Thoreau was concerned that modern life in the 1840s was depriving people of opportunities to gain wisdom and knowledge. He believed the new industrial era forced people into mindless work and deprived them of understanding life's essence.
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
To Thoreau, most people led "lives of quiet desperation" preoccupied with accumulating money and possessions, rather than focusing on what truly mattered. He saw this as "a fool's life" devoid of meaning.
Part of the problem was people were too busy working to read classic literature, which Thoreau believed provided invaluable lessons. He particularly cherished Homer's Iliad as a source of wisdom and comfort.
"Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations."
Thoreau moved to Walden Pond to show an alternative to modern drudgery was possible.
At Walden, Thoreau pared life down to four essentials -- food, shelter, clothing and fuel. He grew his own food and built his own house and shed. Though still work, it was satisfying and allowed him to sustain himself so he could think freely, unburdened by modern pressures.
Building his own home (although he had the help of a few friends) and gardening was worthwhile to Thoreau beyond its practicality. It allowed Thoreau to gain satisfying direct first-hand experience and knowledge. Through this experience, Thoreau gained new appreciation for how Native Americans used simple, functional housing like wigwams that were easy to construct and weather-resistant. This contrasted with overpriced garish American houses that favor status over function.
The little home (10' x 15') provided the perfect vantage point to observe nature around him. He delighted in listening to the wildlife like the joyful songs of birds building nests in the trees, the squirrels on the roof, and the hares scurrying below the floorboards. Thoreau found nature's music an antidote to solitude. He felt content and enjoyed the intimate sensory experience.
"I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude."
Thoreau wasn't completely alone during his time at Walden. He often visited Concord, a nearby town, to buy and sell goods. He also had visitors, from writer and philosopher friends curious about his experiment to a Canadian lumberjack and his dog who passed by Thoreau's cabin each morning.
Thoreau became friends with many wildlife animals -- otters, raccoons, wild cats, birds, squirrels, and mice that would run up his leg to get food on the dinner table.
Winter posed significant challenges for Thoreau at Walden. When snow blanketed the ground and the pond froze over, living conditions became harder. Thoreau hurried to finish his chimney and insulate his walls before the harshest weather arrived. Procuring drinking water required chopping through the pond's thick ice. Finding adequate firewood was a constant preoccupation. Fortunately, the dead, soaked logs he dragged from the frozen lake proved excellent fuel, burning slowly and intensely from all the trapped steam.
After surviving winter's trials, spring's arrival was Thoreau's great reward. Seeing and hearing the ice melt and crack, welcoming back the sounds of different animals -- spring's dramatic transition from dormancy to vibrancy offered a revitalizing testimony to life's resilience. Thoreau felt tangibly connected to the living forest in a way the city obscured.
After two years at Walden Pond, Thoreau departed and concluded that:
Simplifying life removes complications, allowing one to live at "a higher order".
Seeking truth is far more rewarding than obtaining things. "Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth."
Materialism and modern novelty distract from fulfillment -- what satisfies the soul doesn't cost money.
"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone."
"I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."