The Great Downsizing and Henry David Thoreau

By Richard Henry Whitehurst on Thursday December 24th, 2020

When Less is More

Our life is frittered away by detail … Simplify! Simplify! – Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walden’

In my public presentations on future visioning, emotional healing, the ‘overview effect’, and living from the heart, I am often asked, “What sort of things can someone actually do to contribute to making it a more life-affirming world?”

I will sometimes reference the example set by Thoreau – something that my wife Linn and I have, in a small way, tried to follow by decluttering, by downsizing and by building and finally moving into a tiny house on wheels. But first, why Thoreau – who’s he?

Who is Henry David Thoreau?

In the spring of 1845 a brilliant twenty-seven-year-old schoolteacher and visionary writer, Henry David Thoreau, began a two year, two month experiment to live a simplified, more authentic life – “to live deliberately” as he put it, in a tiny one room, self-built cabin in the woods on the shores of Walden Pond, some distance north of Boston.

His foundational axiom of ‘simple living – high thinking,’ and the penetrating beauty of his writings – deeply soulful and down-to-earth practical – have for decades inspired and catalyzed numerous environmental revelations and life-style choices. Thankfully, they are continuing to influence the regenerative thinking of a rapidly growing fellowship of twenty-first century planetary-stewards.

His essay on non-violent civil disobedience powerfully impacted some of recent history’s greatest transformers including; Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., suffragist Alice Paul, and President John F. Kennedy.

At times it seems as if Thoreau is even strolling about with some of us right now; through woodlands and meadows, through crowded urban centers; running a succinct commentary from the clear streaming of his mind – past the extractive madness of greed – as he elucidates principles of self-sufficiency, and regenerative approaches to the life-support systems of our planetary biosphere. He’s delighted by the metaphor of ‘Spaceship Earth’ – and, he’s pleased by the continuance and embrace of his Walden experiment through the work of many awakening individuals in these late times.

Stuff of the Living – Stuff of the Dead

Contrary to Thoreau’s admonishments, the unnecessary accumulation of things, of stuff, continues. Although there are beautiful shafts of life-affirming illumination breaking through everywhere, still, within these highly contrasting times of bleakest poverty and inconceivable riches, the accumulation of things amongst ‘the haves’ continues unabated.

Storage facilities in developed nations revel in boom-times. People seek extra places to stash their stuff. Maybe it’s a distorted, dysfunctional definition, a toxic belief: wherein stuff = love, and love = stuff?

History is rife with accounts of people getting stuff and holding on to stuff. Egyptian pharaohs, Viking kings, Chinese emperors, Celtic chieftains, and others of religious and political prominence not only got it (stuff), but also tried to ‘take it with them.’ Centuries later all their stuff was still here, crumbling, and covered in dust and dirt. Obviously, greed and hoarding are nothing new.

Alt text hereDoes stuff = love, and love = stuff? Image: Luca Lawrence

The simple truth is that the holes in the souls of hundreds of millions, even billions, of modern day humans can never be filled by material things. The incisive (Youtube) video, ‘The Story of Stuff’ with Annie Leonard tells it like it is. The angst-retardant of ‘Retail Therapy’ remains the ineffective, obscene and misleading fabrication that it always has been.

Awakening from Cultural Pathology

In far too many ways modern humans have been struggling within an onslaught of ceaseless waves of hypnotic programming (advertising) that surges through just about all the available bandwidths. Even now, when it should be most apparent, we are still told to accumulate things we don’t need, by spending money we don’t have.

Minds, hearts and systems need changing.

Ethnobotanist and visionary Terence McKenna put it very slap-in-the-face-bluntly, “Reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.” Whew! Cultural historian Thomas Berry said the same thing in a different key,

The difficulty of our times is our inability to awaken out of this cultural pathology. – Thomas Berry

The Great Downsizing

Thus, one of the most important, pressing and persistent questions for our times is, ‘How might we live more sustainably, more consciously, simply, compassionately, and regeneratively?’

Within popular culture there are, thankfully, numerous emergent life-affirming signs and orientations that include, to the surprise of many, ‘letting-go of clutter.’ A burgeoning lifestyle equation seems to be: ‘less stuff = greater peace, satisfaction, and freedom.’

Keeping up with the Joneses is passé, while ‘decluttering’ is on trend. Life on a planet with limited resources demands that this attitude be more than just a passing trend. A growing array of popular books on simplifying our lives and getting rid of excess possessions is a good start. It seems like millions of ‘regular people’ are starting to wake up to Walden!

Just as inspired activists and visionaries speak about, ‘The Great Turning’ – so those in what has now become the budding tiny house movement are living themselves into ‘The Great Downsizing.’

Like many things that are unfolding in these unprecedented transitional times, tiny housing is not seen as the singular solution, but rather, it plays its part in the overall shift that is accelerating and gathering us up. These times are immensely uplifting if we know where and how to look. Despair not brothers and sisters!

Living in Process – Remembering the Love

My wife Linn and I believe we have moved in the right direction through the unconventional, liberating, challenging, creative, and, yes, fun process of building a tiny house on wheels.

The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard

This venture went from a projected six-week completion time-window into a prolonged exercise in patience as we encountered the onset of a planetary health crisis. Some of the non-toxic materials we sought took months to arrive.

We are proud to say that our mutual decision to build a tiny house on wheels was made gradually and consciously. And, it’s important to note, we were not strangers to living together in small spaces. We had already lived together in two very small cottages for some three years. We like our compressed togetherness.

So we knew we had the ability to thrive living in very close proximity, and were confident that it had a lot to do with our clarity about the crucial importance of, ‘living in process.’ This was strengthened overall by our steady practice of, ‘remembering the love’.

Our relationship to ‘simple living and high thinking’ has not been merely conceptual, nor brand new. Linn had traveled for some ten years living out of a suitcase. When we met she described herself as a ‘climate refugee’.

As a young adult, also for about a decade, I had lived as a renounced monk and could have held in my arms all my personal possessions of less than fifteen items total. Unless you’ve lived with so few possessions by choice, it will be difficult to convey the freedom and clarity that seemed to emerge for me from this kind of radically uncluttered lifestyle.

Elements of Our Tiny House Process

Here’s an abbreviated seven-step sequence of our journeying:
1. Desire
2. Vision
3. Life-Alignment
4. Funding
5. Deciding
6. Committing
7. Design-Clarity (which occurred somewhat like a landscape appearing out of a thick morning fog.)

We did a lot of research to find a ‘tiny-experienced’ (local) builder. Linn also did months of extensive research that opened numerous and important doors into non-toxic living. We made a point to get clear on our values about not having stuff. We noted that in the hundreds of videos about tiny houses on the Internet, one of the most talked about aspects of tiny building considerations is ‘clever-storage’ for lots of stuff. Hmmm… ‘clever-storage’ hasn’t been high on our design criteria list.

Thorough Thoreau

It seems we went way more ‘Zen’ than many people who go tiny. Back to Thoreau: “Simplify! Simplify!” Ours is a symbolic expression as much as it is an imperfect practical demonstration. And, our liberating work of letting-go continues to this day.

We are very pleased to say that our completed eucalyptus-green tiny house on wheels of 7.4 x 2.4 meters is parked on a twelve-acre organic farm on the Sunshine Coast of Queensland, Australia. Like the mythical realm of Shambhala, Linn and I are graced by the wonderful people residing there, and by animals, ducks, other birds and bats, reptiles, insects, trees and plants — the Earth, Sun, Moon and Stars!

We are in. We are downsized. We are simplified. We are grateful. And … We are loving it!



What has this article brought up for you? Are you a mini or maxi-taxi? As we go into the New Year we invite you to rummage through all your stuff and make a big pile for the charity shops. Charity shops are in great need during this time and afterall someone’s junk is someone’s treasure. Let it go …
Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Much love and happy freeing and freedom to you all.


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29 Responses to The Great Downsizing and Henry David Thoreau

  1. This article was so well written! Easy, smooth and interesting! Thanks so much. I have recently downsized by 50%, from a huge home to a one bedroom! What an incredible/insightful journey. Fortunately I had an entire year to go through things slowly, methodically and most importantly thoughtfully. Your words, as well as the various replies resonated with me. All of it. I absolutely LOVE “pretty things” and enjoy them tremendously however, because I had so much space I had accumulated way too much. It was liberating to donate so much of it while simultaneously a bit bitter sweet. My life is so much simpler now and I have gratitude, in equal parts, for what I once had and for what I have now. It is an entirely different life. I completely understand those who choose not to downsize and I understand the author and his wife for choosing to do so. We are all here at the earth school learning and trying to find our way. Thanks again!

    • Thank you for sharing your own experience Liz 😃 So beautifully put! Very happy that you are enjoying your new lifestyle 🙌

      Much love,
      Team UPLIFT

  2. Some years ago, I began the process of weeding out what I no longer need. Both externally and internally. My stuff includes some relationships and other intangibles that I’ve outgrown. Externally, I’m getting ready to downsize into a much smaller apartment. I’m trying to find a balance between need and want. There are some things that I may not need but they serve another purpose in that I feel better with them nearby. And then there’s the issue of wondering why I hang onto other things – is it fear of letting go, I might want them later on. Thanks for the article.

    • I can fully relate Karen … May a grace-filled discernment govern your choices. Much love to you Paul and Team UPLIFT

  3. Yes Lou ~ tiny house living is not for everyone. What ever is? I’m confident that to walk into your residence would be a raising of my ‘frequency’ because it is a place of authentic soulfulness.

    I try to keep those items that are deeply meaningful and have a unique aesthetic value. I ask myself in my process, ‘Does this item raise my resonance?’ That question does not keep a count of how much or how many items I have. Thank you for sharing!

  4. I love the idea of tiny houses. Many years of backpacking around the world has given me the experience of the freedom owning nothing apart from some essential possessions that fit into a backpack. Fast forward past family life and children, I now converted my house and shed into smaller self contained spaces that can be used by singles of couples. Mini community of like mided people is the ideal, where we help each other and also look out for each other yet still have our own private space.

  5. I loved this artical and agree we should all be trying
    to live a sustainable life !!!
    As for myself I feel the weight of my stuff holding
    me back and am at my happiest when walking in
    nature with only what I have on my back 🙏🏽🌏

    • I can totally relate Rob – it’s one of my favourite things about travelling, having the bare essentials! It’s great that you recognise that your ‘stuff’ is weighing you down, that’s the first step!

      Best of luck to you on your decluttering journey 😊💜
      Team UPLIFT

      • What has helped us is to individually tune into our hearts and gently question, ‘Does this serve me and who I am now?’ It astounds us just how much we’ve changed over the years and how so much stuff has very little relevance to our present day selves. With my books, it gets down to keeping that which resonates ‘soulfully’ for me. It’s all a work in progress. Thanks for sharing Rob!

  6. In my 6th decade I have much “stuff” collected over the years. Many are treasures only to me – if I “decluttered”, they could easily become part of a landfill. My holding them with love and attention costs me; I honour the debt and look for opportunities to honour the past through gifting them onward, to create new debts of love that enable them to continue to bask in the glow of memory. We weigh the concerns and live in the soup of “stuff” we collect around us – mine is rich, and too thick, but I will share what I have and give what I believe will shine in the lives of the ones I collect around me. We are the soup!

    • May we all find our unique way of being Shannon. There’s so much wisdom in your share. As we cook down this life-soup – do we not reach our soul essence? Gifting our meaningful love bits is a beautiful way to go. Lots of gratitude for your comment!

  7. When Covid came to town in March, I was living in a 600 sq.ft. duplex which had a large porch with many plants. Then I escaped to the East for 41/2 months to live with various family and friends. I put everything in storage including my car. I only spent money on food. I had clothes, toiletries, a phone and my computer with me. I road my bike, swam, walked, hiked and dove deeper into the spiritual studies I had begun the previous year and used Zoom and FaceTime to stay connected. Tiny house living is for me. I have not figured out, YET, how I’m going to manifest this dream of being a vagabond for a time and then stilling myself in my tiny house. I think a container home, with “clever” windows is how I see it. Less is more and JOY is only three letters but it packs a heck of feeling.

    • Thanks for your share Beryl! We’re learning as we go. Now that we’re moved in we can say without hesitation that we’re very glad that we created this situation. We built our ‘tiny’ on wheels because of the flux of council zoning orientations. Society is not really sure how to accommodate this new way of living. The Polkadot Tiny Houses and Eco-villages Facebook group is a great resource. All the best in you journey!

  8. I shared your writings and added
    A MUST read in these times where almost all of us are realizing that something has got to give, to change but some secretly hoping we’ll go back to “the good old”. Was it that good then? On a personal level maybe (comfort zone) but the planet was not getting happier
    “Simplify, simplify” dixit Thoreau and more “simple living, high thinking”.
    Less stuff, less worries, more living.

    I have been decluttering since a while, living out of suitcases, but still having stuff in storage, even if its only a little bit. And I do not even care if it would burn down, so wondering why I keep it…

    I bought a piece of land in Portugal with ruins that I thought to rebuild to make a new home.. the first ping from your article was a sense of lightness and now exploring a lighter (not just weight, but materials) approach at making a place to love , with little stuff .
    Thank you, please continue sharing, it inspires..

    • Thank you Valerie for your comments. I’m glad that you liked it and found some benefit. ‘How to live our lives ‘now’ .. in these unprecedented times?’ That is an essential question. I self-encourage a ‘soulfulness’ approach to what I keep and what I let go. Some of James Hilman’s and also Robert Sardello’s writings explore this realm of soulfulness beautifully.

      And … there are treasures in that reflective business of wondering why you keep it. In a state of compassionate curiosity perhaps spend more time, free of any pressure, simply wondering about “… why I keep it…”

      Next article is in the works. Thanks again …

  9. This is a great article with wonder-filled quotes from our collective teachers. Like Lou Hammond above, this form of tiny house living is not for everyone, especially elders, who may be infirmed to climb up and down a ladder to the loft in the evening and morning, not to say anything ’bout the gent’s need to find a tree at 3 AM, alas. There are many anecdotal stories of folks living simpler lives, urban ones, without cars and large homes. While consumption is a big issue, the larger one is the disconnect from our collective natural world which is not us VS them, but, we are *IT*, as Alan Watts teaches. He travels further by stating that this is all a game and the show {MAYA} must go on…
    To quote a tagline from the David Suzuki Foundation of 20 years ago: “What we do to nature, we do to ourselves.”

      • Thank you John for these additional and very valuable insights. Duane Elgin’s book ‘Voluntary Simplicity’ has been a catalyst for many including myself. There are, as you mention, numerous others. And, as I state in the article … it is for us as much a symbolic gesture as it is a practical demonstration. How can we live ‘litely’ and ‘lightly’ on this beautiful planet?? Please keep spreading your light brother John!

  10. Decluttering is all the rage these days, but I don’t think it is for everyone. I don’t have a big place, just a 1 bedroom apartment, but I am an artists and need space for creating things. I also have a large number of items that are gifts and mementos from deceased relatives that are antiques and beautifully crafted, as well as creations made by artistic friends. I treasure these things, I enjoy the stories behind these things when I look at them or rearrange them, the energy of the people who gave me these things, and I enjoy seeing visitors delight when they come to my place and they get to see them as well. I do not feel cluttered or burdened by these things because that is not my perspective of viewing them. I live in a home I have created for me. I have been in some decluttered homes that felt sterile and clinical and not homey or comfortable. I am in my 70s now and do not travel much nor have any future plans that call on me to change my lifestyle so I can sit back and enjoy what I do have.

    • Indeed, this is not for everyone. I am in the maxi camp but recognise that part of the issue of over consumption is not so much stuff itself but the poor quality of items built to wear out quickly so they have to be replaced. At the end of the article the Uplift Team suggests taking unwanted items to charity shops – those shops are also full of items from clothing to books to china and furniture that can be reused, it’s not hard to find decent quality and if you are creative/practical, to upcycle where possible. It also ignores the wonder of art galleries, theatres, restaurants and general entertainment. Then there is family life – children, pets etc – all need space! Growing up in relative poverty, every item we owned was precious. So was space. I’m nearing retirement myself, but my aim is to move out of the city to a bigger house so I can swing my arms about without hitting things. Horses for courses as they say!

    • It’s wonderful to hear that what you have gives you joy Lou 🙂 I think ultimately that’s what this is about, it’s the meaningless and unnecessary possessions that we carry with us that can be very liberating to let go of (at least in my experience).

      Thanks for reading and sharing your perspective 🙏💗

      Team UPLIFT

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