Beyond Walden: What Henry David Thoreau Teaches Us About Nature and Connection
April 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Organizations around the world have commemorated the occasion by participating in the global Earth Optimism movement — an initiative spearheaded by the Smithsonian to “turn the conservation conversation from doom and gloom to optimism and opportunity”.
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Thoreau the writer. Thoreau the philosopher. Thoreau the naturalist. Thoreau the citizen.
The myriad of Henry David Thoreau’s titles demonstrates the fusion of interests that propelled his path toward becoming one of the key naturalist figures in history. Classic works like Walden and Civil Disobedience brought Thoreau literary renown as he proclaimed the philosophies of Transcendentalism and environmentalism. As a naturalist, his records of field specimens amassed in journals both while living at Walden Pond and long after. Though praised for his place in the American literary canon, he also made significant contributions to the scientific community. His field notes and data are now helping scientists learn more about species’ resilience, the effects of climate change, and the historical landscape of New England.
Thoreau’s identities are interdependent. Without his grace with words, little attention might be devoted to his findings and philosophies. If he had not had a passion for nature and study, he might never have gone to Walden Pond in the first place. Yet, it is not simply living and surviving at Walden Pond that makes Thoreau a great naturalist. His immersion in nature throughout New England and the relationships he formed with members of the Penobscot Nation in Maine sculpted his understanding and passion for the ecosystem.
Blending art and science
Thoreau lived alone at Walden Pond outside the town of Concord, Massachusetts from 1845-1847. He practiced self-reliance by building shelter, farming, fishing and spending long hours in observation of his surroundings. Thoreau proves himself dedicated to his task of environmental study at all times, even during social hours with friends like writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thanks to Emerson’s Biographical Sketch of Thoreau, we learn that when the two went walking:
“… [Thoreau] carried an old music-book to press plants; in his pocket, his diary and pencil, a spy-glass for birds, microscope, jack-knife, and twine. He wore a straw hat, stout shoes, strong gray trousers to brave shrub-oaks and smilax, and to climb a tree for a hawk’s or a squirrel’s nest. He waded into the pool for the water-plants, and his strong legs were no insignificant part of his armor.” (Biographical Sketch of Thoreau, 20)
Thoreau’s book Notes on New England Birds goes on to showcase the very data he collected on such walks (maybe even with Emerson in tow!). His trademark lyricism is reflected in his field notes, such as this observation of a red-winged blackbird’s nest:
“What Champollion can translate the hieroglyphics on these eggs? It is always writing of the same character, though much diversified. While the bird picks up the material and lays the egg, who determines the style of the marking? When you approach, away dashes the dark mother, betraying her nest, and then chatters her anxiety from a neighboring bush…” (Notes on New England Birds, 251)
While the text maintains his melodious tone, it actually serves as critical data for the first records of animals in the area. For each of the birds, Thoreau records incremented updates over many years, illustrating changes in behaviors and migration. His notes reveal much more than a studious rigor, illuminating the true joy he experienced as a participant in nature. Thoreau takes an anthropomorphic approach to his notes on the birds, personifying each creature as an individual entity representative of its greater species:
“The loon comes in the fall to sail and bathe in the pond, making the woods ring with its wild laughter in the early morning…” (Notes on New England Birds, 3)
In Catalogue of Herbarium of Henry D. Thoreau, we see a less aesthetic side to his data collection. These handwritten notes on specimens from Thoreau’s herbarium show methodical organization and notes on each plant — Latin names and all. According to the Thoreau Society, he studied botany when he was at the Concord Academy and went on to collect about 900 plant specimens to dry and add to his herbarium. Through these two data sets, we see Thoreau’s scholastic pendulum swing between the art and science, emphasizing the multifaceted nature of his purpose.
Data that lives on
While Thoreau’s herculean efforts set precedents for the fields of biology and botany, his data itself remains relevant to current research. Works by other authors exemplify his contributions to modern science, such as the 1974 publication by Richard Jefferson Eaton entitled A Flora of Concord. This book documents the plants and ferns that grew naturally in Concord from Thoreau’s time to present day. Without Thoreau’s data on flora and animals, scientists would not have access to such an extensive look at species’ respective survivals and declines over time.
The detail of Thoreau’s field journals has provided scientists with evidence that allow them to evaluate changes in animal and plant behavior over a wide span of time. “The Impact of Climate Change on the Flora of Thoreau’s Concord“, by Abraham J. Miller-Rushing and Richard B. Primack, boasts that Concord flora is “one of the best-documented floras in the country,” in thanks to the initial work of Thoreau along with another local, Alfred Hosmer. Since 1830, the floras have been inventoried five times, serving as an immense case study of the effects of a changing habitat, climate, topography, and other factors on native plants.
The painstaking work that Thoreau endured is emphasized by his commitment to tracking plants even through the brutal New England winters. Miller-Rushing and Primack note: “From 1852 to 1858, he hiked around Concord and made regular observations of the first flowering times of over 500 different species of plants in an effort to create a calendar of the natural events in Concord.” Thoreau and Hosmer documented plant occurrences as well as flowering and fruiting times, which have sensitive biological responses to alterations in climate. Their catalogs are allowing scientists to examine how and why certain species respond differently to changes in environment and compare the findings in Concord with those in other parts of the world. Such evidence provides a case study into the effects of climate change and loss of natural habitat on organisms’ behavior and survival.
The Penobscot Nation and Thoreau
Other books by Thoreau include information on the topography of New England infused with introspective narratives, such as Cape Cod and The Maine Woods. The Maine Woods documents Thoreau’s time spent with people of the Penobscot Nation, now one of Maine’s tribal governments. His time in Maine marks a formative period in his growth not only as a scientist but as a champion of the environment.
According to the Penobscot Nation’s Cultural & Historic Preservation Department, Thoreau did not always have a sincere respect for Native American culture. He was interested in Native Americans, but thought they were on the decline, as did most of society at the time. Starting in 1846, Thoreau made three trips to Maine and became increasingly well-acquainted with the Penobscot Nation. While canoeing with tribe members Joseph Attean (sometimes spelled Aitteon) (1829-1870) and Joseph Polis (1809-1884) as guides, Thoreau came to know Native American people as individuals and teachers, rather than as a fascination he had held since youth.
Attean, the last hereditary and first elected Chief of the Penobscot Nation, guided Thoreau on his second trip through Maine. Attean helped him develop more respect for the significance of Penobscot culture, though Thoreau still held on to lingering prejudices and stereotypes about Native Americans. Polis worked as the guide on his final trip. A Penobscot leader and representative for the tribe in official state and federal business, Polis expanded Thoreau’s worldview while bestowing on him an invaluable education on the land. Thoreau’s appreciation for the Penobscot Nation seemed to solidify thanks to his time with Polis. Thoreau describes a conversation while canoeing with Polis, writing:
“I told him that in this voyage I would tell him all I knew, and he should tell me all he knew, to which he readily agreed.” (The Maine Woods, 172)
We cannot fully embrace Thoreau’s contribution to science without honoring the guidance that Attean and Polis provided both in his scientific and spiritual journey. Thoreau’s maturation is evident in The Maine Woods and integral to our understanding of his impact on environmentalism. Thoreau’s relationships with Attean and Polis advanced his knowledge of Maine’s landscape and his intimacy with nature. He acknowledges their tribe’s expertise and connection to the land, saying:
“Nature must have made a thousand revelations to them which are still secrets to us.” (The Maine Woods, 185)
While Walden may be Thoreau’s most famous work, The Maine Woods is the culmination of his identities at their prime. We see Thoreau’s ability to relate not only with nature, but with other people and cultures. For a man who chose to live in the woods for two years, Thoreau seemed to maintain a desire to engage with those around him throughout his life. His relationships with people like Emerson, Attean, and Polis take Thoreau out of the context of his achievements and reveal a person who sought genuine connection with people and the environment.
Thoreau’s scientific contributions and the ways in which they helped him grow in cultural awareness illustrate the importance of environmental research. The more Thoreau learned about his ecosystem, the more he fell in love with it and could show others how to develop a similar appreciation. The environment is still benefiting from Thoreau’s work today, as his data helps to advance research and his reflections motivate people to care for the earth as he did. A literary and scientific reading of Thoreau’s collection allows us to discover not only the effort behind his achievements, but the impetus for his life’s work.
References and Further Reading
Eaton, Richard Jefferson. A Flora of Concord. Series Publication: Museum of Comparative Zoology 4. Cambridge: Museum of Comparative Zoology: Harvard University, 1974.
Kucich, John J. “Lost in the Maine Woods: Henry David Thoreau, Joseph Nicolar, and the Penobscot World.” The Concord Saunterer 19/20 (2011): 22-52. Accessed July 9, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/23395210.
Miller-Rushing, Abraham J., and Richard B. Primack. “The Impact of Climate Change on the Flora of Thoreau’s Concord.” Arnoldia 66, no. 3 (2009): 2–9.
Penobscot Cultural and Historic Preservation. “Historic Preservation.” Accessed February 8, 2020. http://www.penobscotculture.com/.
Schneider, Richard J. “Life and Legacy: Thoreau’s Life.” The Thoreau Society. Accessed February 8, 2020. http://thoreausociety.org/life-legacy.
Thoreau, Henry David. Catalogue of the Herbarium of Henry D. Thoreau, Bequeathed to Boston Society of Natural History, n.d.
Thoreau, Henry David. Notes on New England Birds. Edited by Francis H. Allen. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1910.
Thoreau, Henry David. The Maine Woods. Edited by Sophia E. Thoreau and William Ellery Channing. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864.
Thoreau, Henry David, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Succession of Forest Trees, and Wild Apples, with a Biographical Sketch of Thoreau. The Riverside Literature Series 27. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1887.