the active kindergartener who has a carpool momma. i am going back to college at the same time so that in a few years when my daughter will need college tuition and my son won't require my every waking moment, i will be able to go back to work as a nurse practioner and will only need to work part time as opposed to full time as the rn i am now. as we get ready to move out of the house that has been home for a dozen years, i can see the daunting task ahead of us to simplify and par down on our possessions. but i do look at this as a "reset" button on being able to start fresh and clutter free. and we will be going through a financial de-cluttering as well; less expensive home, paying off car loans and credit cards, and learning once again that having to do without doesn't have to be a bad thing. thanks cathi for this hdt reminder.
By: Sarah
On: 08/10/2010 08:12:30
all I can say is, WOW! I didnt get to reading your blog until today and it is everything I have been pondering for the past month now. How do I simplify my life and get pack to the basics of living simply. thank you for adding a little more inspiration and dreaming to what I have already been pondering.
By: Holli
On: 08/10/2010 11:12:02
Wow! I didn't realize the number of people nationwide who were feeling this same urge that I've had to "simplify". Several of my friends and family have expressed the same, but I thought it might have been just in our little area of TN. For years, I've loved the thought of a "primitive lifestyle". I garden, can, have chickens, sew, etc. although I do enjoy my electricity and indoor plumbing :))but I can't help but think that God is helping us to prioritize, or prehaps... prepare. I am in no way a doomsdayer - but this urge in people is hard to ignore... what's funny, though, I've heard very few guys talk of it... my husband sometimes looks at me like I'm crazy, but for now, we enjoy the canned food in the winter, watch our nickles and dimes, wait and enjoy what God blesses us with each and every day.
By: carolj
On: 08/12/2010 15:43:46
Cathi, as an American literature teacher, I am very familiar with Thoreau. I share your appreciation for his encouragement to live life simply and "deliberately." Somewhere near the end of my forties (I'm 51 and 9 months now.) I realized that life was living me and I was not living life. All that changed when I began to follow that good advice given by another sister, "Just say no." I do believe that women's liberation has done great things for our gender, but the idea that we can have and do "all" has not always been a good thing. "All" does not necessarily mean "more and more and more." More stuff, more commitments, more money, more prestige, more obligations can suck the joy right out of life. So I join you and encourage all of us "sisters" to choose well and rejoice in the choice of a simpler life.
By: Debbie
On: 08/15/2010 14:52:55
This is just a wonderful post! We just got home from two weeks by the sea in our tiny solar powered summer cottage. It's under 400 square feet, and seems large compared to the Tiny Tumbleweed house you wrote this post from. Seems my dear hubby and I have been chasing the " simple life dream " forever... Before children we purchased 10 acres off- grid to build a Straw Bale Home hopeing to be self sufficiant, debt free and totally on our own energy wise... As you and so many other farmgirl sisters's know, love and life happens... and with blessings from above, most of it is good but it does have a way of pulling us in more directions than an Octopus has legs! Back to Thourou and living simply at the cottage...It is there that we " live our dream " of living simply if only several weeks per summer... and thank God for those weeks... We love the simplicity of living with less of everything and tuning in to the daily rhythum of the incoming and outgoing tide, not the beeps and buzzers of modern life at home.
Like you, we are also a homeschooling family and that too has a more calming effect our house hold year round because we set the pace of our days, choosing how busy we want to be. I know this souds weird to most people, but as homeschoolers we actually look so forward to September! The neighborhood is quiet and the days our ours again! In our own small ways we do live a quieter and simpler life, it's just not the one we imagined it would be, yet we work at being mindful of living simply as best we can.

I can't wait to read more of your musings on this topic next time... It's a thread that would never find it's natural end as far as I'm concerned.

I did a little writing while at the cottage along the same lines and I can't wait to get it posted! O.k. I'll give you a hint... the title is An Honest COTTAGE Kitchen.

Like you, I feel I've to more pondering to do about the joys and rewards of simple living!!!

So glad you are here with your insight and beautiful photos.

I always say, you can't go wrong stopping by a Mary Janes Farmgirl blog....Rural, Ranch, Suburban, City, and now Mountain! It's pure heartfelt writing at it's best!

Beach Blessings from Plymouth, MA.

Deb and sister #1199
By: Pat
On: 08/24/2010 16:33:21
Hi Cathi ~ I agree with Holli that there is a push to simplify or to prepare ~ I hear it all of the time from friends and relatives that they want to get back to the basics and simplify their lives. Maybe it's that we're learning to prioritize or maybe we are afraid of what the future holds but whatever it is, it's good for us all to de-clutter and get rid of the excess in our lives. Nature is the best thing that we can hold onto and maybe the financial woes of the country are forcing us to notice how important nature really is to all of us. It's time for us to take time to smell the roses, herbs, etc. and enjoy the sunrises and sunsets of our lives. Make a concerted effort to enjoy the beautiful autumn that is ahead of us ~ New Hampshire is a gorgeous place to live.
By: Nancy
On: 09/22/2010 07:40:47
I have been reading Thoreau again myself. We are in the process of getting our farm ready for a move to the Ozark mountains. We just had a barn built. We are so excited about it. We have always felt that nature gives us so much. We enjoyed visiting the White Mountains on our way to visit family in New Brunswick, Canada. And I enjoy your blog. I am new to Maryjanesfarm.
By: Sonya
On: 11/11/2010 01:38:45
I read Thoreau as well, and envy all of you for being able to live out of the crazy bustle of the city. My dream has been to live in the country as well, but it may never happen at this stage in life with a meager income. You are blessed and have so much when you have your own space to grow and create.It's nice to hear your stories, they are inspiring. I am simplifying myself as well. The country is my dream. I will keep reading and enjoying your writings.

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Cathi Belcher

Cathi Belcher,
an old-fashioned farmgirl with a pioneer spirit, lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As a “lifelong learner” in the “Live-Free-or-Die” state, she fiercely values self-reliance, independence, freedom, and fresh mountain air. Married to her childhood sweetheart of 40+ years (a few of them “uphill climbs”), she’s had plenty of time to reinvent herself. From museum curator, restaurant owner, homeschool mom/conference speaker, to post-and-beam house builder and entrepreneur, she’s also a multi-media artist, with an obsession for off-grid living and alternative housing. Cathi owns and operates a 32-room mountain lodge. Her specialty has evolved to include “hermit hospitality” at her rustic cabin in the mountains, where she offers weekend workshops of special interest to women.

“Mountains speak to my soul, and farming is an important part of my heritage. I want to pass on my love of these things to others through my writing. Living in the mountains has its own particular challenges, but I delight in turning them into opportunities from which we can all learn and grow.”

Column content copyright © 2010– Cathi Belcher. All rights reserved.

Mountain Bounty

“Keep close to Nature’s heart ... and break clear away once in awhile to climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods, to wash your spirit clean.”
– John Muir

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