Henry David Thoreau (1817-62)

Thoreau's Walden is the ur-text of American nature writing. Many earlier American explorers, naturalists, and authors had described the natural wonders of the new continent, but until Thoreau, no author had located "nature" at the center of one vision of the American psyche. Like Wordsworth, however, Thoreau's nature writing is as much about its author' learning and his reading as it is about any objective vision of the natural world. Within the first chapter of Walden, "Economy," Thoreau refers to the Sandwich Islanders, Deucalion and Pyrrha, Raleigh, Evelyn, Hippocrates, Confucius, Darwin on Tierra del Fuego, Salem Harbor, Hanno and the Phoenicians, and St. Petersburg. This is a book about other books, about hostory, biography, philosophy, farming, and comparative religion as much as it is a book about "nature."

Thoreau was allying himself with another tradition of natural history writing, one that goes back at least to Gilbert White in England; that is, the idea that the natural historian remains near one precise location—the village of Selborne in White's case (1789), Walden Pond in Thoreau's (1854)—and then describes the flora and fauna of a circumscribed geographical region as well as the seasonal changes that occur there. This powerful tradition continues in America through writers such as John Muir (the redwoods of California , 1894) and Aldo Leopold (Sand County, Wisconsin, 1949), down to Edward Abbey (the desert Southwest, 1949) and Annie Dillard (Tinker Creek, 1974) in more recent times.

William Zinsser has written that Thoreau's Walden is “probably the best travel book written by an American [. . .] though the hermit of Concord hardly got beyond the town limits” (1991, 14). Thoreau, we should remember, could walk from his cabin hideaway into town to have dinner with Emerson. Zinsser goes on to note how various and multifarious are the works we associate with travel narratives. He cites “books by adventurous women,” “journeys to dead civilizations,” “vivid memoirs of earlier life,” “rich personal odysseys,” “journey between points never previously linked,” “explorers accounts of their own exhilarating trips,” and even biographical accounts “of earlier explorer's trips,” like Alan Moorehead's The White Nile.

Of course, once Thoreau left Walden, his writing took on even more similarities with the tradition of travel writing, whether he was describing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers or the depths of the Maine Woods . Here he is on a river in Massachusetts, making travel to a blueberry patch seem like a trip to paradise:

we moored our little boat on the west side of a little rising ground which in spring forms an island in the river. Here we found huckleberries still hanging upon the bushes, where they seemed to have slowly ripened for our especial use. Bread and sugar, and cocoa boiled in river water, made our repast, and as we had drank in the fluvial prospect all day, so now we took a draft of the water with our evening meal to propitiate the river gods, and whet our vision for the sights it was to behold.” (1849, “Saturday,” (33)

And here he is, high up Mount Katahdin, the tallest mountain in Maine. At a place that has since come to be known as Thoreau Springs, he has one of those rare experiences that all travel writers long for, an epiphany that literally changes his view of human beings and their relationship to the natural world:

I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one, that my body might, but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature, daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?” (1864, Maine Woods , "Ktaadn," 664)

In this famous passage, Thoreau's view of nature is literally transformed by the experience of wild nature; had he not been able to leave the relative safety of Walden Pond for the jagged heights of Mount Katahdin, we might never have been able to read his description of the fearful, awe inspiring, even terrifying aspects of the nonhuman world. However much we may care about the natural world, it may have no concern for us at all.

At the same, time, however, Thoreau's rigorous powers of observation, his anti-materialism, and his unrelenting sense of a surging energy at the center of the nonhuman world all contribute to a sensibility that has resonated through America, and beyond, over the past two centuries.  --Ashton Nichols  

Thoreau links:

Walden

The Maine Woods

Journals


 

Back to A Romantic Natural History