Several years ago, I was on an early run in December. It was an idyllic morning, dappled sun falling through a canopy of live oaks as I ran. No one was out and all was quiet except for a faint noise in the distance. As I ran, the noise grew louder until I made out that it was coming from a generator and its purpose came into view. A neighbor had set up a giant inflatable Christmas decoration on the lawn. In my memory, it was a house with a Santa inside, lit by colored bulbs and pumped with hot air by the generator. The noise and color were distracting, but I didn’t stop to look. I kept running and smiled at a certain thought: I’ll bet that was bigger than Thoreau’s cabin.

When I got home, I looked it up, and my hunch seemed about right. When Henry David Thoreau went to the Walden woods to conduct his famous experiment in living simply, he lived in a cabin that was roughly 10 feet by 15. He furnished it with a table, a desk, a bed, and three chairs. This was all he needed for the more than two years he spent there, walking the woods and asking questions about how to live meaningfully and well.

I think of Thoreau every December because it is precisely this time of year when our consumer culture asks us to begin wanting things we don’t need, spending money we don’t have, and rushing at a double pace to get everything done in a finite series of weeks. My mailbox overflows with flyers, my email bombards me with sales and specials, and I get into a staring contest with my calendar, each of us wondering if the other will give. Yet Thoreau invites us simply to toss it all. “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” he asks, which is another way of asking what we value most. We don’t have to be swayed by the season and bend to its pressures. We can make of it what we want.

It’s a good thought for us in Charleston, where the pace seems to increase by the year, our consumption encroaching on much of what we love about this place. In the years that I’ve been here, I’ve watched the roads clog, seen the trees cleared, looked up at all the new construction, and wondered if there are any limits to the buying and selling of this land. I’ve also watched historically black neighborhoods go to the highest bidder as gentrification sweeps the peninsula and out of state investors buy up properties with no sense of the culture and context of this place. If this isn’t a good time to ask Thoreau’s questions about what we value most, I don’t know when a good time would be.

What I value most about this place is its natural beauty, its arts and culture, my neighbors, my house of worship, and the air, which is cleaner than any place I’ve lived. None of these things have a cost and I don’t need to put them on my holiday wish list because I already have them. Unless the cost is that of protecting and preserving them from our consumptive impulse. Because if we sell the last bit of land it will be harder to enjoy. If we let bigger and bigger ships come in without shoreside power, the air will be difficult to breathe. If we sweep the peninsula of every person of color, it will be impossible to imagine that this is Charleston at all. Of course, Thoreau would have us ground ourselves in what we have by going for a walk and taking it in.

If there’s one thing we know about Thoreau, it is that he walked for hours on end. In this way, he got to know his place and felt deeply connected to it. It was satisfying to him. He saw the beauty of the natural world. He spoke with his neighbors. He grounded himself in simple pleasures, needing nothing more. He rejected many of the conventions of his day, choosing instead to build a basic life and savor the beauty of its moments.

Things have changed a lot since Thoreau’s time. For one, I’m sure he couldn’t have imagined an inflatable Santa house powered by an electric generator. But we are also living in a time when economist Jeffery Sachs reminds us that 7.2 billion people now compete for the earth’s finite resources. This is roughly nine times the number of people there were at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It’s enough to put a lump in our throats as we run beneath the live oaks and wonder not only how much we need but how much the earth can reasonably be expected to give.

If Thoreau is any guide, we might for a season forgo our consumption as a people and as a city. We might downsize and simplify. We might fill our holiday stockings with donation receipts to local charities. We might lay a copy of Walden near the menorah or under the tree. We might ask, as Thoreau did, if we don’t already have everything we need.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.