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Born David Henry Thoreau, the naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher familiarly known as Henry David spent most of his life and dedicated much of his writing (published and private) to his native Concord, Massachusetts. Whatever the order of his given name (which he reordered shortly after his 1837 Harvard graduation), posterity simply refers to the celebrated sage of Walden Pond as “Thoreau,” a surname often connoting things mystical and mythical to subsequent generations of Americans.
Indeed, the life and writings of Henry David Thoreau are continual sources of inspiration, specifically for environmentalists-in the United States in particular, and throughout the world more generally. Why this is so is quite simple. Thoreau was a highly sensitive observer of nature; he was deeply interested and forever curious about his natural surroundings; and he was greatly concerned for the present and future condition of his environs-local, regional, and national.
Those qualities, the latter especially, most endear Thoreau to present-day environmentalists. By the last decade of his life he had achieved a heightened awareness of nature shared by few of his generation: During the late 1850s, Thoreau entered the (then) rarefied realm of preservationism, an obscure place left to his successors to clarify and make better known.
Thoreau’s recognition of nature’s rights, however, was evolutionary-that (biocentric) viewpoint emerged over time and transformed him in the process. Similar to his predecessors and contemporaries (European Romantics and Romantically-inspired American Transcendentalists), Thoreau originally engaged the natural world aesthetically.
Yet, while poeticizing nature, a veritable Transcendentalist odyssey of discovering the “self” and the “divine” in the natural environment, he developed a profound respect for it. To be sure, Thoreau revered nature from the outset of what would be a lifetime of environmental sojourning. That reverence, however, ceased to serve his spiritual and philosophical needs only. Although nature remained a sacred space suffused with revelatory power, just as Thoreau’s former mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson counseled, by the 1850s, Thoreau surpassed-without abandoning-purely anthropocentric concerns. His intimate wilderness relationship, eagerly sought and passionately cultivated, bore unexpected fruit: The acknowledgment that nature, like humanity, possessed inherent rights as well. That insight received forceful expression in 1857 when Thoreau vented his disgust at the destruction of something as seemingly insignificant as a favorite patch of bushes: “[I]f some are prosecuted for abusing children, others deserve to be prosecuted for maltreating the face of nature committed to their care.”
Such a statement reveals that Thoreau was exceptionally attuned to his immediate environment (and by implication the natural environment more generally). Yet, Thoreau’s environmental ethic was not only ahead of its time, but against it as well. Confronting a rapidly modernizing New England in which textile factories and railroads encroached upon pristine nature, and facing increasingly materialistic New Englanders who viewed nature as commercially exploitable, Thoreau leveled his discontent by retreating into what he called “the Wild.”
From the moment that Thoreau commenced his now-legendary (26-month) experiment on the outskirts of Concord at Walden Pond on July 4, 1845 (a one-person utopia immortalized in print in 1854 as Walden, or Life in the Woods), his literary career and private life received inspiration and meaning in the nonhuman, the world of nature from which Thoreau criticized contemporaries for their careless and abusive treatment of it. And although Thoreau sought solace in the natural environment, his was not a permanent escape from society. True, as his writings emphatically indicate-in addition to Walden consult, for example, the essay “Walking” (1850-62), the posthumously published Maine Woods (1864) and the voluminous private journals spanning his adult life-Thoreau expressed, directly and indirectly, his alienation from society. Among his primary artistic objectives, however, was his desire to reform American values concerning nature, not simply for humanity’s own benefit (an initial concern), but for the welfare of the environment as well (a later concern).
- Lawrence Buell, , The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings (Modern Library, 2006);
- Robert L. Dorman, A Word for Nature: Four Pioneering Environmental Advocates, 1845-1913 (The University of North Carolina Press, 1998);
- Richard J. Schneider, , Thoreau’s Sense of Place: Essays in American Environmental Writing (University of Iowa Press, 2000).