Walden in the City
Third Place, Adult Essay Category; 2010 Bethesda Magazine/Bethesda Urban Partnership Short Story and Essay Contest
When I read Walden by Henry David Thoreau in college, he became my soul mate. His view on simplicity struck a chord, as when he said, I wanted to live . . . so sturdily and Spartan-like as to . . . drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms. Yet as the years passed, I began to wonder: Can we live simply in a country where consumption drives three-quarters of the economy and where 24/7 reigns? Has technology swept us too far downstream from the eternal spring of simplicity to swim back?
Several years ago, decades after reading Walden, I turned to Thoreau’s work with renewed interest, only this time, I vowed to follow in his footsteps, not by seeking a sabbatical in the country, but by searching for simplicity in urban America, a quest I approached with vigor when I realized the word simplicity harbored the letters . . . c . . . i . . . t . . . y. Was it possible, I pondered, to discover Walden in the city?
I set out to define simple living, concluding that, for me, it meant seeking less rather than more, and because energy use intrigued me, I focused on what I expended. Decades earlier, on trips to the U.S. from my boyhood homes in India and Nepal, I was struck by the vast gap in energy use between nations. In Nepal, for example, I often saw families rely on a kerosene lamp or fire for light.
A few years back, to reduce the amount of electricity I consumed from the grid, I installed a photovoltaic array on the roof of our Bethesda home, using the resulting power to run various appliances. My family has endured the tangle of cords that traverse our home, taking steps with extra lift to keep from tripping.
Yet something was missing in my quest for Walden. I longed for a path through urban life where a philosophy of consuming less rather than more would be my guide. The trail I embarked on took me to Baltimore to purchase an aged car. After limping home in it on I-95, I tucked it in our garage and began disassembling it, my mission being to convert it to an all-electric vehicle with batteries charged by the panels on the roof.
Oddly, that shell of an auto in my dilapidated garage has offered glimpses of Walden. As I wrestle its rusted bolts, I hear geese cackle, the wind whisper, and leaves crinkle. Lovely emissaries in the form of neighborhood children peer under the hood to ask when I might finish the project. A fox even paused one day to offer me a startled look.
Can Walden be found in the city? I don’t know, but for now, I’ll let the dream of a converted electric car show me the way.
Karl Klontz lives in Bethesda and works for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an epidemiologist in the realm of food-borne disease investigation and control. In addition to writing scientific articles, he enjoys dabbling in fiction.