I begin a series of three posts about Henry David Thoreau, adapted from my two encyclopedias. The first is a general biography of this remarkable person, who was an inconvenient man in both his academic and cultural surroundings. In the second essay, I describe his contributions to modern science (something that is often overlooked). In the third, I share thoughts from a recent biography about him.
Henry David Thoreau is widely revered as a “prophet of environmentalism” because the ideas he wrote and put them into action appear to have been at least a century ahead of their time. He is less often mentioned as one of the leading scientists of early 19th century America. He was an amateur scientist, but laid the groundwork for the ecological study of seed dispersal and ecological succession. He collected data that constitute one of the earliest studies of the adjustment of organisms to changing seasons. His data sets have been used by modern scientists to document climate change that has occurred since his time.
Thoreau went out into a woodlot owned by Emerson (one of the few forest tracts near Concord that had not been cut down) and built a cabin near Walden Pond. The woodlot was not wilderness, but was a second-growth forest, and was less than two miles (a little over two km) from Concord. He started his work on July 4 of that year, intending it as a statement of independence from the pursuit of wealth (which, he said, led most people into “lives of quiet desperation”) just as July 4 marked American independence and just as Concord was the site of the first battle of the Revolutionary War. But he also intended his cabin as an experiment. He kept a journal the rest of his life, some of which he published in the book Walden, or Life in the Woods, which has become the environmental classic of the 19th century. In the journal, and book, he wrote detailed records of how much it cost him to build the cabin, and how he raised or caught much of his own food, going to town only for a few staple food items. He even built the cabin from wood and nails left over from a laborer family’s shanty. He spent only a couple of years in the cabin. He did not intend it as a permanent change in lifestyle, but to demonstrate that it could be done.
Thoreau was also famous for his essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” later known as “On Civil Disobedience,” which was based upon an experience he had in 1846. For six years, he had refused to pay poll taxes because of his opposition to slavery and to the Mexican-American war. Massachusetts had no slaves but profited from goods produced by slaves, and the federal Fugitive Slave Act required all citizens to aid in the capture of slaves who had escaped from the South. He also considered the war to be nothing more than aggression. The Concord tax collector liked Thoreau but was obligated to arrest him. Thoreau was ready to spend a long period of time in jail as a protest, but his aunt paid his taxes and he was released after one night.
Thoreau’s civil disobedience inspired generations of social reformers, such as Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, Indian leader Mahatma Ghandi, and American reformer Martin Luther King, Jr. But his insistence that frugal living (what today would be called “having a small ecological footprint”) is not only possible but enjoyable contributed to his modern reputation as the prophet of environmentalism. Since the most ancient times, prophets have predicted disastrous outcomes to the way most people in their society lived; called for repentance from that way; and themselves lived in a way that was a constant reminder of the way of repentance. This is exactly what Henry David Thoreau did. Like all prophets, Thoreau was an inconvenient man. Though by no means a hermit (he went to town every couple of days even during his cabin phase), he was always separated from the normal crowd: when in town, he observed people as might an anthropologist from another planet. His presence was a prophetic denouncement of materialistic society. Thoreau was particularly vivid (and virtually alone) in his criticism of people who did not take care of their land. Thoreau wrote that Flint’s Pond (also near Concord) was named after an “unclean and stupid” farmer who laid its shores bare, loved a shiny dollar more than a shiny pond, reflecting “his own brazen face,” “regarded even the wild ducks…as trespassers…” “…who never saw it, who never bathed in it, who never loved it, who never protected it, who never spoke a good word for it, nor thanked God that He had made it…who exhausted the land around it…he would carry his God to market…whose fields bear no crops, whose meadows no flowers, whose trees no fruits, but dollars.” Thoreau defended biodiversity against an agricultural mindset that, then as now, reduced a farm or a woodlot to its economic value, and evaluated every plot of land on Earth, however different each was from the other, according to just one scale of value.
The most famous Thoreau quote, which reflects his important insights into the environment and science, was “…in wildness is the preservation of the world,” often misquoted as “wilderness.” To Thoreau, wildness could be found in a well-managed woodlot as easily as in the Maine woods that he visited as a young man.
Thoreau was inspired by the writings of scientists who closely observed the world during their travels, particularly American botanist William Bartram who traveled among the Cherokees of the Appalachians in the late 18th century, and Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. Thoreau strongly believed in the complete connectedness of humans and nature (“Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mold myself?”) but did not fully understand it until he read Darwin’s Origin of Species shortly before his death. Previous to this, he had believed, as a transcendentalist, that all of nature reflected spiritual patterns. He was very serious when he observed leaf-like patterns in thawing clay and said that it was the same natural law that produced the shapes of real leaves and also of human internal organs. The Earth had a body, but its organs were on the outside: “What is man but a mass of thawing clay?” When he saw a mouse girdling a pine tree (chewing a ring of bark), he thought it was the Earth’s way of thinning out the pines. Darwin’s Origin of Species undermined Thoreau’s faith, and Thoreau spent his last years making scientific observations with few transcendentalist insights.
Without Ralph Waldo Emerson, there would have been no remembrance of Thoreau. It was Emerson’s woodlot in which Thoreau briefly lived. Emerson popularized Thoreau after the latter’s death. But they were very different. Emerson would write long flowery-tongued passages about things, whether about the world of nature or the breathlessness of love, which he had not closely observed. To Thoreau, nature was a living world from which to learn; to Emerson, it was a canvas upon which to paint his grand ideas. For example, Emerson said that “savage” languages were simple and consisted mostly of nouns. Had he even bothered to ask anyone who had learned Native American languages—and there were plenty in his scholarly circle—he would have known this was wrong. But Thoreau was fascinated by what he could learn from Native Americans. (His last words were “moose” and “Indian.”)
Thoreau caught pneumonia when he was in the woods counting tree rings. He was only 44 years old when he died on May 6, 1862.