Thoreau, Henry David (1817 – 1862) American Writer and Natural Philosopher

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Henry David Thoreau (1817 1862)
American writer and natural philosopher

Thoreau was a member of the group of radical Transcendentalists who lived in New England, especially Concord, Massachusetts, around the mid-nineteenth century. He is known worldwide for two written works, both still widely read and influential today: Walden, a book, and a tract entitled "Civil Disobedience." All of his works are still in print, but most noteworthy is his 14-volume Journal, which some critics think contains his best writing. Contemporary readers interested in conservation , environmentalism , ecology , natural history, the human species , or philosophy can gain great understanding and wisdom from reading Thoreau.

Today, Thoreau would be considered not only a philosopher, a humanist, and a writer, but also an ecologist (though that word was not coined until after his death). His status as a writer, naturalist, and conservationist has been secure for decades; in conservation circles, he is recognized as what Backpacker magazine calls one of the "elders of the tribe."

Trying to trace any idea through Thoreau's work is a complicated task, and that is true of his ecology as well. One straightforward example of Thoreau's sophistication as an ecologist is his essay on "The Succession of Forest Trees." Thoreau found the same unity in nature that present-day ecologists study, and he often commented on it: "The birds with their plumage and their notes are in harmony with the flowers." Only humans, he felt, find such connections difficult: "Nature has no human inhabitants who appreciate her." Thoreau did appreciate his surroundings, both natural and human, and studied them with a scientist's eye. The linkages he made showed an awareness of niche theory, hierarchical connections, and trophic structure: "The perch swallows the grub-worm, the pickerel swallows the perch, and the fisherman swallows the pickerel; and so all the chinks in the scale of being are filled."

Much of Thoreau's philosophy was concerned with human ecology , as he was perhaps most interested in how human beings relate to the world around them. Often characterized as a misanthrope, he should instead be recognized for how deeply he cared about people and about how they related to each other and to the natural world. As Walter Harding notes, Thoreau believed that humans "Antaeus-like, derived [their] strength from contact with nature." When Thoreau insists, as he does, for example, in his journal, that "I assert no independence," he is claiming relationship, not only to "summer and and death," but also to "village life and commercial routine." He flatly asserts that "we belong to the community." Present-day humans could not more urgently ask the questions he asked: "Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mold myself?"

The essence of Thoreau's message to present-day citizens of the United States can be found in his dictum in Walden to "simplify, simplify." That is a straightforward message, but one he elaborates and repeats over and over again. It is a message that many critics of today's materialism believe American citizens need to hear over and over again. Right after those two words in his chapter on "What I Lived For" is a directive on how to achieve simplicity. "Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion," he asserts. The message is repeated in different ways, making a major theme, especially in Walden, but also in his other writings: "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone." Thoreau's preference for simplicity is clear in the fact that he had only three chairs in his house: "one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society." Thoreau is often quoted as stating "I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion."

Hundreds of writers have joined Thoreau in censuring the materialist root of current environmental problems, but reading Thoreau may still be the best literary antidote to that materialism. Consider the stressed commuter/city worker who does not realize that the "cost of a thing is the amount which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run." In the pursuit of fashion, ponder his admonition to "beware of all enterprises that require new clothes."

Thoreau firmly believed that the rich are the most impoverished: "Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth." The enterprises he thought important were intangible, like being present when the sun rose, or, instead of spending money, spending hours observing a heron on a pond. Working for "treasures that moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and a fool's life." As Thoreau noted, too many of us make ourselves sick so that we "may lay up something against a sick day." To him, most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only dispensable, "but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." For most possessions, Thoreau's forthright answer was "it costs more than it comes to."

Thoreau was a humanist, an abolitionist, and a strong believer in egalitarian social systems. One of his criticisms of materialism was that, in the race for more and more money and goods, "a few are riding, but the rest are run over." He recalled that, before the modern materialist state, it was less unfair: "In the savage state every family owns a shelter as good as the best." Thoreau was anti-materialistic and believed that the relentless pursuit of "things" divert people from the real problems at hand, including destruction of the environment : "Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things." In this same vein, he claimed that "the greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad."

In modern life, stress is a major contributor to illness and death. And, much of that stress is generated by the constant acquisitive quest for more and more material goods. Thoreau asks "why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises?" He notes that "from the desperate city you go into the desperate country" with the result that "the mass of men lead lives of silent desperation." This passage was written in the nineteenth century, but still echoes through the twenty first.

Simplification of lifestyle is now widely taught as a practical antidote to the environmental and personal consequences of the materialist cultures of the urban/industrial twentieth century. And that kind of simplification is central to Thoreau's thought. But readers must remember that Thoreau was unmarried, childless, and often dependent on friends and family for room and board. Thoreau lived on and enjoyed the land around Walden Pond, for example,
but he did not own it or have to pay taxes or upkeep on it; he "borrowed" it from his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). It is not realistic for most people to try to emulate Thoreau directly or to take his suggestions literally. And he agreed, saying "I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living on any account." Still, he did figure out that by working only six weeks a year, he could support himself and so free the other forty-six to live as he saw fit.

Often characterized as an impractical dreamer, Thoreau's wisdom is repeated widely today, a wisdom that is commonly of direct applicability and down to earth. Aldo Leopold , for example, is credited with the axiom that wood you cut yourself warms you twice, but it can be found almost a hundred years earlier in Thoreau's chapter on "House-Warming." In 1850, he was an advocate of national forest preserves, writing eloquently on the subject in his essay "Chesuncook" in The Maine Woods. He also predicted the devastation wreaked on the shad runs by dams built on the Concord River.

Thoreau was first and finally a writer. His greatest contribution remains that his writing still raises the consciousness of the reader, causing people who come in contact with his work to be more aware of themselves and of the world around them. As he said "only that day dawns to which we are awake." A raised consciousness means an increase in humility because, as Thoreau teaches, "the universe is wider than our views of it." He remained convinced "that to maintain one's self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime."

[Gerald L. Young ]



Fritzell, P. A. "Walden and Paradox: Thoreau as Self-Conscious Ecologist." In Nature Writing and America: Essays Upon a Cultural Type. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990.

Johnson Jr., W. C. "Thoreau's Language of Ecology." In Wilderness Tapestry: An Eclectic Approach to Preservation, edited by S. I. Zeveloff, L. M. Vause, and W. H. McVaugh. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1992.

Thoreau, H. D. Walden. New York: A. L. Burt, 1902.