Henry David Thoreau - Whole Earth Hero

Posted by Whole Earth | 09.27.2019


Henry David Thoreau – Whole Earth Hero


Henry David Thoreau is best known today as the author of Walden or Life in the Woods, an American classic. In it, Thoreau recounts the two years he spent on the shores of Walden Pond, simplifying his life in a quest to learn what was most essential. In Concord, he lived in his family’s boarding house and worked at their pencil manufacturing business, did odd jobs around town and worked as a surveyor. The move to Walden Pond allowed him the time and necessary peace and quiet to work on his writing, while still remaining engaged in the life of his family and the community. 


In his essay “Walking” Thoreau admitted that “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least - and it is commonly more than that - sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” For 25 years, he recorded his thoughts and observations from his daily saunter in his Journal, which at his death encompassed two million words.


In the Journal, we can trace the gradual transformation of how Thoreau looked at the natural world. When he begins the Journal, he is viewing the world as a poet. Inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, he saw Nature as a book that could be read to reveal transcendental truths about life. Preferring direct experience, Thoreau disavowed the scientific view of Nature that he felt was primarily concerned with identification and categorization.


But over the years, his attitude changed. He found a middle ground between the experience of the poet and pigeonholing of the scientist. His close observations of individual plants, creatures and their physical surroundings helped him to be one of the first to comprehend the larger view of how individual species combine to form a functioning ecological community. As obvious as the idea is to us today, it was unknown in Thoreau’s time.


So how did Thoreau see the world? In his Journal entry for August 5, 1851, he states: “The question is not what you look at but how you look and whether you see.”  Faced with Nature’s abundance, do you take a wide view, blurring the details or do you focus narrowly and ignore the surrounding variety? Thoreau thinks that both views have their place. But beyond the wide or narrow view, are you truly seeing or merely naming what you are looking at without any further engagement? Are you satisfied with naming the red bird a Cardinal or are you watching more closely to see how the bird is actually moving through its environment, calling out to its mate and feeding? Thoreau says we must look for a long time before we can see.


Things are also not always as they appear to be. Our vision presents one view, which on closer inspection turns out to be something very different. For example, Thoreau notes that “All distant landscapes seen from hill tops are veritable pictures which will be found to have no actual existence to him who travels to them” (Journal May 1, 1851).  The distant view compresses, flattens and otherwise distorts the landscape.


The sheer variety of the natural world can make it difficult to focus. “Each phase of nature, while not invisible, is yet not too distinct and obtrusive. It is there to be found when we look for it, but not demanding our attention” (Journal November 8, 1858). Thoreau suggests that sometimes we should not be preoccupied with looking, but rather wait patiently for an object of attention come to us. Sitting quietly in one place, Nature will gradually reveal an astonishing variety of life.


As Summer turns to Fall, we can watch the seasons change using some of Thoreau’s methods. Though we probably don’t have four hours a day to devote to roamimg about outdoors, we can spare a few minutes to take a walk and observe the natural world around us. One of the most visible signs of Autumn is Fall color. Pick a tree and watch the gradual shift in the color of its leaves from green to yellows, reds or browns. You can also observe the reddening of berries. What are the birds in your neighborhood doing? Are they behaving differently? Are some Summer residents missing?  And what about night sounds? Are the Tree Frogs and Cicadas giving way to Crickets? Try to take a few notes everyday about what you’ve seen or heard or take a photo every day to track color changes in a tree or shrub. Later, when you look over your notes and photos, you may be surprised at how much you have observed.


To learn more about Henry David Thoreau, we suggest Laura Dassow Walls’ biography Henry David Thoreau: A Life. It’s an excellent narrative account of Thoreau’s life and times as well as an introduction to his thought. And of course reading or rereading Walden or Life in the Woods is a great way to get to know our Whole Earth Hero.









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