Monday, November 8, 2010

Henry David Thoreau, Prophet and Scientist

The following essay appeared on my website on July 11, 2009.

A prophet is not someone who just predicts the future. Since the most ancient times, prophets have been men (and women; even when women were excluded from official religious positions) who 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. Repentance is not just a religious word; it means to turn around and utterly change the direction of your life.

This is exactly what Henry David Thoreau did in Concord, Massachusetts in the 1840s and 1850s. He continually wrote and spoke (mostly at the Concord Lyceum) about how happiness does not come from the accumulation of material comforts, especially at the cost of debt, but from quiet contemplation of the wonders with which the natural world is continually filled. He is most famous for living in the woods for a couple of years, which was when he put his ideas into practice, and which time is recounted in his classic Walden. He reveled in building a comfortable cabin for very little money, and living on a very small income, the details of the budgets being shared with his readers. 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 his materialistic society.

There was financial unrest then—as the agricultural economy of Massachusetts was being driven aside by the farms of the Ohio Valley and the railroads that brought their produce to the east—as there is now, and his example is valuable to us today. There are many prophets today, who write books, but who also live frugally, to prove that it can be done and as a challenge to the rest of society.

But Thoreau was also a scientist, though without formal training. The peace that he experienced came from close and quiet observation of the natural world, which is what scientists do. Nature suggested hypotheses to him, which he (however imperfectly) investigated. He was passionate about observing (the colors of ice and the stages by which it thawed) and measuring (the depths of Walden Pond). Scholars puzzle that his last writings were all “mere observations” of seed dispersal and spring budburst dates of plants. But, as one who like Thoreau has a big database of budburst dates, only on a computer instead of in a notebook, I am not puzzled at all. His observations were the basis upon which important ecological science was later based. Even his cabin in the woods was an experiment.

Without Ralph Waldo Emerson, there would have been no remembrance of Thoreau. It was Emerson’s woodlot in which Thoreau briefly lived (and it was almost the only forest remaining in the vicinity). Emerson popularized Thoreau after the latter’s death. But they were very different. Emerson was full of hot air. He would write long flowery-tongued passages about things, whether about the world of nature or the breathlessness of love, which he had not bothered to study. 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.”)

For our survival, we need to heed the example of the prophet Thoreau. In our technological arrogance, we have had enough of Emersonian projection of our ideas upon the world.

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