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Thoreau, the Deconstructionist


Published May 9, 2008 at 9:47 a.m.

In these times of abundance we think ourselves clever or contrarian when we follow the path of least consumption. This is only because the default setting on American society has switched from "save" to "buy." But what is now considered frugal and savvy — mending zippers, selling scrap metal, salvaging building supplies — was once just common sense.

I was reminded of this recently, while reading Thoreau's Walden. In it, he is quite plainspoken about the preparations for his two-year-two-month-and-two-day experiment on the shore of Walden Pond. He borrows a friend's axe, clears a building site and uses the downed logs as the main structure for his dwelling. And then he buys a shanty from a simple married couple, because, in the words of the woman of the house, it has 'good boards overhead, good boards all around and good window.'

This is not the the way a seller usually talks about her house; the pieces being paramount to the whole. And that's because she knew Thoreau intended to deconstruct the shanty and use the pieces for his own cabin. After he pays for it, he says, "I took down this dwelling the same morning, drawing the nails, and removed it to the pond side by small cartloads, spreading the boards on the grass there to bleach and warp back again in the sun."Further on in the book, the shanty materials appear in a somewhat boastful tally of the costs of the cabin, which totaled, "In all,.........$28.12"

Ed. note: For more tales of deconstruction, check out Kirk's story this week about Vermont's recycled building materials business.