Henry David Thoreau

The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World.1

No doubt there would have been an environmental movement without Thoreau, but it is hard to imagine such a movement without the rhetorical fire of his words or the inspirational force of his actions. It was Thoreau's ability to embody his actions in powerful and incisive language that made them resonate so widely: most famously, his one-night stand in a Concord jail, the consequence of his non-payment of the tax which supported war in Mexico and slavery in the South; and his residence for two years, two months and two days at Walden Pond, a deep glacier-cut lake just a mile from town. The writings that resulted crystallized concepts that helped shape the actions of generations of successors: anger over his night in jail kindled Thoreau's protest essay 'Resistance to Civil Government', which gave Mohandas Gandhi the term 'civil disobedience';2 and joy in his sojourn at Walden Pond suffused Walden with poetic energy, making this the defining event of Thoreau's life and career as a writer. In Walden, Thoreau moves from caustic criticism of American society to a lyrical intimacy with nature, teaching him, and us, how the spirit of the one can redeem us from the evils of the other. Thoreau's writings became the touchstone for a new and deeper valuation of nature which led, in the decades after his death, to the beginnings of the environmental movement in the USA, starting with Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir. As Lawrence Buell writes, thousands of devotees have made pilgrimages to Walden Pond and Thoreau has become our 'environmental hero',3 the father of American nature writing.

Thoreau was hardly born a naturalist. As a child he joined in family outings into the countryside around Concord, Massachusetts, a small farming village and county seat, set in a rolling landscape of farms, lakes, rivers and second-growth woodlands. Apart from these rambles, Thoreau showed no special disposition towards nature study. His education at Harvard turned him into an accomplished scholar of Greek and Latin, well prepared for his intended profession of schoolteaching. When their notions proved too progressive for the established schools, Henry and his elder brother John opened a school of their own, which flourished briefly until John's ill health forced them to close it in 1841. Henry's life took a further turn when John died suddenly of lockjaw, in January 1842. In the years that followed, Henry tried various ways of making a living: as a tutor, a handyman, assistant in his father's pencil factory and surveyor; but with the encouragement of his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson and the 'Transcendental' movement he inspired, Thoreau set his sights on literature as his true vocation. In 1844, Emerson bought land on Walden Pond, and in 1845, with Emerson's blessing, Thoreau began to build his cabin. When he moved in—on Independence Day, 4 July 1845—Thoreau took with him the materials for his first major writing project, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), a meditative re-telling of a two-week journey he and John had taken in 1839. While at the Pond, though, Thoreau began gathering materials for his next project, Walden. At first he merely sought to explain his unusual actions to his curious fellow-townsmen, but over the years the project grew to encompass the events of his stay at the pond and the philosophy of living he learned to practise on its shores.

It was while he was living at the Pond that Thoreau was seized and jailed, one afternoon in July 1846 when he was running errands in town. The controversy that ensued sharpened his political thought; already a vocal abolitionist and a modest success on the lecture circuit, from the 1840s onwards Thoreau was increasingly prominent as an anti-slavery speaker and activist. Two other events at the Pond also shaped his future career. First, a few weeks after his arrest Thoreau travelled to Maine, where on Mount Katahdin he first encountered true wilderness. The experience, as he narrated it in 'Ktaadn', shattered his image of nature as a safe and nurturing mother: here, 'Vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature' seemed to corner him and query, 'why came ye here before your time? This ground is not prepared for you.' It was difficult, Thoreau pondered, 'to conceive of a region uninhabited by man', for we presume our presence 'everywhere. And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast, and drear, and inhuman...Here was no man's garden, but the unhandselled globe.'4 After this revelation, Thoreau could see that even Walden's peaceful landscape held its terrors, for some element in nature was always and irreducibly Other: or, as he would soon call it, Wild.

The second event suggested one way in which that otherness might be approached, if not fully comprehended. As Thoreau increasingly turned to nature, he also turned to writings about nature, especially to works of natural history. But the arrival in Boston of Louis Agassiz, the famous Swiss natural scientist, turned Thoreau from observer to participant. Agassiz soon organized a collecting network, and by April 1847 Thoreau was shipping specimens of fish, turtles, and even a fox, to Agassiz, who declared some of the species Thoreau collected new to science. Soon afterwards, Thoreau came to the writings of Agassiz's mentor, Alexander von Humboldt, and of Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell, also deeply influenced by Humboldt. Thoreau was critical of natural history surveys, which he condemned as 'inventories of God's property, by some clerk'5— but here was something else again, a cosmic vision of nature as one great whole to be approached through the loving and exacting study of its myriads of details, not in the laboratory but out in the wild, through exploration and collection. Thoreau caught the Humboldtian wave just as it was cresting, not only in Europe but in America, where Humboldtian science was stimulating the organization and funding of government-sponsored Exploring Expeditions to the American West and along the coastlines of North and South America. Humboldt promoted a science that included organism and environment in one interconnected web, a synthesis that decades later would be named 'ecology'. Thoreau's discovery of proto-ecological science was of tremendous importance to his development as a thinker, for in it he found tools and models for conducting his own 'ecological' studies of the Concord environment. By the early 1850s, this new vocation absorbed most of his productive hours, including the records in his Journal, which eventually totalled over two million words. Under the excitement of his emerging passion, Walden— which had languished in manuscript form since the commercial failure of A Week—grew to maturity.

Published at last in 1854, Walden remains the classic text at the head of all American nature writing since. It is directed to all those who recognize that, like the 'mass of men', they too 'lead lives of quiet desperation'.6 Thoreau's 'experiment' at Walden Pond sheds all but the essential trappings of 'civilized' life to reveal a more truly civil life of the mind, lived close to nature's rhythms and attentive to her creatures, of whom we are, of course, one. 'Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations', Thoreau wrote.7 Walden is above all a place to dwell and 'find' oneself, and so the emphasis in Walden is on domestic nature. Two other works, which overlap in the time of their composition but which were not published in final form until after Thoreau's death, take up the nature of wilderness and of those whose lives border civilized and wild. The Maine Woods (1864) collects the narratives of Thoreau's three trips to Maine: 'Ktaadn' was followed by 'Chesuncook', in which Thoreau joins a moose hunt, and 'The Allegash and East Branch', in which he considers the mind and life of the Indian through his friendship with the Penobscot guide Joe Polis. In Cape Cod (1865), Thoreau visits the men and women who live in the dunes with the sea at their backs, and here, facing that sea, Thoreau considers that 'wilderness reaching round the globe, wilder than a Bengal jungle, and fuller of monsters'. Thoreau's beach delineates, like Mount Katahdin, the outermost edge of humanity and holds similar terrors: 'It is a wild rank place, and there is no flattery in it...There is naked Nature,—inhumanly sincere, wasting no thought on man, nibbling at the cliffy shore where gulls wheel amid the spray.'8

Thoreau's early death, at age 44, cut short the developing projects of what should have been his middle years. Thoreau was well on his way to a unique synthesis of scientific precision with a poet's love of metaphor. Most notably, 'The Succession of Forest Trees' (1860) presents both a scientific theory accounting for patterns of forest succession and a passionate argument for intelligent forest management.9 The need for such an argument reminds us that Thoreau's home landscape was hardly pristine: already in the 1840s it had been worn down by 200 years of European use. Furthermore, the onset of the Industrial Revolution alerted Thoreau to its long-term consequences: the railroad had cut across a corner of Walden just before he moved there, and cutting timber for ties and fuel had by the 1850s nearly levelled the forests he grew up with. Once-familiar species like deer and beaver had long been hunted out of his neighbourhood, and his critique of capitalism included the fear that soon all open land would be fenced and posted against trespassers, outlawing the kind of long cross-country walks he took daily.10 In another of his late essays, 'Wild Apples', Thoreau warned against the coming of the evil days when 'even all the trees of the field, are withered'.11 Yet he did not counsel despair. Instead, Thoreau began to work out solutions whereby the community would combine to create 'national preserves',12 taking selected lands out of the system of private property and holding them in trust for all, 'a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation'. Such land, if forested, was not to be cut but to 'stand and decay for higher uses', suggesting an ethic of preservation;13 in another late manuscript,

Thoreau speculated that 'Forest wardens should be appointed by the town' to oversee the management of private woodlots. Americans had much to learn, Thoreau suggested, from the English, who 'have taken great pains to learn how to create forests', where Americans still bushwack infant forests or foolishly plough them underground.14 Thus the seeds of the two contending sides of the environmental movement—preservation of resources and their conservation or managed use—may both be found in Thoreau's late writings. Though he was active in educating his townspeople about better ways to live with the land and the river, Thoreau never sponsored or joined what could be called a 'movement', in environmental activism or anything else. His reasoning is presented in 'Resistance to Civil Government', where political change is shown to emerge from the convergent actions of all persons with a conscience who, based on their independent moral reasoning, refuse to participate in social injustice. As Emerson had written in 'Self-Reliance', the true reformer 'is weaker by every recruit to his banner'.15 Thoreau pushed Emerson's idea of self-reliant resistance even farther: first, for Thoreau, nature, too, has the power to 'resist' humankind. That is, nature is not plastic in our hands, to mould as we wish; physical nature has the power to push back, against our designs, or is simply indifferent to them, like the Titan of 'Ktaadn' or the world-circling ocean. When Thoreau looked at wild creatures, they looked back at him, and what he saw in their eyes was not his own reflection but something alien, 'wild.' Thus for Thoreau nature had its own moral standing: 'Who hears the fishes when they cry?', he asked of the shad trapped before the Billerica dam; and he went on to warn, 'It will not be forgotten by some memory that we were contemporaries.'16 Thoreau understood that were humans removed, nature would still exist and she would not mourn. That insight, astonishing for its time, both fascinated and frightened Thoreau, who was fundamentally a humanist in his outlook; that the universe might be biocentric was both troubling and exciting to him. As a result, he attended to the relationship between humans and their environment in a way that few were yet capable of imagining.

Second, Thoreau believed that power flowed from the individual to the collective. Emerson had entertained this idea, but like most Romantics he was even more taken by its complement, the way in which power flowed from the whole organization through the individual. Thoreau stubbornly lived his independent convictions in a way that unnerved his friends, but it was in this way that Thoreau joined his political ideals—his vision of the ultimate democracy—with his understanding of how nature worked: through a creative harmony of independent agents, each seeing to their own ends, but in their purposes borrowing each other to combine towards a higher whole. Thoreau's intellectual convictions also shaped his literary style: since the individual initiated social change, Thoreau sought to move each single reader. By turns he shocks, insults, mocks, jokes, disarms, reasons, preaches, contradicts and sings, knowing that while some readers will shake him off, others will be provoked and inspired. Above all, Thoreau knew the power of a good story, and so in Walden he tellingly offers a narrative of his own narrow escape from bondage to freedom. Of course, the point is lost if readers could not imagine recreating the story in their own lives, and so Thoreau invites his readers— us—to follow him, not to Walden Pond but to our own 'Walden', from which we might find our way to a life lived not in desperation but in wisdom.

For Thoreau, such a goal was inconceivable apart from nature: 'culture', the definitive characteristic of humanity, was a process of self-growth or 'cultivation' which joined human effort with the unworked natural landscape, changing both together—like Thoreau in his notorious Walden bean-field. We are not set into our environment; rather, we and our environment grow together into an interlinked whole, such that a careful look around will tell who, and what, we are. Thoreau's exacting observation of the landscape of Concord told him America still had a long way to go, that most human possibility still lay unrealized. If we are a little closer to the civil society he imagined, it is partly because he spoke, in a way that made us listen.


1 'Walking', in Natural History Essays, p. 112.

2 Thoreau's original title is given here, although after his death the second printing of this essay altered the title to 'Civil Disobedience'. Many reprints since have used the later, but non-authorial, title.

3 Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture, pp. 315-16.

5 A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, p. 97.

9 The ideas in 'The Succession of Forest Trees' were developed at much greater length in Thoreau's unfinished manuscript, 'The Dispersion of Seeds', recently published in Faith in a Seed, pp. 23-173. Other previously unpublished late natural history writings appear in Wild Fruits.

10 See Thoreau's essay, 'Walking', in Natural History Essays, pp. 93-136, or in any of its many reprints.

11 Natural History Essays, p. 210.

13 'Huckleberries', in Natural History Essays, p. 259.

15 Ralph Waldo Emerson, 'Self-Reliance', in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. II, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 50, 1979.

16 A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, p. 37.

See also in this book

Darwin, Emerson, Jeffers, Lovelock, Muir

Thoreau's major writings

The standard edition of Thoreau's writings is now being issued by Princeton University Press as The Writings of Henry D.Thoreau, ed. Walter Harding et al., 12 vols to date, 1971-. This is gradually replacing the earlier edition, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, 20 vols, Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1906.

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849, ed. Carl Hovde et al., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Walden, 1854, ed. J.Lyndon Shanley, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Excursions, Boston, MA: Ticknor & Fields, 1863.

The Maine Woods, 1864, ed. Joseph J.Moldenhauer, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Cape Cod, 1865, ed. Joseph J.Moldenhauer, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Natural History Essays, ed. Robert Sattelmeyer, Salt Lake City, UT: Peregrine Smith, 1980.

Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings, ed. Bradley P.Dean, Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993.

Wild Fruits, ed. Bradley P.Dean, New York: Norton, 1999.

Further reading

Buell, L., The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

McGregor, R.K., A Wider View of the Universe: Henry Thoreau's Study of Nature , Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Richardson, R.D., Jr, Henry David Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986.

Walls, L.D., Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.

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  • Mimosa Headstrong
    What made henry d. thoreau interested in the environment?
    3 years ago
  • gabriella bruce
    How did thoreau use natural resources?
    2 years ago

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